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Theoretical Ethics

Justice As Desert: Is There Any Such Thing?

Christopher Phillips

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ABSTRACT: Philosopher Matthew Lipman, in Social Inquiry, says that there are instances in which 'what one deserves may be specified fairly readily. A sick child deserves medicine, a hungry child deserves food, children deserve an education...' This seems to imply that these are cases in which what one deserves is clear-cut, and only when 'the cases become more complicated' does it become 'progressively more difficult' to determine desert. I would submit that these cases are not nearly so cut-and-dry, in terms of determining desert, as one might imagine. Is it really correct to say that a sick child deserves medicine? Who is to say? Who is to be the ultimate arbiter? Is there some sort of authority or power (higher or otherwise) who is looked to in order to make such a determination (or who is looked to in order to justify making such an assertion in the first place)? Is desert to be determined based on need? On abundance of what is deserved? On legal entitlements? This paper will address just such questions.

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Philosopher Matthew Lipman, in Social Inquiry, says that there are instances in which "what one deserves may be specified fairly readily. A sick child deserves medicine, a hungry child deserves food, children deserve an education...." (1) This seems to imply that these are cases in which what one deserves is clear-cut, and only when "the cases become more complicated" does it become "progressively more difficult" to determine desert. (2)

I would reply: not so fast. These aforementioned cases, I submit, are not nearly so cut-and-dried, in terms of determining desert, as one might imagine. Is it really correct to say that a sick child deserves medicine? Who is to say? Who is to be the ultimate arbiter? Is there some sort of authority or power (higher or otherwise) who is looked to in order to make such a determination (or who is looked to in order to justify making such an assertion in the first place)?

Certainly, a sick child usually needs certain medication in order to get better. Moreover, in a society in which such medication is plentiful, legislators may be prompted to enact a law that stipulates that all sick children are entitled legally to such medication.

But do they deserve such medication, just because they need it or the medication is abundant or they are legally entitled to it? While this notion of desert may be well-ingrained in our vocabulary when referring to matters of justice, certainly it is quite arguable that it does not necessarily follow logically that such children deserve such medication.

In the same vein, a hungry child certainly needs food if he or she is to survive and hopefully thrive. But deserves? How can we make such a claim? What standards or measurements or criteria do we use to calculate desert? Even in instances that on the surface seem all too simplistic and tidy, I would submit that because no two human beings are exactly alike, because their needs and their experiences and their "make-up" are always different to some degree, it is impossible to come up with any sort of "infallible yardstick" (3) to determine or calculate desert.

So, then, how can one go on to assert that children "deserve" an education? Certainly one can posit that they might well need an education in order to develop their intellectual capacities to the fullest, to become the most self-actualized (and thus, hopefully, productive) citizens of a given nation or culture; but, again, can one definitively determine desert? How so? And if children do not end up receiving this education they are said to "deserve," has an "injustice" then been committed?

It is at least arguable that if we dispense with such murky concepts as desert, and its subsuming bedfellow, justice, that we then might actually be more successful and expeditious in developing a society that more accurately meshes with certain humanitarian ideals. For instance, if we take a consequentialist stance, and posit that we are striving to cultivate a society that is as humane as possible (e.g., provides for all the medical, nutritional, and educational needs of its citizens, so they can develop to their fullest capacity), a society with less brutality and violence than ever before achieved, we can then strive to enact laws and to inculcate moral codes and develop critical thinking and philosophical/moral inquiry skills that arguably would lead to such a society (or heighten the chances of leading to such a society). By striving to meet the needs that at least theoretically or hypothetically stand the best chance of leading to the formation of a society that is "a beacon of humaneness" (to put it hyperbolically), it seems that there would be no need for the notion of justice — much less of desert — though of course there would be a clear-cut need to develop a tenable moral code. Such a code would have to be sure not to resort to moral rationalism in its development, or its foundation would be one of quicksand.

But, one might argue, the notions of justice and desert, or of justice as desert, are too rich, too evocative, too much a part of our conceptual and societal fabric and moral framework to dispense with them, even if, in Professor Lipman's words (as spoken on February 21, 1997 during a discussion), the origins of these notions are "murky, twisted, and distorted" at best. I would argue that if they do not have a tenable foundation, we should dispense with them, because ultimately they can be further twisted and distorted to attain twisted and distorted and inhumane ends.

High-minded, lofty words have been used before, incorporated into the most pernicious but seductive propaganda, to achieve grossly inhumane ends, and they certainly can be used against us again (and again...). So why not dispense with them altogether and "have faith" that we can come up with an equally rich and evocative vocabulary that does not contain the seeds of murky, twisted, and distorted concepts and catch-words and catch-phrases (e.g. "manifest destiny") and does not resort to the casuistic (and irrational) absolutism of moral rationalism? (I assert this with the realization that those most adept in sophistry can twist any word or concept to pernicious or skewed ends, but this is not a valid reason for not striving to reconfigure our vocabulary and conceptual acumen in matters such as the one being discussed in order to stand a better chance of being more clear and balanced and efficacious and even prudent in such areas.)

