Wednesday, September 17, 2008

On Desert and the Glass Ceiling

Update at the bottom

So I've been thinking a little about Hayek's point that there's nothing about an overall state of affairs which arises from the decentralized actions of individuals in a market economy which could coherently be an "injustice." As I had said, I agree with Hayek, and I've been accordingly trying to think of a way to understand the concept of distributive justice in other terms. But on page 49 of his book, Elements of Justice, David Schmidtz raises an interesting point in discussing the idea of "desert":
...there is something slightly misleading, or at best incomplete, in assessing a society by asking whether people get what they deserve. If desert matters, then often a better question is, do people do something to deserve what they get? Do opportunities go to people who will do something to be worthy of them?

It seems to me that while there's something very intuitive about this point, there's a tension to be acknowledged. To flesh out Schmidtz's point, he offers on page 46 that "A person who receives opportunity X at t1 can be deserving at t2 because of what she did when given a chance." The idea here, then, seems to be that if a person does justice to the opportunity that she's given in the period between t1 and t2, then she proves that she deserved it at t1.

But while I think that the above may be a necessary condition for desert, I'm not sure if it's sufficient. What I have in mind is the interview where a man and a woman are being considered for a job. We might imagine that both would, if given the chance, do justice to the opportunity they were given: both are fully competent to do the job, and both would work hard at it. We might further say that both would likely succeed. But let's say that the woman candidate was better qualified for the job than the man, and it was simply a matter of prejudice on the part of the prospective employer which led him to choose the man. Even though the man would end up doing justice to the opportunity, I still think there's a sense in which we can say that he didn't really deserve the job, and that the woman did.

I wouldn't want to say that the man in the above example is entirely undeserving of the job. For his part, he did everything that we would have wanted him to do. But there is, I think, a sense in which he will have gotten something that he didn't deserve, even if he did everything he could to do justice to the opportunity he got. I definitely need to think about this some more, but it's a start.


Incidentally, Schmidtz makes more or less the same point in the next chapter in discussing whether a person who does not deserve an opportunity can still do justice to it. Sorry, Dr. Schmidtz! This seems to be a common theme...

The one thing that I think can be preserved from this post is the idea that something needs to be said about the person who is deprived of an opportunity that she did deserve because someone else got an opportunity he didn't deserve, even though the latter did justice to the opportunity once he got it, and therefore has "done all anyone could ask," to put it as Schmidtz does on page 52. Something...but I'm not sure what.


JEK said...

Being (again) bit short of time , I'll just notice that it is once again the subjectivity issue, Instead of givig my arguments, here os a quotation from "Coventry" by Heinlen:
The revolutionists wished to establish maximum personal liberty. How could they accomplish that to a degree of high mathematical probability? First they junked the concept of 'justice'. Examined semantically 'justice' has no referent-there is no observable phenomenon in the space-time-matter continuum to which one can point, and say, 'This is justice.' Science can deal only with that which can be observed and measured. Justice is not such a matter; therefore it can never have the same meaning to one as to another; any 'noises' said about it will only add to confusion."

Danny Shahar said...

My short answer: I disagree; "noises" do not need to make reference to empirically measurable phenomena in order to be coherent, and as ethics and morality inherently do not make reference to such phenomena, it is no surprise that an ethical issue such as this one would not be subject to empirical measurement.

On a related note, you might be interested in watching a fascinating conversation between A.J. Ayer and Brian Magee about Logical Positivism:

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