I am aware of several criticisms to Rawls's redistributive mechanics in A Theory of Justice. I am wondering whether there are also criticisms on the premise of arbitrariness of moral desert.

I have seen Rawls's moral arbitrariness premise presented as an idea to which humans are intensely resistant, but without solid philosophical counter-arguments. For example, when treating this in their courses, Profs. Sandel (Harvard) and Shapiro (Yale) offer an explanation for this resistance based on the Workmanship Ideal of Locke ("I worked for it so I deserve it!"), but then point out that the development of one's work ethic also depends on genetics and environment and nothing else, and hence is also morally arbitrary. The counter-argument is therefore not based on solid reasoning.

Are there theories that question moral arbitrariness on a firm theoretical basis?

I am interested in theories that do so in a "nontrivial" way, as opposed to, say, eugenics, which just asserts the existence of gene pools that are "better" than others.

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    It is often pointed out that the assumption that character is fully determined by social/biological factors is dubious. Aside from that, Steinberger argues in Desert and Justice in Rawls that the entailed emptiness of "moral deserving" of anything by anyone undermines the point of pursuing justice, and hence Rawls's entire project. Moreover, this equal non-deserving prescribes strict egalitarianism as the only moral stance, and this clashes with the difference principle that endorses some inequalities for the sake of utilitarian efficiency.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jul 16, 2021 at 2:00
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    ùaybu the following link is helpful : plato.stanford.edu/entries/desert Commented Aug 15, 2021 at 8:21

1 Answer 1


We should take a view as if we were in the position of a dictator, able to give rules to all of society. What rules would we wish to impose, in order to produce a society that we judge best? Naturally, this judgment of "best" is subjective, but there are similarities between what different people want society to be like. Most people would like to see the society prosper - become more vibrant and efficient. Most people also want to improve some measure of utility or happiness for society.

In order to achieve this vision, it is useful if people are rewarded for actions that help society (in the judgment of the supposed dictator), and punished for actions that harm society. If these rewards and punishments are in place and consistent, then people will be more motivated to help society and not harm it.

For example, burning tires in a residential neighborhood is undesirable; it creates toxic fumes and a terrible smell, which makes nearby people unhappy. From our imagined position as dictator, we don't want people to do that; it goes contrary to our vision for a healthy society. So we would like to have a rule that punishes people for doing it. The rule should not cause more harm to society than the benefit it provides.

Thus, being punished for burning tires in a residential neighborhood is a just desert.

Or more accurately: if you judge that letting people be unhappy is detrimental to your vision for society, then you should also include a punishment for burning tires in a residential neighborhood in your vision, and thus you would say that this punishment is a just desert. It's conceivable that others would have a different vision for society in which the punishment is not a just desert, but you would say it is, which is what matters to you.

Similar arguments let us say:

  • It is a just desert for murderers to be punished enough to outweigh any benefit they might gain from it. This helps disincentivize people from murder.
  • It is a just desert for people performing necessary community service to be paid or given honor for their actions. This helps incentivize community service.
  • It is a just desert for people who expose corruption in the political machinery to be rewarded for doing so, not punished, because their actions help society as a whole and we want more of that.

Note that this concept of "desert" is different from what the laws may actually be in current society. It instead relates to what laws would, hypothetically, have to be in place to help promote your ideal vision of a society.

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