Ragged Clown

It's just a shadow you're seeing that he's chasing…


Those are my tomatoes!

Sebastian inherited a tomato farm from his father. It’s a very productive farm of 2,000 acres. In his first year, Sebastian had a bumper crop and made over a million dollars.

Does Sebastian deserve all those tomatoes?

John Rawls wrote the most influential book on political philosophy of the twentieth century. In A Theory of Justice, Rawls argued that justice requires fairness which consists of liberty and equality.

The liberty principle says that everyone should have the same fundamental freedoms. Everyone should be free and equal with the right to vote, equal access to public office and to be treated according to the rule of law.

The equality principle has two parts:

1. Everyone should have equal access to opportunity.
2. Inequality is only allowed if it helps the least well-off (this one is complicated and I will come back to it).

Following the equality principle, Rawls would say that Sebastian did not deserve to inherit a tomato farm just because he was lucky enough to have rich parents. He certainly did not deserve to make a million dollars a year. Someone who does not have rich parents would not have the same opportunity.

Most people will not inherit a tomato farm. According to the equality principle, everyone should have equal access to opportunity. Sebastian did not deserve those tomatoes because no one deserves to be rewarded for the good fortune of having rich parents. I expect that we’d all agree with Rawls (except, maybe, Robert Nozick and Jacob Rees-Mogg) that no one deserves a tomato farm just because their parents were rich.

Those are my tomatoes!

Rawls goes further though. According to Rawls, no one deserves any reward that results from luck. Let’s consider another scenario.

Theresa has a natural talent for growing tomatoes. Theresa grew up in a poor family but her teacher gave her a tomato plant when she was twelve. Theresa nutured that plant and discovered that she had a natural talent for growing tomatoes. Every year, she sold her tomatoes and used the profits to buy more plants and, eventually, more land to grow her plants. By the time she was twenty-three, Theresa had acquired 2,000 acres and was making over a milllion dollars a year.

Does Theresa deserve all those tomatoes?

According to Rawls, none of us deserve rewards that result from ‘accidents of natural endowment and the contingencies of social circumstance’. Theresa was lucky to have a natural talent for growing tomatoes. It was an accident of natural endowment. Theresa did not deserve her tomato farm and she did not deserve the rewards that accrued from it.

A quick aside about the distinction between deserving a reward and being entitled to a reward. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy makes the following distinction (my phrasing and examples),

  1. An entitlement is created by a social institution such as the laws of a tennis club. If the tennis club says that the winner of the annual competition will be awarded £100, then the winner is entitled to the prize money.
  2. By contrast, desert comes from a moral sense that someone deserves a reward. Someone who cheats to win the tennis tournament (assuming they didn’t break any stated rules) might be entitled to the prize money but they did not deserve it.

If you win the lottery, you are entitled to the winnings under the rules of the lottery, but it’s hard to say that you deserve them. According to the law, Sebastian is entitled to his tomato farm but I’m sure we agree that he did nothing to deserve it. Rawls would say that Theresa does not deserve her tomato plants either because her natural talent for growing tomatoes came from luck. I disagree with Rawls. Someone who has a natural talent for growing tomatoes deserves the tomatoes that she grows and the profits she makes from selling them.

Let’s consider another case.

Miguel has no talent for growing tomatoes and he did not inherit a tomato farm from his parents. However, Miguel works hard. Theresa hires Miguel to work on her tomato farm and pays Miguel a portion of the profits. Miguel works hard and makes a lot of money from his hard work.

According to Rawls, Miguel’s predisposition to work hard also results from luck so Miguel does not deserve the rewards of his hard work. Perhaps Miguel got lucky and was born with Hard-Work genes or perhaps Miguel’s parents instilled in him the propensity to work hard. According to Rawls, Miguel was just lucky to develop a character trait that lazy people do not enjoy.

It seems to me that Rawls’s account does violence to the meaning of the word deserve. If we can’t reward talent, hard work, diligence, kindness or determination (all accidents of natural endowment or social circumstance) then the word means nothing useful at all.

I propose that, contra Rawls, we absolutely should reward talent, hard work, diligence, kindness or determination and the people who have these attributes and put them to productive use deserve to be rewarded more highly than people who do not.

Rawls said that, although they do not deserve special rewards, talented and hard-working citizens would be entitled to additional rewards if and only if they resulted in benefits to the least well-off in society and I will consider this in a separate post.