Monday, April 23, 2012

Just deserts

The following argument is valid:

  1. (Premise) When one gets one's just deserts, one gets what one deserves.
  2. (Premise) One can only deserve that comes from an agent or group of agents.
  3. (Premise) There are cases of getting one's just deserts such that unless there is a God, then what one gets does not come from an agent or group of agents.
  4. So, when one one gets one's just deserts, one gets something that comes from an agent. (1 and 2)
  5. So, there is a God. (3 and 4)
The kinds of cases that I am thinking about in (3) are cases like when one has done something utterly terrible, and then an avalanche kills one, or one has done something really good, and then one wins a non-crooked lottery. These are cases where the only candidate for an agent behind the just deserts is God.

The basic line of thought is that one can talk about someone getting justice in cases where there is no human agency. But justice seems to be essentially the work of an agent or community. So either we are mistaken in talking of justice in such cases or we need to posit Providence (or aliens who work providentially, but the divine Providence hypothesis has other advantages).


Dan Johnson said...

I love it. This is parallel to the gratitude argument you blogged a while ago, but using justice instead. (A great candidate for a rationally persuasive circular argument, though it may be non-circular altogether in some contexts.)

Drew said...

I think that if someone gets just desserts, he is going to feel really sick really soon!

James said...

Couldn't "justice" merely be a kind of "fittingness" possessed by certain patterns of fact?

Alexander R Pruss said...


And large parts of west Texas are just desert.

Alexander R Pruss said...

By the way, this works best in conjunction with omnirationality.

Drew said...

Hmm. I think that one was rather dry.

Heath White said...

I worry that you are ruling out karma by fiat/premise.

Not that I believe in karma, but it would be a little odd if a billion people were conceptually confused.

SMatthewStolte said...

I’m not happy with (3).
Suppose that I do something pretty bad, which makes me deserve a punishment somewhat less than death. Suppose, then, that a force of nature injures me with the proportionate evil. If I have received my just deserts, then it seems that I no longer deserve punishment. (I have, so to speak, served my time.) But this seems false.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dagmara Lizlovs said...

Just desserts. Personally I'd like to quote Toby Keith on this one:

Grandpappy told my pappy
Back in my day, son
A man had to answer For the wicked thing he done.
Take all the rope in Texas,
Find a tall oak tree,
Round up all of them bad boys,
And hang 'em high in the street
For all the people to see.

And justice is the one thing
You should always find.
You gotta saddle up your boys,
You gotta draw a hard line,
When the gun smoke settles,
We'll sing a victory tune,
And we'll all meet back
At the local saloon.

We'll raise up our glasses
Against evil forces,
Singing "Whiskey for my men, beer for my horses!"

We got too many gangsters
Doing dirty deeds,
Too much corruption,
And crime in the streets.
It's time the long arm of the law
Put a few more in the ground.
Send them all to their Maker,
And he'll set them on down.
You can bet, He'll set 'em down.

Cause justice is the one thing
You should always find.
You gotta saddle up your boys,
You gotta draw a hard line.
When the gunsmoke settles,
We'll sing a victory tune,
And we'll all meet back
At the local saloon.

And we'll raise up our glasses
Against evil forces
Singing, "Whiskey for my men,
beer for my horses!
Whiskey for my men,
beer for my horses!'

I just love that song. Only one problem, my horse didn't like beer. He liked Cabrenet Savignon instead.

Alexander R Pruss said...


That's a really interesting and powerful objection to the argument.

I can think of three responses, none of them fully satisfactory:

1. For punishment we need an appropriate connection between the misdeed and the punishment. In some cases--cases where we appropriately say "she got her just deserts"--there is such a connection. It's not enough that the law of nature cause a hardship after the sin. For instance, maybe it's necessary that the person experience this as a punishment, and maybe some evident causal connection is needed.

2. Maybe we need to distinguish between the wrong against community order, the wrong against the individual victim and the wrong against God. It may be that the first of these still remains in these kinds of cases, and so society still needs to punish?

3. The just deserts aren't enough, maybe. Sin is a great evil, and punishments civilly imposed are almost never sufficient (the "almost", though, is problematic for me). That's why there is sometimes hell or purgatory afterwards.