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Desert, Rewards and Punishment


Pojman argues that we should strive to form a world in which "the virtuous are rewarded and the vicious are punished in proportion to their relative deserts.”

I agree with Pojman. Pojman’s stance is a sound one. The anti-thesis would be unthinkable. People who do good should be justly rewarded and those who resort to evil ways punished. The more effort done, the higher should be the reward. The more evil an act is, the more severe should be the punishment. This is the simple down-to-earth thesis of Pojman’s position. To fail to accord recognition and merit for virtuous action would be unfair while to recognize and reward viciousness grossly unfair. Failure to punish evil ways is intuitively of no rational or moral basis. A person should be treated no better or worse than what he deserves.

Desert is something that is deserved. A “three-place relation”, desert has three elements: the subject (the person who committed an act), an object (reward, praise, compensation) and a basis (effort, contribution, moral virtue) (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

For Pojman, desert, being a subcategory of merit, pertains to voluntary action. Desert then constitutes the desirability of a person’s decisions and actions and is inherent in moral responsibility. It is just but fair that greater effort, more contributions or more virtuous living deserve greater reward. It is just but fair that a person who committed robbery with murder shall be more severely punished than someone who committed simple theft. Merit is a broader concept, the genus of which desert is the species. Throughout history, we could see how humankind, in every social or cultural realm, had invoked justice based on desert and merit. (Pojman, “Justice and Desert” 99-100).

Rewarding those who do good to us and punishing those who wrong us are spontaneous reactions and therefore reflect human nature. As Pojman elaborates, these sense of gratitude for people who do charitable work and the “resentful outrage” for those who do wicked things are vicarious feelings that could be felt even when the doers are not in our immediate circle (102). I do experience these feelings. I get exhilarated by the heroic acts of children in extraordinary crisis situations and hope for them to be immensely rewarded. On the other hand, I deplore Hitlerite genocidal acts and curse the perpetrators.

It is not just a matter of scaling the balance between two instrinsically good things – pleasure and virtue. W D Ross offers a third element in the formula – distribution of pleasure and pain to the virtuous and the vicious (qtd. in Pojman, “Justice and Desert” 102) which constitutes the “duty of justice” (102). Pojman follows Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in his definition of justice – “Equals are to be treated equally and unequals unequally.” (Pojman, “Theories of Equality”).

In this light, justice on the basis of desert does not repudiate equal opportunity or reciprocity. Some thinkers most notably Rawls with his theory of justice as fairness preclude desert as a basis for distributive justice because people are subject to social contingencies that affect their opportunities and actions. They contend that meritocracy is inegalitarian because it is inherently hierarchical, holding that some people are better than others.

I believe desert does not repudiate or contravene the basic tenets of equal opportunity, but rather complements it. In using desert as a basis of distribution, people with different desert claims are treated differently while those situated in similar desert claims are treated equally. Punishment, which is not based on flimsy grounds such vengeance, is graduated according to the degree of a crime while rewards are apportioned according to degree of achievement and excellence. This is clearly in conjunction with Aristotle’s view of justice adopted by Pojman.

Recognition that some people work harder than others or that some people strive to achieve better than others cannot be considered as being unfair. It is a fact which needs to be recognized and acknowledged by the society if only to inspire more people to do good and lead virtuous lives and to discourage inhumanity and vicious conduct. It is sound to argue that desert sees the potentials and innate capacity of people and celebrates their pursuit of the common good by using these talents and capabilities instead of just preserving or protecting their assets. Sher (53) considers diligent, sustained effort as the most cogent of all the bases of desert.

At this point, Pojman’s argument on the utility of desert comes to the fore. According to Pojman (103), a society that endeavours to reward those who do good for the general welfare and to punish those who undermine it has better chances for survival and prosperity than a society that does nor practice these. This is very true. In a sense, when people expect something of value for good conduct, they will generally aspire to be good. Judicial punishment serves social good.

Pojman’s meritocracy philosophy evokes many possibilities in the bigger social realm, that is the world arena. Substituting individuals to nations, the gains of using justice as desert could be magnified to benefit a larger group of people. Although this has been challenged, mainly bordering on political concepts such as sovereignty and independence, and also on philosophical beliefs such as diversity of moral systems in pluralistic societies, an international system of rewards and punishment is in place and may be enhanced through the passage of time, this being possible according to centuries of global experience.

Works Cited

Pojman, Louis. “Justice and Desert.” Queensland University of Technology Law and Justice Journal 1.1. 2001: 88-105
---. “Theories of Equality: A Critical Analysis.” Behavior and Philosophy 2.25 1995. 2 Dec 2008 <http://www.lrainc.com/swtaboo/taboos/lp_equal.html>
Sher, George. “Desert”. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. “Desert.” First published Tue May 14, 2002; substantive revision Wed Nov 12, 2008. 2 Dec 2008 <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/desert/>

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