By Fernando Teson
I think John Rawls’s views on moral arbitrariness, as presented in A Theory Justice, make no sense. Rawls writes that inborn assets such as wealth, intelligence, and talent, should not influence the distribution of society’s holdings. The reason is that inborn assets are undeserved and, for that reason, morally arbitrary. Famously, Rawls does not limit this dictum to material resources such as inherited wealth. He extends it to personality traits such as intelligence, talent, business acumen, and so on. This move grounds his original position, where people do not know if they will be rich, talented, or smart. It allows him to postulate the difference principle where inequalities are allowed only if they work for the benefit of the worst-off.
The problem is that on this view no one can possibly deserve anything. According to Rawls, no one deserves anything obtained through the use of inborn assets. Now the view that some things are morally arbitrary because they are undeserved implies that there are things that would be deserved and thus not morally arbitrary. The rhetorical force of accusing P of not deserving X lies on the counterfactual that there are things that P could have done to deserve X. But on Rawls’s view, the subset of deserved things is necessarily empty. This is because anything we come to possess is the result of the exercise of some undeserved trait.
Consider two cases. Kasey is born into a wealthy family and as a result of that and her slightly above-average intelligence she attends a good college and secures a good job. For Rawls, Kasey doesn’t deserve her earnings because they result from undeserved assets. Society should allow her to keep just those earnings that maximize the position of the worst-off (through incentives, etc.)
Now consider Akbar. Akbar is born in a slum of Mumbai, India. His family is very poor, but Akbar, blessed with high intelligence and a remarkable business sense, slowly and through many sacrifices succeeds in improving himself, getting a high school education, and even supporting his family with earnings in the informal economy of the slum. Courageously, he boards a ship bound for New York. Once in the United States, he takes computer science classes at a community college, where he displays an unusual talent for things digital. A couple of years later, Akbar and two friends found an instantly successful digital company. Akbar is now a rich man.
Rawls is committed to saying that Akbar does not deserve any of this. His case is indistinguishable from Kasey’s, because Akbar’s present holdings, like Kasey’s, result from the exercise of undeserved inborn traits, namely intelligence, business sense, and entrepreneurship (even his strength and determination to endure the miseries of the slum are undeserved!).
Any theory of desert that prevents us from distinguishing between Kasey and Akbar has to be wrong. Since on Rawls’s view no one can possibly deserve anything, his luck-egalitarian premise, far from being a deep insight, is an empty platitude. He might as well have said that the state owns everything and been done with it, instead in indulging in this meaningless moral desert talk.
I think that using desert as the basis of a political theory is a non-starter. I suspect (but am not entirely sure) that a more promising start is the notion of title. Instead of asking who deserves what, we should ask who legitimately owns what.
Robert Nozick was essentially right. But that is material for another post.
Fernando Teson has served as visiting professor at Cornell Law School, Indiana University School of Law and is currently working on a book on global justice.
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