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On Moral Desert: Intuition vs Rationality

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So what exactly is moral desert?  Well, in a nutshell, it is what someone deserves as a result of their actions as defined within the framework of some kind of moral theory.  Generally when people talk about moral desert, it’s often couched in terms of punishment and reward, and our intuitions (whether innate or culturally inherited) often produce strong feelings of knowing exactly what kinds of consequences people deserve in response to their actions.  But if we think about our ultimate goals in implementing any reasonable moral theory, we should quickly recognize the fact that our ultimate moral goal is to have ourselves and everybody else simply abide by that moral theory.  And we want that in order to guide our behavior and the behavior of those around us in ways that are conducive to our well being.  Ultimately, we want ourselves and others to act in ways that maximize our personal satisfaction — and not in a hedonistic sense — but rather to maximize our sense of contentment and living a fulfilled life.

If we think about scenarios that seem to merit punishment or reward, it would be useful to keep our ultimate moral goal in mind.  The reason I mention this is because, in particular, our feelings of resentment toward those that have wronged us can often lead one to advocate for an excessive amount of punishment to the wrongdoer.  Among other factors, vengeance and retribution often become incorporated into our intuitive sense of justice.  Many have argued that retribution itself (justifying “proportionate” punishment by appealing to concepts like moral desert and justice) isn’t a bad thing, even if vengeance — which lacks inherent limits on punishment, involves personal emotions from the victim, and other distinguishing factors — is in fact a bad thing.  While thinking about such a claim, I think it’s imperative that we analyze our reasons for punishing a wrongdoer in the first place and then analyze the concept of moral desert more closely.

Free Will & It’s Implications for Moral Desert

Another relevant topic I’ve written about in several previous posts is the concept of free will.  This is an extremely important concept to parse out here, because moral desert is most often intimately tied to the positive claim of our having free will.  That is to say, most concepts of moral desert, whereby it is believed that people deserve punishment and reward for actions that warrant it, fundamentally relies on the premise that people could have chosen to do otherwise but instead chose the path they did out of free choice.  While there are various versions of free will that philosophers have proposed, they all tend to revolve around some concept of autonomous agency.  The folk psychological conception of free will that most people subscribe to is some form of deliberation that is self-caused in some way thus ruling out randomness or indeterminism as the “cause”, since randomness can’t be authored by the autonomous agent, and also ruling out non-randomness or determinism as well, since an unbroken chain of antecedent causes can’t be authored by the autonomous agent either.

So as to avoid a long digression, I’m not going to expound upon all the details of free will and the various versions that others have proposed, but will only mention that the most relevant version that is tied to moral desert is generally some form of having the ability to have chosen to do otherwise (ignoring randomness).  Notice that because indeterminism or determinism is a logical dichotomy, these are the only two options that can possibly exist to describe the ontological underpinnings of our universe (in terms of causal laws that describe how the state of the universe changes over time).  Quantum mechanics allows either of these two options to exist given their consistency with the various interpretations therein that are all empirically identical with one another, but there is no third option available, so quantum mechanics doesn’t buy us any room for this kind of free will either.  Since neither option can produce any form of self-caused or causa sui free will (sometimes referred to as libertarian free will), then the intuitive concept of moral desert that relies on said free will is also rendered impossible if not altogether meaningless.  Therefore moral desert can only exist as a coherent concept if it no longer contains within it any assumptions of the moral agent having an ability to have chosen to do otherwise (again, ignoring randomness).  So what does this realization imply for our preconceptions of justified punishment or even justice itself?

At the very least, the concept of moral desert that is involved in these other concepts needs to be reformulated or restricted given the impossibility and thus the non-existence of libertarian free will.  So if we are to say that people “deserve” anything at all morally speaking (such as a particular punishment), it can only be justified let alone meaningful in some other sense, such as a consequentialist goal that the implementation of the “desert” (in this case, the punishment) effectively accomplishes.  Punishing the wrongdoer can no longer be a means of their getting their due so to speak, but rather needs to be justified by some other purpose such as rehabilitation, future crime deterrence, and/or restitution for the victim (to compensate for physical damages, property loss, etc.)  With respect to this latter factor, restitution, there is plenty of wiggle room here for some to argue for punishment on the grounds of it simply making the victim feel better (which I suppose we could call a form of psychological restitution).  People may try to justify some level of punishment based on making the victim feel better, but vengeance should be avoided at all costs, and one needs to carefully consider what justifications are sufficient (if any) for punishing another with the intention of simply making the victim feel better.

Regarding psychological restitution, it’s useful to bring up the aforementioned concepts of retribution and vengeance, and appreciate the fact that vengeance can easily result in cases where no disinterested party performs the punishment or decides its severity, and instead the victim (or another interested party) is involved with these decisions and processes.  Given the fact that we lack libertarian free will, we can also see how vengeance is not rationally justifiable and therefore why it is important that we take this into account not only in terms of society’s methods of criminal behavioral correction but also in terms of how we behave toward others that we think have committed some wrongdoing.

Deterrence & Fairness of Punishment

As for criminal deterrence, I was thinking about this concept the other day and thought about a possible conundrum concerning its justification (certain forms of deterrence anyway).  If a particular punishment is agreed upon within some legal system on the grounds that it will be sufficient to rehabilitate the criminal (and compensate the victim sufficiently) and an additional amount of punishment is tacked on to it merely to serve as a more effective deterrent, it seems that it would lack justification, with respect to treating the criminal in a fair manner.