Let's first look further at the notion of desert. Those who say that someone deserves something — e.g., sick children deserve medicine — and then see to it that that something is rendered probably would say that distributive justice has been done. This appeal to justice certainly is powerful, and thus has been a very useful rhetorical tool in the arsenal of social reformers. However, is it appropriate?

Philosopher Walter Kaufmann says that "justice seems to be an irreducible princple that cannot be given up without inviting inhumanity." (4) But such a claim, he says, is false. To Kaufmann, the entire conception of justice, much less distributive justice or justice as desert, is something akin to a distorted notion or a myth which serves perhaps a useful purpose but is misappropriated nonetheless. "Many myths and confused notions have their uses, but the question of whether they are true and stand up under critical examination cannot be settled by an appeal to expediency. On the contrary, contentment with confused ideas and misleading myths has bad social consequences that are relevant to the expediency of continued appeals to them." (5)

To be sure, Kaufmann suggests, it is "true and important" that "receiving something good does not hurt one's self-respect if one is told that justice was done and everybody got what he deserved." (6) But the potentially harmful converse of this same claim can be a source of "further humiliation to the plight of those who received little or nothing." Thus, Kaufmann asserts, "it is precisely the claim that justice has been done that is inhumane — especially if it can be shown that this claim is false." (7)

Kaufmann believes he can show once for all that this claim of justice is indeed false by first submitting that justice, as consisting of "giving each what he deserves," is untenable. He argues that "desert is incalculable", (8) and thus, except in the most simplistic of cases, "distributions can never be just." (9) If it is indeed the case that desert is incalculable (and thus there is no infallible yardstick to determine desert), and that justice as it is conceived by most does consist of giving each what he deserves, then, if Kaufmann can show that desert cannot be ascertained, it does seem that he has made his case (at least within the parameters of this conceptual definition of justice as desert).

I realize that to dispense with the notion of justice as desert is probably unrealistic, given the emotional, philosophical, financial, and political investment in this term. But dispense with it we probably should, I suspect, if we are to become a more humane species. If we utilize the types of critical thinking skills posited by Hook, Lipman, Dewey, Edel and others — skills which incorporate a mode of the scientific method — we have a better chance of achieving the ends we (or I, as set forth here) have in mind. What is somewhat bemusing is that some who adamantly favor developing critical thinking skills among children, and adults, via utilization of a form of the scientific method in tandem with a community of inquiry at times resort (unknowingly perhaps) to moral rationalism when they cling to such time-honored (and careworn, if not threadbare) concepts as justice as desert, so reluctant are some to consider the possibility of doing away with such potentially insidious terminology.

However, we should not move too hastily or haphazardly to do away with justice and desert, many surely will argue. To do so, they might say, could well precipitate a society that devolves into an even less humane one than we have now. In offering a foreceful argument against Kaufmann's call to dispense with the notion of justice as desert, philosopher Sidney Hook cautioned that a "position like Kaufmann's lends itself to mischievous uses and abuses that he himself would firmly condemn." Hook says that one "can imagine a segregationist saying: To be sure I grant you that to deprive anyone of the right to vote on grounds of size or color is unjust but no system by which it is replaced can claim to be altogether just. Why bother then to replace one unjust system by another unjust system?" (10)

Hook seems to have failed to remembered the legion (and seemingly unending) "mischievous uses and abuses" of the so-called system of justice we now have in place. Indeed, many of the reasons given for banning blacks from voting for so long was because they were fallaciously deemed to be "unequipped" with the "capacities" to vote in a responsible manner, and thus, it was argued, it would be "unjust" to allow them to vote because of their putative inability to make an educated and fair choice. More recently, much less ostensibly racist (but no less casuistic) claims were made by politicians who opposed a law allowing "motor voter registration," because of the "built-in injustices" to which they claimed such registration would give rise (though surely the more truthful reasons for conservative opposition to this measure was that such registration would draw more potential voters to the Democratic party than to the Republican party).

Moreover, again going further back in time, long before segregationists held sway over much of our country, many "reasonable" whites favored (and took part in) the mass genocide of Native Americans because ultimately, they claimed, such short-term atrocities would lead to the birth of a nation with a more just society with humane, Christian tenets. Additionally, former President George Bush mischaracterized the "100 Day War" against Iraq as a quintessential battle against injustice, and he used this misplaced rationale to obliterate tens of thousands of Iraqis who were unwitting pawns in Saddam Hussein's army.

Hence, Hook's rationale (or lack thereof) for dismissing Kaufmann's claim seems much less based on reason than on sentiment, on some indecipherable need to cling to a failed system of justice (and all the conceptual and terminological baggage it contains) which he sees through rose-tinted lenses. He seems to miss Kaufmann's point that we will continue to replace one unjust system with another, because of inherent mischievous abuses of the very term "just." Kaufmann's point, as Hook would misread it, is not to "replace one unjust system with another unjust system," but rather to implement a system that does not include terms that can be so easily exploited and misapplied and that are based wholly on moral rationalism.

