Two concepts of desert

Law and Philosophy 5 (2):219 - 235 (1986)
Abstract
In the first section I briefly consider some stituations in which standard desert-claims would be disputed, with the aim of revealing why and by whom they are asserted or denied. Having attained some understanding of the point of different desert-statements, I propose an accound of their content that entails the thesis that statements of positive desert (deserving something desirable) sharply differ in meaning from statements of negative desert (deserving something undesirable), even when expressed in the same form. In the second section I use this ambiguity thesis to argue against an appealing way of defending Hegel's claim that a wrongdoer has a right to be punished and against Kant's defense of the view that there is a duty to punish those who deserve it. I also show how an understanding of negative desert that recognizes the ambiguity thesis enables us to defend the ordinary view of mercy against Kantian criticisms and to reject the popular misconception that mercy is necessarily at odds with justice. In the third section I use the ambiguity thesis to rebut the common claim (found in Mill and Aristotle, among others) that it is unjust for a person to have or be given mone benefits than she deserves. I conclude by showing how an understanding of positive desert that recognizes the ambiguity thesis leads to a rejection both of certain complaints against traditional systems of private property and also of certain moralistic scruples that might give pause to those who acknowledge the moral duty to assist the needy.
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