Moral Desert and Economic Desert Part 1

Problems with Various Desert Bases
What would it mean for someone the get the wage they deserve? Our answer will depend on the desert base; i.e., in virtue of what are things deserved? Probably the most intuitive answer is that “I deserve my wage because I worked hard for it,” implying that effort is the basis for desert claims. Cursory reflection leads us to this reject this answer for a couple of reasons. 

The type of market you serve, the nature of your product, aggregate demand, supply, and your customers willingness and ability to pay all affect your wage although none of these variables are in your control.  That is, they are not a product of your effort. If you work in social services and serve the poor, there is tremendous demand for and value of your services yet your “customers” have a low ability to pay.  Your wage is low and your effort is largely irrelevant. On the other hand, a Saudi Prince might pay a beautiful model $10 000.00 to hang on his arm for an evening. The model’s beauty isn’t a product of effort nor deliberate choice and so it’s hard to say she “earned” the $10 000.00 if effort is our desert base. There are many other counter-examples to the effort desert-base but I’ll leave it at that.

The next plausible candidate desert-base is achievement or outcome.  If I produce more than someone else then I deserve more.  This solution also has it’s problems. First of all we have to ask about the nature of goods being compared. Do we think that the largest crack dealer is more deserving of their income than the small-time dealer? The former produced more sales, after all. And so we see that social value also enters the calculus. 

It’s not enough that a product generates sales, we must also consider the social value of the product. But here’s where things get tricky. Often the market value and the social value of goods come apart. The social value of drug rehabilitation workers (for non-celebrities) trumps that of a Fendi handbag yet the profit margins on the former are minimal.  The social value of an educational computer program trumps that of candy crush, yet candy crush and other games deliberately designed to be addictive are much more profitable. And so again we see there is no clear way to establish the magnitude of desert. We can’t just appeal to market value. 

Prudential vs Moral Desert
The very loose fit between various desert bases and desert is one set of reasons to be skeptical of economic desert claims. The chief puzzle in understanding economic desert, however, is reconciling the role of prudential and moral action in generating desert claims. Intentionally self-benefiting action generates most economic desert claims: few people go to work motivated by the desire to serve their others, and if they do, it’s incidental.  The desire to achieve a certain standard of living and buy this or that knick knack motivates most people to drag themselves out of bed day in and day out. In short, the target beneficiary of the fruits of most people’s labor is themselves.

One the other hand, moral desert is generally conceived of as being produced by other-directed action in terms of benefits.  It’s odd to say “I’m morally deserving of X because I was looking out for number 1″. And so, it is puzzling that the claim “you can’t tax me because it’s my money–I earned it” is often an implicitly moral one. Denying that others have a claim to your wages imposes duties on them and by so doing enters the moral realm.  Failure to respect these duties might be considered theft by some. But, again it seems odd that a moral claim can be generated by self-serving action and intent.  So, is it simply a category mistake to say that one has a moral desert claim to their wage? Maybe economic desert isn’t moral, it’s something else.

I think there’s a plausible solution to this apparent tension between our common sense intuitions about economic desert and the conceptual distinction between prudential and moral action: in many cases, prudential action is a component of moral action. Simply put, taking care of yourself and your needs so others aren’t burdened by you is a part of moral living.  The notion of a good citizen is tied to the idea of, at best contributing positively, but a least not being a net consumer of societies resources when you don’t have to be.  A good citizen, if they are able, minimally fulfills part of their moral duty by providing for themselves.

Of course, the prudential and moral don’t necessarily overlap.  I can act prudentially and also act contrary to morality. For example, it might be economically prudent for me to sell heroin to minors but the social harms would wipe out any good that came from prudence. And so we see that, although prudence and morality can align, they can also pull in opposite directions.  The moral value of prudence seems to be constrained by considerations of social good.  That is, prudence only has value so long as it doesn’t conflict with at least some of our notions of social good.  The mere existence of a market for the products of one’s prudential labor isn’t sufficient to infer the social value of your prudence–nor of your product.

One thought on “Moral Desert and Economic Desert Part 1

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s