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Desert vs. Entitlement

April 14th, 2011 · 19 Comments

In a recent post, I suggested that claims about “desert” are generally misplaced in arguments about copyright—whether they are deployed on behalf of “deserving” small fry artists or against “undeserving” labels. As some commenters pointed out, there’s no obvious reason this argument should be restricted to the domain of copyright—and quite right. I think most areas of political philosophy and policy—theory of just punishment springs to mind as a possible exception—would be better off if we just scrapped the concept of “desert” entirely, and just spoke about what people are entitled to.

Here’s the difference, very roughly, in case this sounds like semantic hairsplitting. To say someone deserves X is to say that X is in some sense an appropriate or fair reward in light of that person’s morally virtuous qualities or conduct. To say that someone is entitled to X is just to say that the person has a just claim to X, without any implied commitment to some deeper claim about their moral merit. One could fill a book trying to spell the difference out in a rigorous way, but I’ll assume it makes intuitive sense to most people at the conceptual level, whether or not we agree on the proper application of each term. But to pick examples I think folks would generally agree with: someone who makes a heroic effort to stop a purse snatcher might deserve a reward without being entitled to any particular amount (unless the law has created some kind of “Samaritan bounty” to incentivize this sort of thing), while someone who wins a raffle or lottery doesn’t deserve the prize money (they didn’t do anything special relative to everyone whose number didn’t come up) but is nevertheless entitledto it, insofar as the organizers promised that amount to a ticket purchaser chosen by some specified procedure. If we wanted to be cute about it, we could say desert is about your due, and entitlement is about what you’re due.

Again, without trying to make a very rigorous case in the span of a blog post, I think political and policy discussions should concentrate on what people are entitled to, rather than on necessarily muddy attempts to determine (and embed in law) what people morally deserve. For one, the latter question is likely to implicate contested and metaphysically fraught ideals of virtue and (to use the Rawlsian jargon) “conceptions of the good” between which a liberal state ought to be neutral. How morally meritorious is a particular occupation? In what sense do people “deserve” their natural capacities, or the dispositions and habits inculcated into them as children? And of course, absent a sort of happy Liebnizian coincidence, desert will often tend to be in conflict with other sources of entitlement—such as what people have freely agreed to, or what would incentivize more wealth creation—which means making desert a criterion will often involve sacrificing other (I’d say less dubious) values. In case my suspicious progressive readers are inclined to read this as some kind of sneaky attempt to rig the debate in favor of libertarian principles of economic justice, I should note that I’m not seeking to rule out any particular view about what people might be entitled to—maybe including very generous government benefits. I always find it strange and slightly grating, actually, when people say that people “deserve” healthcare or a good education or some minimal standard of living: Usually, the claim being advanced is that these are things we morally ought to have just because we are persons (or at least members of a particular society that can afford these benefits), which seems like the ultimate case of something that is not “deserved.” Language gets tricky here: We sometimes talk as though the only options are that people “deserve” X, or alternatively they are “undeserving of” X, implying that they ought to be denied it. As I hope is clear, though, I assume people will often be entitled to things they don’t deserve—like the two working eyes I was just fortunate enough to be born with.

My impression, incidentally, is that the facially similar economic views of libertarians and conservatives are often distinguished by the extent to which they rely on appeals to desert. Libertarians generally have two broad types of reasons for favoring a free-market system, which countenances potentially quite large inequalities, without a great deal of redistribution: First, they think the incentives and decentralized coordination this system produces generate much more wealth for the society as a whole over the long run. Second, they think it’s an important way of respecting people’s free choices and agreements (given, of course, a bunch of controversial assumptions about the conditions under which a choice counts as “free” and the scope of our rights over physical stuff, as opposed to the added value human effort imbues that stuff with).

Conservatives will say those things too, but it seems to me they’re far more likely to rely heavily (primarily?) on the idea that wealth is a deserved reward for hard work, ingenuity, prudence, and whatever other virtues they ascribe to the rich—while the poor must similarly deserve their lot by dint of being lazy, dissolute, and so on. (I occasionally get the impression that certain progressives hold a kind of antimatter version of this rather Calvinist view, with wealth a symptom of intrinsic vice and poverty a sign of the elect—which seems at least as implausible as the conservative version.) To the extent this view is wrong, it has the morally ugly effect of salting with blame a wound acquired through misfortune or injustice—but also of introducing incendiary judgments of personal virtue into a discussion where they’d best be left aside. It’s easy for arguments about incentives to blur into moralized rhetoric about “rewarding” virtue or vice, but we might have a slightly less debased political discourse if we could talk about economic policy without having to commit to a view about the personal virtue or moral worthiness of different groups of people.