To illustrate this, consider the following: if the criminal commits the crime, they are in one of two possible epistemic states — either they knew about the punishment that would follow from committing the crime beforehand, or they didn’t.  If they didn’t know this, then the deterrence addition of the punishment wouldn’t have had the opportunity to perform its intended function on the potential criminal, in which case the criminal would be given a harsher sentence than is necessary to rehabilitate them (and to compensate the victim) which should be the sole purpose of punishing them in the first place (to “right” a “wrong” and to minimize behavioral recurrences).  How could this be justified in terms of what is a fair and just treatment of the criminal?

And then, on the other hand, if they did know the degree of punishment that would follow committing such a crime, but they committed the crime anyway, then the deterrence addition of the punishment failed to perform its intended function even if it had the opportunity to do so.  This would mean that the criminal is once again, given a punishment that is harsher than what is needed to rehabilitate them (and also to compensate the victim).

Now one could argue in the latter case that there are other types of justification to ground the harsher deterrence addition of the punishment.  For example, one could argue that the criminal knew beforehand what the consequences would be, so they can’t plead ignorance as in the first example.  But even in the first example, it was the fact that the deterrence addition was never able to perform its function that turned out to be most relevant even if this directly resulted from the criminal lacking some amount of knowledge.  Likewise, in the second case, even with the knowledge at their disposal, the knowledge was useless in actualizing a functional deterrent.  Thus, in both cases the deterrent failed to perform its intended function, and once we acknowledge that, then we can see that the only purposes of punishment that remain are rehabilitation and compensation for the victim.  One could still try and argue that the criminal had a chance to be deterred, but freely chose to commit the crime anyway so they are in some way more deserving of the additional punishment.  But then again, we need to understand that the criminal doesn’t have libertarian free will so it’s not as if they could have done otherwise given those same conditions, barring any random fluctuations.  That doesn’t mean we don’t hold them responsible for their actions — for they are still being justifiably punished for their crime — but it is the degree of punishment that needs to be adjusted given our knowledge that they lack libertarian free will.

Now one could further object and say that the deterrence addition of the punishment isn’t intended solely for the criminal under our consideration but also for other possible future criminals that may be successfully deterred from the crime given such a deterrence addition (even if this criminal was not).  Regardless of this pragmatic justification, that argument still doesn’t justify punishing the criminal, in such a way, if we are to treat the criminal in a fair way based on their actions alone.  If we bring other possible future criminals into the justification, then the criminal is being punished not only for their wrongdoing but in excess for hypothetical reasons concerning other hypothetical offenders — which is not at all fair.  So we can grant the fact that some may justify these practices on pragmatic consequentialist grounds, but they aren’t consistent with a Rawslian conception of justice as fairness.  Which means they aren’t consistent with many anti-consequentialist views (such as Kantian deontologists for example) that often promote strong conceptions of justice and moral desert in their ethical frameworks.


In summary, I wanted to reiterate the fact that even if our intuitive conceptions of moral desert and justice sometimes align with our rational moral goals, they often lack rational justification and thus often serve to inhibit the implementation of any kind of rational moral theory.  They often produce behaviors that are vengeful, malicious, sadistic, and most often counter-productive to our actual moral goals.  We need to incorporate the fact that libertarian free will does not (and logically can not) exist, into our moral framework, so that we can better strive to treat others fairly even if we still hold people responsible in some sense for their actions.

We can still hold people responsible for their actions (and ought to) by replacing the concept of libertarian free will with a free will conception that is consistent with the laws of physics, with psychology, and neurology, by proposing for example that people’s degree of “free will” with respect to some action is inversely proportional to the degree of conditioning needed to modify such behavior.  That is to say, the level of free will that we have with respect to some kind of behavior is related to our ability to be programmed and reprogrammed such that the behavior can (at least in principle) be changed.

Our punishment-reward systems then (whether in legal, social, or familial domains), should treat others as responsible agents only insofar as to protect the members of that society (or group) from harm and also to induce behaviors that are conducive to our physical and psychological well being — which is the very purpose of our having any reasonable moral theory (that is sufficiently motivating to follow) in the first place.  Anything that goes above and beyond what is needed to accomplish this is excessive and therefore not morally justified.  Following this logic, we should see that many types of punishment including, for example, the death penalty, are entirely unjustified in terms of our moral goals and the strategies of punishment that we should implement to accomplish those goals.  As the saying goes, an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, and thus barbaric practices such as inflicting pain or suffering (or death sentences) simply to satisfy some intuitions need to be abolished and replaced with an enlightened system that relies on rational justifications rather than intuition.  Only then can we put the primitive, inhumane moral systems of the past to rest once and for all.

We need to work with our psychology (not only the common trends between most human beings but also our individual idiosyncrasies) and thus work under the pretense of our varying degrees of autonomy and behavioral plasticity.  Only then can we maximize our chances and optimize our efforts in attaining fulfilling lives for as many people as possible living in a society.  It is our intuitions (products of evolution and culture) that we must be careful of, as they can (and often have throughout history) led us astray to commit various moral atrocities.  All we can do is try to overcome these moral handicaps the best we can through means of reason and rationality, but we have to acknowledge that these problems exist before we can face them head on and subsequently engineer the right kinds of societal changes to successfully reach our moral goals.