Research Seminar

Richard Arneson: Should we reward the deserving? Some puzzles

Date: 24 March
Time: 17:00-18:45

Richard Arneson is a political philosopher with a special interest in theories of social justice. 

Do plausible fundamental principles of justice incorporate the idea of rewarding the deserving? Utilitarianism is famously indifferent between a world in which saints fare badly and scoundrels fare well and the reverse, with well-being totals the same.  A variant of utilitarianism (“prioritarianism”) holds that benefits for people are morally more valuable, the worse off in lifetime well-being they would otherwise be.  A simple further revision adds that well-being gains for people are morally more valuable, the more morally deserving they are.  An objection to the revision is that no conception of deservingness withstands scrutiny.  A proposal is that the question, what we owe to one another, is unavoidable for any person, and by seeking to answer it and conform one’s will to the answer one reaches, one becomes morally deserving.  Such seeking can be pointless, so it’s moral striving one believes to be apt that renders one deserving.  An objection is that it can be so that bringing it about that everyone is worse off increases double-priority-weighted well-being.   Another is that depending on the numbers, when someone will unavoidably endure negative lifetime well-being, bringing it about that she becomes less deserving would be a moral improvement. Yet another is that it can be that making a credible, sincere, disproportionate conditional threat would expectably bring about such good consequences as to be morally required (“Don’t bomb our cities or we’ll bomb yours in a counterstrike!”), yet making the threat is committing oneself conditionally to doing disproportionate evil so renders one morally undeserving.   Another is that the degree of moral credit or discredit one merits for the degree of conscientious striving one makes depends on how difficult and painful it would be to strive—but we cannot see into people’s souls, and even if we could, we could not measure people’s deservingness.  Can the objections be defused?


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