Addendum: The justly ridiculed Tasini v. HuffPo suit might be a good case study in the pitfalls of blurring the distinction. Do the folks who contributed free content to the site–presumably because they wanted a high-profile platform to promote themselves and/or their ideas–“deserve” a share of the profit the site earned? Geez, I don’t know. Tasini’s own filing shows that the vast majority of his posts didn’t attract many comments or retweets, and he was an otherwise pretty obscure political candidate and author, so the odds are decent that he got more out of the arrangement than HuffPo did. But we could argue about who deserves what forever. The question of what everyone is entitled to, by contrast, is pretty dispositively settled by the fact that he agreed to write blog posts without pay, and then freely chose to produce a couple hundred of them anyway.

Addendum II: Since John Holbo clearly didn’t believe me when I said this wasn’t some kind of Trojan Horse libertarian argument, let me be a little more explicit: Aside from not being dependent on our assessment of the moral merit of particular individuals or groups, “entitlement” as I’m using it here is really meant to be neutral between a pretty wide variety of positions about distributive justice. What people are entitled to could be determined by (a set of more specific rules conditioned by) John Rawls’ difference principle. Or Ronald Dworkin’s “equality of resources.” Or everyone could be entitled to precisely equal shares of social output, if that’s how you like to roll. I, of course, do not roll thus—but that’s not baked into this particular distinction.

Also, I hoped it would be obvious that I didn’t intend to use “entitled” in a purely positive or descriptive way (though I can see how the examples I picked might give that impression), since of course we’re partly talking about debates over what the law should be—a question where asking what someone is legally entitled to is, of course, pointless. I have my off moments, but I’m not a total halfwit.

Tags: General Philosophy · Libertarian Theory · Moral Philosophy



19 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Justin // Apr 14, 2011 at 11:49 am

    I feel like defenders of things like healthcare feel the need to use words like “deserve” rather than “entitled”–even though the latter better describes their worldview–because “entitled” has too much negative emotional baggage. Specifically, a person who feels “entitled” to things wants something for nothing. This definition of the word muddies debates because anyone defending an “entitlement” has an uphill battle against the preconception that entitlements are inherently bad (and make people ‘pampered’ and all the rest of it).

    It’s nothing new to say that debates can get derailed by definitions. But policy debates in particular very often go nowhere because people are not actually agreeing on what is meant by “a right”, “deserve”, “entitled” and so on.

  • 2 Lester Hunt // Apr 14, 2011 at 11:58 am

    We evolved to apply the idea of desert within the small group — the family, the hunter-gatherer band, etc. — where it makes perfect sense. When we look out into huge modern economic systems we expect to be able to apply the same ideas, but there they make little sense. These habits die hard.

  • 3 Freddie // Apr 14, 2011 at 6:50 pm

    I never understand why desert isn’t dessert. If you follow my meaning.

  • 4 Julian Sanchez // Apr 14, 2011 at 7:12 pm

    They actually have almost the same origin—Latin by way of French. In both cases, the root is “servire” (to serve). But desert comes via “deservire” (what is gained from service—i.e. the reward for what one has done) while dessert is from dés-servir (i.e. to UN-serve, since it’s what you have when the meal that had been served is cleared away). Fun facts!

  • 5 Freddie // Apr 14, 2011 at 7:15 pm


  • 6 not everything is about merit | The Handsome Camel // Apr 15, 2011 at 2:20 am

    […] everything is about merit Posted on April 15, 2011 by thehandsomecamel Julian Sanchez thinks we should stop using the word “deserve” in political or legal debates, and […]

  • 7 Justin Blank // Apr 16, 2011 at 2:29 pm

    I think I know what some of the objectionable uses of “desert” are, but I can’t make heads or tails of the acceptable notion of entitlement you’re using.

