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Deserve’s got nothing to do with it

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Since Lord Saletan, the most overplaced troll in all the internets, has linked my last post in his latest exercise in indignant outrage on behalf of the extremely powerful and privileged, I’ll clarify and expand on my original remarks.

The substance of Saletan’s post is that there appear to be grounds on which we might judge Sterling as a far worse, and more worthy, target of our ire than Eich. Some commenters on my previous post made a similar observation. I don’t contest this–based on what we know, the evidence available seems to suggest that Sterling may well be a far worse person than Eich. My original post, for what it’s worth, was not premised on moral and ethical equivalence broadly construed. Rather it was focused on a particular argument used on Eich’s behalf and how Sterling might fare under it. That there might not be other arguments, or other facts not assumed in that scenario that didn’t create some potential daylight between the two cases, was not something I intended or attempted to argue.

With that said, allow me to comment on the analytic poverty of Saletan’s approach to the question at hand. He poses the dilemma thusly:

If Sterling deserves to lose his team for being a racist—as the NBA has just affirmed—did Eich deserve to lose his job for opposing gay marriage?

Perhaps some people were committed to the proposition that Eich “deserved” to be forced out of his position at Mozilla (assuming he was). Many other people, including myself, dissented from Saletan’s histrionics on other grounds. My position was that Eich’s resignation was (merely) a non-injustice. I take no particular position on the question of what he deserves. That’s a far more difficult question; a great deal of the good and bad things that happen to us have little to do with what any of us deserve. A friend of mine was recently dumped by his girlfriend: he was a good guy who treated her well, but she didn’t want to be with him. Did he “deserve” that? No. Was it an injustice? Of course not. In our associational lives, including careers and relationships, the stuff that happens to us often has a great deal more to do with luck and chance than desert. In some ways, it’s almost certain that someone who’s had as much right-time right-place luck as Eich has had more success than he deserves, strictly speaking, if we were to try to construct a theory in which career success and desert are tightly linked.

Is this just nomenclature? John Rawls, a more thorough-going desert/justice relationship skeptic than I, replaces what many of us would would call desert with ‘legitimate expectations.’ If I win the lottery, for example, it’s silly to say I ‘deserve’ a million dollars. But I now have a legitimate expectation to get paid.

(Note–I wrote this a while ago but never finished it and didn’t intend to publish it–it may have been inadvertantly published in the 10th anniversary flurry of posts. In fact, my failure to finish and post it in real time is a good example of the anxieties I discuss in my anniversary post. Since it’s been up for a bit, I’ll leave it up, with a brief conclusion here:)

I’ve long felt that desert is overdone. It moralizes issues that shouldn’t necessarily be moralized, and suggest a greater precision than we can reasonably expect. Justice tolerates multiple possible outcomes for someone like Eich, where as desert implies getting the precisely correct one. Whatever contribution desert makes to a theory of justice it is sorely misapplied in this situation. Shifting to legitimate expectations, Eich losing his job over a political controversy seems well within the range of outcomes anyone taking a CEO job should reasonably expect.

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