Justice: A Beginner's Guide (2017) by Raymond Wacks. p. 68.

` More disparaging is the assertion that Rawls fails to offer a theory of justice at all! According to certain critics, justice fundamentally concerns deserts: it is fair and just that we should get what we deserve. If you work hard, you deserve the rewards. But, in Rawls's formula, hard work need be rewarded only to ensure that the worst-off do as well as possible. He says: 'For a society to organize itself with the aim of rewarding moral desert as a first principle would be like having the institution of property in order to punish thieves' [emboldening mine].

  1. I don't understand the emboldened quote.

  2. Don't First World countries like Canada and US already have the "institution of property" "to punish thieves"? Titleholders can use property law to defend their property and sue thieves.

  3. Isn't it obvious that thieves are unethical in stealing property, and thus lack "moral desert"? Googling this quote unveiled only this explanation:

The extent of a contribution someone has made at a given time is often determined impersonally by mechanisms such as markets that price the reward of a given effort in ways that may have little connection to the individual effort involved. This is a problem with viewing the conception of just distributive shares as a process of maximising returns by reference to conscientious effort. It also shows the difficulty of adopting such a principle as a public one. Moral worth, whether defined through conscientious effort or in some other way, is not a principle of distributive justice. Indeed, so little is this the case according to Rawls that there would be something grossly offensive about thinking of justice in this way as he suggests in the following striking comparison: "For a society to organize itself with the aim of rewarding moral desert as a first principle would be like having the institution of property in order to punish thieves".

The reason for this striking analogy concerns the distinction Rawls draws between a conception of reward determined by virtue and one that draws on the correct notion of legitimate expectations. In the latter case the expectations are what arise from doing things encouraged by existing arrangements and these would be best defined, on Rawls' view, by reference to the principle of fairness and the natural duty of justice. Institutions are bound to realise legitimate expectations they have encouraged in relation to these superordinate principles of justice. However, even when we have a system of justice that is governed by such principles there is no way of ensuring that conscientious effort or any other such type of moral worth would lead to higher rewards.

  • IMO, the embodied sentence is an analogy, in order to show the exchange between cause and effect. It is obvious that thieves are punished (effect) in order to preserve property (cause) and not the other way : property instituted in order to punish thieves. Commented Nov 16, 2018 at 14:34
  • If so, "rewarding moral desert" must be (according to Rawls) a consequence and not a first principle. Commented Nov 16, 2018 at 14:35
  • 1
    2. above is not true. We have thieves only because there is an institution of property, so the purpose of that institution cannot have been to punish them, as they would not have existed until it did. At at low enough level of civilization, where might makes right, what we consider thieving is just fine -- if you can't defend it, you don't really own it. Defining morality as promoting good is equally circular, the good is what morality chooses to mark out as good.
    – user9166
    Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 19:46

1 Answer 1


"(having the institution of property) in order to (punish thieves)" is being compared to "(organizing society) in order to (reward moral deserts)", if I've untangled the grammar correctly.

Thieves take other people's property. That's the whole idea of being a thief. If we had no idea of property, we'd have no idea of thievery, and certainly no idea of punishing such hypothetical creatures. The order is wrong. We don't start out wanting to punish thieves and therefore create the institution of property; we start with the institution of property for other reasons and punish thieves because they violate it.

The analogy to the mistake is to say that there are moral deserts, and in order to reward them we organize society. The analogy to the correct thinking in the above paragraph is that we organize society for whatever purposes, and moral deserts are an outgrowth of the organization. The implication is that moral deserts are dependent on society. Without any organization of society, you wouldn't have a moral expectation of specific rewards for specific actions.

In the modern US, if you start a company, hire people, do well, hire more people, and do better, you are assumed to deserve money for that. In the late Soviet Union, hiring people as employees was considered to be against society, and so you'd deserve punishment for trying to hire people for your business. Medieval guilds were sometimes set up to restrict success. A master would be allowed to have a certain number of apprentices, and hire a certain number of journeymen, with certain working hours. Exceeding that would be disrupting society and the functioning of the guild. Modern societies favor social mobility, while medieval societies tended to disfavor it.

These are not cases of some societies giving just moral deserts and some not. Modern US society is set up so that starting a company and growing it does good things for society. Medieval societies were often set up so that would disrupt the social fabric. The right thing to do in one society would be the wrong thing in another.

  • That seems a pretty relativist way of looking at things, if I've understood your explanation correctly. But I thought Rawls was more of a universalist, so I must be missing something here...
    – Kevin
    Commented Dec 22, 2018 at 6:15
  • @Kevin The original explanation of how we have property and then decide to punish thieves is pretty universal. The subsequent relativistic claims are irrelevant to what Rawls meant, since they aren't his.
    – Mary
    Commented Sep 13, 2023 at 2:27

You must log in to answer this question.