Tuesday, 5 January 2016

What is desert?

The topic of this series of blogs is the desert-based approach to economic justice. Put simply this approach says that economic resources should be distributed to individuals in accordance with the relevant facts about them.

One way to further distinguish desert-based theories is to say that they imply a notion of pre-institutional desert. After all, all approaches to economic justice will allow a judgment of whether a particular individual has received what they deserve. However, for these other theories the judgment about desert is a secondary one.

For institutional claims of desert the assertion that people deserve x is derived without reference to desert. In pre-institutional theories of desert, on the other hand, desert is itself the basis of the judgment of justice.

People can make use of the notion of desert in all sorts of situations, for example “the team who trained hardest deserved to win the tournament” or “the student who studied very diligently deserved to obtain the highest mark.” Where the institution defines the desert there is no controversy because the person deserves what the institutional rules say what each should obtain. Similarly, in cases where there is a clear basis for the activity—such as being able to play a piece of music accurately but expressively—then we can rank people’s deservingness of prizes in accordance with their performance.

If we have an underlying notion of desert that readily tells us what everyone in society should get then this would be a very strong basis for fairly distributing resources. Desert theory therefore needs to answer two questions a) what is the proper basis underlying economic desert claims? and b) how can this basis translate into a monetary amount? I will consider these issues in my next two blogs.

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