‘Just desert’ is the negative-space of morality

Harrison Ainsworth

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‘Just desert’ and ‘deserving’, though a common moral idea, can never be the basis of a proper moral system. It has nothing positive to tell us about any moral system, only where the outer boundary might be.

What does ‘desert’ or ‘deserve’ mean? ‘Deserve’ has two normal uses.

First, it is merely virtually synonymous with ‘should’: “you deserve to have that” means “you should have that”. This sense is empty: it is not expressing any particular moral theory, it is only declaring a truth-value: it is merely saying that, according to some unspecified morality, some case is moral. (Again, the idea that ‘the virtuous should be rewarded and the vicious punished’, is similarly empty. It merely proposes enforcement for some moral theory, but says nothing about the content thereof.). This usage is of no interest, here at least.

But its second meaning is substantial. It stands for a particular moral principle: that you should receive according to what you do – that is, you are the deciding factor. This seems what is distinctive about ‘desert’/‘deserving’; otherwise, it falls back into the empty meaning above.

Intuitively, this sense of ‘desert’ may seem right – it is certainly quite common, but examining its logical structure shows it is actually anti-moral not moral.

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What does ‘you should receive according to what you do’ mean economically? – ideally, you should get out just what you put in: or that everyone should be fully and exactly compensated for their contribution. The big problem is that this means each and every exchange cancels out. And that destroys any possibility of an economic system at all.

The whole point of a cooperative system – such as an economy – is that each individual gets out more than they put in. Cooperation is valuable because it gives more than each individual would get on their own. So the more exactly people are compensated according to what they put in, the more cooperation is contradicted or defeated. Cooperation only exists because, and as far as, people are not getting their ‘just desert’.

What if, instead, everyone were compensated proportionately rather than exactly? Would that make sense as an answer? No, and indeed nor for any other such variation, and for the same basic structural reason. Cooperative/economic systems get their overall gain by moving surpluses to scarcities. They work by taking away proportionately – not merely different, but the exact opposite to, ‘just desert’.

The rule of cooperative systems is something like: everyone with extra ability should give it away. This would seem totally wrong to a ‘just deserter’, but that is because they only imagine themselves as independent heroes. That is only shortsighted. One might be the greatest architect in the world, and so benefit handsomely from full compensation. But one will not also be the greatest film-maker, and farmer, and software developer, and surgeon, and so on and on. In a cooperative system we are net ‘consumers’ in a sense. So a rule where we all give away our excess capability gives us back much more from others in return.

In contrast, ‘just desert’ only works under very restrictive conditions: not even where you are on average top-dog, but only where you can get everything you want by yourself. A ‘just desert’ economy is one where everyone should keep everything to themselves – i.e. anti-economic and not really an economy at all.


A: “How can you justify the current political/economic system? ‘Just desert’? People getting returns on investments is not ‘just desert’: where is the work? they are not doing any.”

B: “Well, it is true it is not work like digging up a potato; it is work according to a modern sophisticated economy. You build a business, own shares in it, and later get investment returns – there is the work you did, and there is the return. It might seem less physical, less direct, but that is because it has a form according to its modern context.”

A: “But hold on, that justifies ‘desert’ based on the current system, yet was not the original purpose to justify the system based on ‘desert’? That is circular.”

One might try to escape by saying that the market system simply reflects reality – it is still people deploying their abilities to get what they can, and that is all ‘just desert’ requires. Yes, there is straightforward undeniable individual action there, but there is also something else artificial. Are corporations, stocks and shares, interest-bearing investments, property rents, etc. simply default, natural, reality? No, plainly not.

The task is this: in order to justify a system by ‘just desert’ you need some concept of ‘just desert’ independent of the system.

But then you reach the show-stopper: that is in general logically impossible. You are trying to find a definition of what a system should give you, based on what you alone did. But that is contradictory. Anything a system gives you is not what you alone did. You cannot be given what you deserve. If you have to be given it, you obviously do not deserve it. If it is being given to you, you have not done it, and if you alone did not do it, how can you deserve it?

And you have to grant this idea of external system, because it is largely other people: if you are a subject of ‘just desert’, so must they be, and outside of your ‘just desert’ claims. If what you do is yours, then what they do is theirs, and so not yours.


As a moral idea, it seems all over for ‘just desert’. But not quite: there is something to salvage.

There is a psychological reason to give results to individuals: individuals need to have some autonomy, some control of themselves and their surroundings. And this is what ‘just desert’ captures: what you get is determined and controlled by your actions – you are in control of your surroundings.

So even though cooperation is important because it is so valuable, it should be limited by individual sovereignty.


Because ‘just desert’ places all justification in the individual, it can say nothing about any moral system – which is something outside the individual. It is impossible to have a moral or economic system based on ‘just desert’. Desert theory is fundamentally antithetical to economic exchange, because its calculus is entirely confined to the individual – it is a moral solipsism. ‘Just desert’ is really only self-interest with a different presentation, and as with self-interest, it is not so much morality as its opposite.

‘Just desert’ is rather the ‘negative-space’, the outer boundary, of morality. You can only claim ‘just desert’ for things outside the bounds of the moral/cooperative system. A moral/cooperative system cannot give you your ‘just desert’, it can only leave you to get it yourself. But that is something a moral system should do to some extent.



   title:`‘Just desert’ is the negative-space of morality`
   creator:`Harrison Ainsworth`


   description:`‘Just desert’ and ‘deserving’, though a common moral idea, can never be the basis of a proper moral system. It has nothing positive to tell us about any moral system, only where the outer boundary might be.`
   subject:`philsophy, morality, desert theory, just desert`

   rights:`Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0 License`