Monday, March 1, 2021

Deserving the rewards of virtue

We have the intuition that when someone has worked uprightly and hard for something good and thereby gained it, they deserve their possession of it. What does that mean?

If Alice ran 100 meters faster than her opponents at the Olympics, she deserves a gold medal. In this case, it is clear what is meant by that: the organizers of the Olympics owe her a gold medal in just recognition of her achievement. Thus, Alice’s desert appears appears to be appropriately analyzable partly in terms of normative properties had by persons other than Alice. In Alice’s case, these properties are obligations of justice, but they could simply be reasons of justice. Thus, if someone has done something heroic and they receive a medal, the people giving the medal typically are not obligated to give it, but they do have reasons of justice to do so.

But there are cases that fit the opening intuition where it is harder to identify the other persons with the relevant normative properties. Suppose Bob spends his life pursuing virtue, and gains the rewards of a peaceful conscience and a gentle attitude to the failings of others. Like Alice’s gold medal, Bob’s rewards are deserved. But if we understand desert as in Alice’s case, as partly analyzable in terms of normative properties had by others, now we have a problem: Who is it that has reasons of justice to bestow these rewards on Bob?

We can try to analyze Bob’s desert by saying that we all have reasons of justice not to deprive him of these rewards. But that doesn’t seem quite right, especially in the case of the gentle attitude to the failings of others. For while some people gain that attitude through hard work, others have always had it. Those who have always had it do not deserve it, but it would still be unjust to deprive them of it.

The theist has a potential answer to the question: God had reasons of justice to bestow on Bob the rewards of virtue. Thus, while Alice deserved her gold medal from the Olympic committee and Carla (whom I have not described but you can fill in the story) deserved her Medal of Honor from the Government, Bob deserved his quiet conscience and “philosophical” outlook from God.

This solution, however, may sound wrong to many Christians, especially but not only Protestants. There seems to be a deep truth to Leszek Kolakowski’s book title God Owes Us Nothing. But recall that desert can also be partly grounded in non-obligating reasons of justice. One can hold that God owes us nothing but nonetheless think that when God bestowed on Bob the rewards of virtue (say, by designing and sustaining the world in such a way that often these rewards came to those who strove for virtue), God was doing so in response to non-obligating reasons of justice.

Objection: Let’s go back to Alice. Suppose that moments after she ran the race, a terrorist assassinated everyone on the Olympic Committee. It still seems right to say that Alice deserved a gold medal for her run, but no one had the correlate reason of justice to bestow it. Not even God, since it just doesn’t seem right to say that God has reasons of justice to ensure Olympic medals.

Response: Maybe. I am not sure. But think about the “Not even God” sentence in the objection. I think the intuition behind the “Not even God” undercuts the case. The reason why not even God had reasons of justice to ensure the medal was that Alice deserved a medal not from God but from the Olympic Committee. And this shows that her desert is grounded in the Olympic Committee, if only in a hypothetical way: Were they to continue existing, they would have reasons of justice to bestow on her the medal.

This suggests a different response that an atheist could give in the case of Bob: When we say that Bob deserves the rewards of virtue, maybe we mean hypothetically that if God existed, God would have reasons of justice to grant them. This does not strike me as a plausible analysis. If God doesn’t exist, the existence of God is a far-fetched and fantastical hypothesis. It is implausible that Bob’s ordinary case of desert be partly grounded in hypothetical obligations of a non-existent fantastical being. On the other hand, it is not crazy to think that Alice’s desert, in the exceptional case of the Olympic Committee being assassinated, be partly grounded in hypothetical obligations of a committee that had its existence suddenly cut short.


IanS said...

If Alice had won a lottery, the organizers would have owed her the prize. There would have been no question of just deserts or recognition of achievement, merely of fulfilling a bargain. I think the same applies to the Olympic committee. They owe her the conventional prize. Steven Bradbury won his event by the freakiest of freak accidents, but still got his gold medal.

It is we, the spectators and followers, who might see Alice’s win as justly deserved (or not), or as an achievement worthy of recognition (or not). If we do, it is we who give the recognition. We ask for her autograph, listen to her interviews, try to emulate her training regimen, hold her up as an example to our children, etc. The medal is just a token, confirmation that she really did win.

For Bob, his clear conscience and equanimity are good things in themselves, however he came by them. He does not need recognition. It is we who judge that they were hard-earned (or easily won), or that they were achievements worthy of recognition (or not). And, as with Alice, it is we who act to recognize them.

Raf SB said...


I don't think the example of the Olympics is similar to that of the lottery.

We can say that "Alice is a brilliant athlete because she won the gold medal in the last Olympic games". Or "Alice's remarkable performance at the Olympics deserved the gold medal more than any other". You can't say "Alice is a brilliant lottery player because she hit the jackpot last week." Or "Alice's remarkable performance in the lottery deserved the jackpot more than any other"

The question of merit refers to aptitudes, qualities that are lastingly stable in the person. In the Olympics, natural talent too has to be combined with hard work every day.

In terms of probabilities, it is certain that the lottery player will lose far more often than he wins, since there is no way to be a "brilliant lottery player" (this expression makes no sens)
On the other hand, it is highly more probable to be a brilliant athlete to win the gold medal in the Olympic Games than to win by an unfortunate accident.

For the passage on Bob, I think you should read the argument again. I think you miss the point. Pruss does not say that Bob needs recognition, nor that recognition is necessarily due to him (the heroic act example).

IanS said...

I’m not sure that we disagree about Alice. I mentioned the lottery (and especially Steven Bradbury) simply to illustrate the point that the Olympic organizers gave her the gold medal because that’s what the rules require. Whoever wins their final (without cheating) gets a gold medal. Alex’s argument, by contrast, seemed to present it as an actively considered decision about Alice’s just deserts.

As I see it, what Alice deserves for winning the 100m the Olympics is our respect and admiration. The gold medal itself doesn’t (or shouldn’t, I suggest) make any difference. If the first prize had been a laurel wreath, we would respect her performance just as much. Even if she had merely been proclaimed winner, without any physical prize, we would respect her performance just as much.

Key point: the respect is owed by us, not by the Olympic organizers. At best the organizers give us confidence, by ensuring that the competition is properly run, that Alice is genuinely worthy of our respect.

On Bob, you are right. As the post hints, these are murky waters. I have nothing to add.