Lucky and Deserving

Matthew Miller makes the same old mistakes in discussing luck as a mechanism of distribution. Suppose that some people have more because they got lucky, and not because they work harder. Or suppose they do work harder, but only because they were lucky enough to have genes that confer a high level of internal motivation, or because they had outstanding early childhood training by their parents. In either case, they have what they have in virtue of luck.

Now there are two related bad arguments often heard in the train of this supposition, and Miller seems to make them both. First, you might argue that if someone received something ultimately on the basis of luck, then they don't deserve it. That doesn't follow. Second, you might argue that if someone doesn't deserve something, then it is legitimate for somebody else to take it from them and give it to somebody else. That certainly doesn't follow.

Regarding the first bad argument… If our natural and developed dispositions are a matter of luck, then pretty much everything is. What's the opposite of something coming about through luck? Well, something coming about intentionally, through our efforts. But I can bring things about intentionally, and effortfully, and be fully responsible for it, even if my ability to devise those intentions, and to put forth that effort, are simply manifestations of my genetic endowment. Miller brings up the free will issue, but muffs it. We do have free will. And free will is a condition for ascribing responsibility and desert. But having free will doesn't require the absence of luck ALL THE WAY DOWN. Free will requires LOCAL control of the relevant kind. So if I tried hard and I brought something about through my effort, I was in control, and I'm responsible and deserving, even if I'm not ULTIMATELY responsible for being so good at trying hard. Nobody is ULTIMATELY responsible for anything in a deterministic universe. But the roles our ordinary concepts of responsibility and desert play in self- and social coordination require no such grandly transcendental conceptions of ultimate responsibility. So there is no conflict between being lucky at some level and being deserving.

Even lottery winners, those exemplars of luck, in one important sense can be said to deserve their winnings: all participants of the lottery explicitly agreed to a principle of distribution according to which any participant holding the randomly selected number is entitled to the money in the lottery pool. So, although the principle of distribution is entirely based in randomness, the immensely lucky winner is fully entitled to the winnings.

The second bad inference is even worse. The first obvious point is that if Bob, say, doesn't really deserve his million dollars, even though, prima facie, he earned it, then neither does Carol, who tried just as hard but didn't earn it. It can't be the case that even if you seemed to earn it, you didn't really deserve it, but that if you seemed to earn it, but didn't get it, then you really do deserve it. Even worse, imagine Ted, who didn't try hard at all and has nothing. Now, it's not his fault that he didn't try hard. But it's not Bob's fault either. How does Ted's sad fate give HIM an entitlement that you can't even get by trying? If Bob doesn't deserve his money, then probably NOBODY does.

But, of course, general compatibilist reasoning tells us that Bob can full well be responsible for, and thus deserve, his money, even if he got quite lucky in the genetic lottery. (For good summaries of state of the art compatibilism see my old prof Tomis Kapitan and my old roommate's old prof Bill Lycan, both a bit technical.) We all perfectly well recognize the obvious gaping difference between stumbling over a sack of unmarked 20's, and creating wealth through ingenuity and effort, even when under a halo of natural advantage.

But suppose Ted does deserve some of Bob's money, and Ted is under some kind of obligation to let gim have some of it. Even WORSE YET is the argument that if Bob doesn't deserve his money, then somebody else, say Alice, is entitled to coercively appropriate it in order to give it to Ted. Maybe all that follows is that Bob's a real jerk, morally speaking, if he doesn't voluntarily yield some of his income to charity. But let's think about how Alice could get an entitlement to political power? Suppose we say it was through a democratic process. HOW DOES THIS HELP?! If Bob can't be entitled to his economic power gained through a series of voluntary exchanges for mutual benefit, then Alice can't be entitled to her political power through a series of elections, because SHE JUST GOT LUCKY TOO. She just HAPPENED to have a nice smile, to be an articulate public speaker, and a great social networker. The luck argument, if it is good, PROVES WAY TOO MUCH, and undermine the legitimacy of unequal political power just as much as it undermines the legitimacy of unequal economic power. If we're as extreme about the relationship between luck and desert (namely that one vitiates the other) as Rawls seems to be, then it's hard to see how any distribution of anything can be legitimate. And that includes any REdistribution of anything.

One might argue that sure, this entails that no INDIVIDUAL is really entitled to anything in particular. But this gives us a nice rationale to socialize all the goods within a society (including the capriciously distributed talents) and then decide how to distribute them. If we derive our principles of redistribution in an ideal manner, such that everyone would agree to be bound by them (were they thinking about it under ideal conditions), then an implementation of those principles will be sort of like the lottery case. Nobody will “deserve” what they have, in the sense that the guy whose number got pulled didn't really “deserve” a million dollars. But everyone will be entitled to what they get, because they got it according to principles they would have agreed to. Perhaps more on why this is silly later. (Homework: Can there be a Rawlsian difference principle for the justification of political inequalities?)

For now, suffice it to say, that (1) it's hard to see how getting lucky cuts against desert, unless it is at the level of control relevant to ascriptions of responsibility, praise, blame, etc. And (2) it is especially mysterious how the argument that nobody really deserves anything can somehow delegitimize economic inequality while not also delegitimizing the sort of political inequality necessary to carry out any sort of corrrective redistribution.