Moral Luck: Part III
In this post I want to work through an apparent implication of the second approach. My starting point is one simple assumption: What you deserve can depend only on you. Two people may end up with different outcomes because of factors entirely out of their control, such as whether a coin flip came out heads or tails. But such factors cannot determine what each deserves.
One obvious conclusion, and one widely accepted, is that differences in wealth or income due to accidents of birth cannot be deserved. My being born to rich parents or you to poor ones was neither my doing nor yours, so cannot affect what each of us deserves. The argument applies to my genetic inheritance as well. That too was an accident so far as I was concerned, so could not affect what I deserve.
The same is true for other accidents of birth. I did not deserve to be born to loving parents who brought me up to be a generous, honest, productive individual, nor did you deserve to be born to the opposite sorts of parents who brought you up to be the opposite sort of person. The man who ended up a guard in a Nazi concentration camp did not deserve to be born in Germany in 1920, nor did I deserve not to be, so his guilt is in large part, perhaps entirely, undeserved.
The conclusion is radically egalitarian–more radically than most egalitarians would like, since it applies not only to the difference between rich people and poor people but to the difference between good people and bad people as well. Strip off everything external, everything a person is not himself responsible for--genes, wealth, upbringing, nature and nurture both--and it is hard to see what is left on which differences in desert could be based.
One possible response is that we all deserve the same outcome, but giving us what we deserve costs more than it is worth. In a society where outcomes do not depend on what you do, there is no incentive to be honest, productive, or helpful; the result is equal poverty and misery. This may well be true, but I do not think it gets us to where I, and I suspect many of my readers, want to end up. The implication of that argument is that we should have only as much inequality as is necessary for a productive society. Every difference in outcome, on that view, must justify itself as producing enough benefit in increased size of the pie to justify its cost in a less just division.
Another possibility is to reject the concept of desert in favor of entitlement–or at least to argue that entitlement ought to be given some moral weight. The heir does not deserve his inheritance, but it was given voluntarily by someone who legitimately earned it, so he is entitled to get it. While I have a good deal of sympathy with that position, I think it is more interesting to try to deal with the egalitarian conclusion of the argument from moral desert on its own terms.
What, if anything, is wrong with it?