    If I consider a claim like “farmers aren’t entitled to farm subsidies” I just get confused. Legally, they are entitled, and what other way of adjudicating entitlements is relevant here? I can parrot your idea and say “farmers aren’t entitled to farm subsidies because they’re a market-distorting waste of money” but I don’t see what work entitlement is doing there. What I really find natural to say is “farm subsidies are a terrible idea and a waste of money and ought to be ended” without mention of entitlement. Is “John is entitled to X” just a shorthand for “it would be a good idea for the government to do X”? I doubt it, but I can’t extract any definite idea about what entitlements are.

  • 8 John Holbo // Apr 18, 2011 at 3:36 am

    Hi Julian, I was a bit slow to get back to my own thread after you left your response, but I did make a response, in case you haven’t seen it.


    Short version: if you broaden your range of examples to avoid concerns that they are too legalistic, I think the examples won’t support your general intuition any more – namely, that desert can be sloughed off, leaving us with a cleaner concept of entitlement.

    I don’t think you are half-witted in the least. For the record.

  • 9 Pithlord // Apr 19, 2011 at 8:22 pm

    “If I enter into a fair bet with you, I don’t deserve to win. But if I win, I deserve my winnings.”

    Is that use of “deserve” wrong as a matter of your intuition about natural language? I’d say it fits my linguistic intuitions, although I’m not 100%.

    Or is there a substantive issue here? Rawls said I wouldn’t deserve my winnings, but would let me keep them if doing so benefits the worst off. Most people who have no problem with gambling think I would just plain deserve to get them if the bet was fair.

  • 10 Dwayne Stephenson // May 3, 2011 at 2:22 am

    Meh. Seems like a basically positivist dodge here that I don’t think really holds up to scrutiny. Entitlement may be preferential in some cases to desert, but I don’t think that any discussion where entitlement is contested can be conducted in a manner that avoids the metaphysical mess desert entangles us in. All this does is push the problem one step farther away in our considerations. John Rawls’ difference principle may be a more economically coherent way of thinking about what might justify certain kinds of entitlement, but it is not of a different species from the feeling in the gut a person might have that they’ve earned every penny they worked for.

  • 11 Club Troppo » Missing Link Friday – Fat, feminism, fair pay & philosophy // May 5, 2011 at 10:01 pm

    […] policy makers care about what people deserve? Julian Sanchez explains the difference between desert and entitlement arguing […]

  • 12 Tim W. // May 6, 2011 at 7:29 pm

    “I think most areas of political philosophy and policy… would be better off if we just scrapped the concept of “desert” entirely, and just spoke about what people are entitled to.”

    Does this rule out argue that entitlements should be based at least in part on desert (or in trying to match desert)? If so, that is odd. Perhaps correct, but I doubt it brings clarity. Those who want to advocate for desert-based entitlements should do so, without dropping the concept. This would clarify the debate in a way that full abandonment of the concept of desert would not likely do so.

  • 13 Tim W. // May 6, 2011 at 7:34 pm

    IRRC Tasini v. HuffPo is based in part on the legal doctrine of “unjust enrichment”. This is a claim about entitlements, but shot through with desert claims (because our entitlements, apparently, may be shot down with desert claims – or claims based on something “unjust” as unjust enrichment indicates.

  • 14 アバクロ // Jul 6, 2011 at 2:58 am

    IRRC Tasini v. HuffPo is based in part on the legal doctrine of “unjust enrichment”. This is a claim about entitlements, but shot through with desert claims (because our entitlements, apparently, may be shot down with desert claims – or claims based on something “unjust” as unjust enrichment indicates.

  • 15 sac à main // Aug 26, 2011 at 3:16 am

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  • 16 forum dewasa // May 8, 2016 at 3:39 pm


  • 17 forum lendir // May 8, 2016 at 3:40 pm

    RRC Tasini v. HuffPo is based in part on the legal doctrine of “unjust enrichment”.

  • 18 Forum Bokep // Oct 20, 2017 at 11:45 am

    your framing metaphor assumes a constant marginal harm caused by pain at any level.

  • 19 forum dewasa // Nov 20, 2017 at 11:45 am

    Hey Julian, it’s always nice to read someone on the same wavelength.