How can desert be adapted to provide a fair conception of redistributive justice?

This essay was written in January 2018 whilst studying at Monash University.

Desert has proven to have somewhat of an awkward existence in philosophy in spite of the fact that desert claims remain relatively unquestioned in the private and public sphere. Within the private interactions of individuals, desert claims tend to dictate how those interactions proceed. For example desert can often be understood in terms of “appraising attitudes” such as “admiration, approval, and gratitude” (Freiman and Nichols, 2010, p.130). In the public sphere, the design of many institutions and organisations are at least partially influenced by notions of desert. In fact, unanimous majorities endorse desert as the appropriate principle of distribution to govern cooperative ventures (Miller, 2003, chap 4). Whereas amongst political philosophers there has long been unfair resistance in recognising desert as valuable in theories of distributive justice. It has been suggested that the way we present philosophical questions to ourselves may systematically bias our answers on desert (Freiman and Nichols, 2010, p.123). Whilst laymen tend to accept desert as integral to distributive justice, and although this opinion is not always held consistently (Freiman and Nichols, 2010, p.122) the existence of this overall dissent provides good reason as to why desert needs to be seriously reconsidered. Regardless of desert’s label as a problematic theory in terms of modes of treatment (Lamont, 1994, p.45) the reasons for abandoning it altogether without any serious exploration are insufficient.

In this essay I will argue that desert should be used in a meritocratic society, as this model provides the best outcomes for distributive justice. This will bring attention to David Miller’s claim that within a just society, it is possible for pre-existing institutions to practically give individuals what they deserve, as well as distributing resources adequately based on needs. John Rawls’ difference principle will help to explain how when coupling a meritocracy with use of institutionally-enforced desert there is greater opportunity to foster economic prosperity and therefore a better chance at maximising overall utility. Drawing on David Schmidtz’ paper on desert, I will highlight why desert is a critical notion and why we cannot abandon desert claims, as it is intrinsic to our basic moral and political reasoning.

To first clarify, this essay defines the desert theory as a general moral principle that states that an agent’s welfare ought to vary with the worth of his actions (Holmgren, 1986, p.268). This can be used to determine if an agent deserves an increase or decrease in wealth or income, at which point we can then look to other types of moral considerations, such as utility, to determine which mode of treatment can govern the most appropriate means of increasing or decreasing an agent’s welfare in any given case (Holmgren, 1986, p.269). The meritocratic model can be adapted to recognise that some people deserve certain shares due to their actions, and in turn distributions can be proportionate to their contributions without harming or neglecting other individuals.

The first point in supporting desert, I believe should be to dismiss any claims that luck is a reasonable objection in itself to adhering to desert at all. John Rawls makes the claim that our character, and abilities are not fully our own as they come from genetic and environmental factors (A Theory of Justice, p. 89). Evidently it is through no effort of our own if we happen to be born into a wealthy family, or a top-ranked suburb. However this claim has been hijacked by some to wrongly justify the oversight of future achievements of an individual who has benefited due to brute luck. The inadvertent initial position of “brute luck” (Freiman and Nichols, 2010, p.121) that allows one to continue cultivating success, should not be discount their future desert that arises from the individual’s own efforts. This essay rejects the claim that at a fundamental level the wealthy do not “deserve” their superior position due to the opportunities they may have received early in life. A well off individual may start with greater talent or opportunities due to brute luck, but in their efforts to cultivate these initial endowments they become deserving of their position. The likely reply of objectors to desert may go something like this; “it is not only the initial talents and opportunities they do not deserve, but the talents which they ultimately use to build upon their success”. By this logic, the identification of any element of luck automatically nullifies an individual’s achievements. Instead we ought to adopt a "nonvacuous conception of desert, (where) there will be inputs that a person can supply, and therefore fail to supply" (Schmidtz, 2006, p.36). There is of course a difference between being lucky and merely lucky, that seems to be brushed over in these common objections to desert. To be lucky and then build upon that luck has been clarified as acceptable, while being merely lucky is what precludes being deserving, as the individual has relied on brute luck alone (Schmidtz, 2006, p.35). As Miller views desert, what is fundamentally important is “effort plus talent plus performance” (Brigati, 2014, p.718),

Under the model I am suggesting, the implications of the overall brute luck objection are made peripheral once key institutional resources are provided to the citizen, with extra efforts being made to “level the playing field” so to speak. At a baseline level the state must provide quality healthcare, education and a safe living environment. Following that these basic requirements are met, a series of institutional safeguards need to be implemented in order to satisfy fair equality of opportunity. For example public schools attended by children whose parents are less wealthy or less educated would receive greater funds. This essay does not have the space to list every potential scheme that would help to offset inequalities, but those that pertain to education are arguably most important for individuals to “get ahead” in life. If the state has adequately provided these institutions then it becomes disruptive to detract from an individual’s contributions.