Kaufmann would agree that if we worked towards a more humane and thus less brutally violent society (and specifically spelled out what we meant by that), then we could enact laws and work to inculcate tenable moral codes that hopefully would lead to realizing such an "ideal" society. Hook's reluctance to consider fairly Kaufmann's proposal, and his tendency to resort to uncharacteristically solipsistic arguments in "defense of justice," smacks of the type of "irrational reasoning" used by those who would have us hold on to traditional religion for dear life, lest the masses, upon realizing that there is no God, devolve into anarchy.

If we really have so little faith in the capacity of humankind to evolve as a society once the blinders of traditional religions and traditional conceptions of justice have been removed, then we might as well "throw in the towel" now. Otherwise, we should at least seriously consider accepting Kaufmann's challenge, and take a sublime risk that society in the long run will be better off by doing away with such myths (for myths they most certainly are, no matter how useful they may or may not be).

Thus even the suggestion by Lipman that there may be "infallible yardsticks," at least for simplistic cases of justice as desert, seems not to be the case. "If you want to give each enough for his optimal development," Kaufmann asserts, "how do you determine what he needs for that? To answer this question and to decide how much various projects are needed requires a decision about goals — an idea or vision of man and society as one should like them to be." Ultimately, Kaufmann notes, "every attempt to spell out a material conception of justice involves a decision about the kind of society we want. It requires a decision about goals and standards." But the moral rationalist, alas, "takes his standards for granted and refuses to consider alternatives." (11)

Kaufmann points out (persuasively, I think) that it is "only in a situation in which no relevant differences exist among the individuals concerned that an equal distribution could be reasonably called just." He gives an example of dividing "eight apples among eight children at the end of a party at which all have had plenty to eat." Suppose, Kaufmann says, "that some of the children are much too full by now to eat the apple right away and will take it home to a house in which apples and other kinds of food are plentiful, while other children are about to return to their hungry brothers and sister: then even this case supports the thesis that distributions can never be just." (12)

Such an example, Kaufmann says, "does not depend on some prior social injustice. All that is required is some relevant inequality, say, that some children need to eat more than others, or that some are allergic to apples, or that some are allergic to other foods but not to apples." (13) Hence, an "equal distribution is no guarantee of justice," and thus even in a simple circumstance, the notion of an "infallible yardstick" does not pass muster.

During a discussion on February 21, Professor Lipman suggested that perhaps, just perhaps, the utility of such terms as desert has "passed its prime," and perhaps is diminished to the point where it is no longer worthwhile to utilize. He presented the example of the current United States welfare system, which certainly has many inequities and many "injustices," which certainly is fraught with recipients who do not "deserve" to receive welfare, as many who would like to raze the system are wont to point out. But perhaps that is not the crux of the issue; if the system, with all its deficiencies, furthers the humanistic ends of our society, then perhaps we do not even need to speak of it in terms of justice and desert; we need only speak of whether it is, or is not, more or less achieving the ends we had in mind when the decision was made to institute it, Lipman noted (hopefully this is a faithful paraphrase).

What I also take this to suggest is that a "yardstick," whether "infallible" or not, when used in tandem with the notion of desert, is no longer (if it ever was) a tenable form of calculation, and is indeed counter-productive.

What I would argue for in its stead is a notion of efficacy, in which we continually strive to ascertain whether the means we incorporate to reach specifically spelled-out ends as a society do or do not prove to be efficacious. If they do not, then they should be adjusted accordingly or scrapped altogether (depending on whether it is determined that the means, while not realizing the ends in mind, are not counter-productive, but rather not optimally efficacious).

If one follows Kaufmann's reasoning, the calculation of desert is so subjective that it is fraught with pitfalls every step of the way, and thus is doomed to failure in virtually every but the most simplistic of instances. But if we steer clear of the skewed notion of desert and rather focus on the idea of need, and on the idea of striving to develop a society code of which a centerpiece is to do one's utmost to see to it that the needs of all children are met (most emphatically including their medical needs), because to do so would be to strive to become more humane on both an individual and global scale, we would be on much more solid — and much less philosophically casuistic — ground.

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(1) Ibid.,p.361.

(2) Ibid.,p.361.

(3) Ibid.,p.361.

(4) Walter Kaufmann, Without Guilt and Justice: From Decidophobia to Autonomy, Peter H. Wyden Inc. Publisher, New York, 1973, p.67.

(5) Ibid.,p.67.

(6) Ibid.,p.67.

(7) Ibid.,p.67.

(8) Ibid.,p.67.

(9) Ibid.,p.67.

(10) Sidney Hook, "In Defense of `Justice'", Ethics and Social Justice, ed. Howard E. Keifer and Milton K. Munitz, State University of New York Press, Albany, 1968, p.79.

(11) Walter Kaufmann, "Without Guilt and Justice," pp.80-81.

(12) Ibid.,p.82.

(13) Ibid.,p.82.

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