Looking to Rawls’ “Original Position” formulation, and that we are under the veil of ignorance, a “contractor” is likely to find such schemes appealing as they are unaware of what their position on the economic ladder will be. Their attraction to this arrangement comes from the knowledge that there would certainly be advantages that only some individuals will enjoy due to biological differences and general brute luck. From the outset it should be apparent to the contractor that individual differences will need to be accounted for by institutions greater than themselves. Margaret Holmgren says justice “demands that each individual be secured the most fundamental benefits in life compatible with like benefits for all,” then adds, “The opportunity to progress by our own efforts is a fundamental interest” (Holmgren, 1986, p.273). Undeniably as Holmgren states, it is the natural inclination of any individual (regardless of status) to use the resources at their disposal in order to advance their own position, whether this is in the form of wealth or income. This inevitable human desire seems to be missing in the Rawlsian construction of the Original Position analogy but should be amended.

Consider this equation of the original position; under an equal distribution of wealth and income, Arthur wants to advance his position in life, so at his workplace he consistently makes an effort to produce his maximum output, subsequently breaking office records. Most would declare that Arthur is deserving of some benefits, perhaps a promotion or other formal recognition. Naturally not everyone acts in the same manner that Arthur does, his co-worker Benjamin does not work hard but his laziness absorbs the potential benefits that Arthur should be entitled to. To rephrase; Arthur is denied an opportunity to make the most of his life through his own efforts. This is not a fair conception of desert-based distributive justice, so we must allocate a greater share of wealth/income to those who make a serious and consistent effort.

This second formulation appears to address the inequalities presented in the first example. Society ought to allow people to secure the opportunity to advance by their efforts, and allow for their rewards to be recognised as “deserved”. A society that moderately utilises the difference principle secures for individuals the opportunity to take advantage of their own merits and position. The difference principle allows for inequalities in wealth and income only if they are to the advantage of the least advantaged. If Arthur wishes to accrue more resources to develop his life, he can seek higher paid positions through his efforts. This formulation would see that each individual has the opportunity to make the most of their lives, progressing their position through their efforts. Most importantly, it would not allow for this to occur at the expense of a less well-off individual. For example, Arthur would not be allowed to claim that his interest in the opportunity to advance through his efforts outweighs the interest of a severely mentally impaired person to receive basic subsistence. Under the difference principle, economic inequalities can be just but only if they are part of a system whose arrangement maximises the well being of those who possess the least. This principle should not be confused as a “trickle down” scheme, the view that greater benefits for wealthy people "trickle-down" and benefit less well-off people. The key differences lies in the title “trickle down”, which implies only a small portion of wealth will reach the bottom. Whereas the difference principle demands that inequalities are arranged to maximise the well being of those at the bottom of the economic ladder.

The overall aim of this argument is to demonstrate that a competitive labour market will naturally be created, and in turn foster strong economic growth that will be redistributed through institutional means. One implication this argument suffers however is that wage gaps between men and women may be seen as justified (Miller, 2003, 141). Perhaps this is where appealing to institutionally supported desert claims can solve the potential implication and alike. If two workers (with different genders) produce the same quality and quantity of output they deserve the same rewards, regardless of an individual’s willingness to receive a lower benefit. If institutions recognise this crucial component of desert in the form of entitlement, then it seems appealing to desert may solve some very basic implications that redistributive methods encounter.

Not only is desert both economically and principally beneficial to a society, I believe that institutions have an obligation to support desert. Depending on context, the nature of desert’s existence can rely on several things, for example desert relies on the act of appraisal itself and an underlying attitude of admiration. If we did not adopt these attitudes then using the concept of desert would become impossible, as its meaning would be nullified and it would be unrecognisable to us. We say that “Arthur deserves the promotion” because we admire the effort that Arthur has displayed in his work, and believe his position ought to reflect his superior efforts. There are examples demonstrating that without the institution desert claims are meaningless like deserving a medal if the Olympic games do not exist (Miller, 2003, p.138). However regardless of institutional framework, desert has always been integral to the way we reason in everyday life and it should be recognised as a pre-institutional “natural concept” (Miller, 2003, p.138). Desert claims do not wholly derive their power from institutions; instead they can have moral weight prior to the establishment of institutions. The claim here is that institutions have an obligation to recognise desert and use it as a factor in decision-making, as it is our basic underlying principles that shape institutions. As stated at the beginning of this essay, desert claims operate and often dictate the course of interactions among private individuals. The inherent meaning in desert claims is not born at the establishment of the institution, which should be viewed as a tool in itself not a bearer of meaning.

Desert is a sensible principle, its appeal is that it is not absolutely determinate and it can be used moderately in conjunction with other formal institutional processes. We should strive to hold desert-based principles that ensure distributions are sensitive to the efforts that people make to the social surplus, as it works to improve the overall economic position of both society and individual. It ensures talent is rewarded and therefore it reproduces and endures. The existence of institutions, whether they are in the form of state apparatus or business models is tied to the model of desert, and as such desert should be regarded as an institutional concept. State institutions have a duty to bring disadvantaged individuals as close to a level of equal opportunity as practically possible, and this essay has aimed to outline an effective method of doing so.


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