The idea that a person is deserving of something, whether good or bad, captures the philosophical meaning of desert. It is importantly associated with other concepts in philosophy, including punishment, justice, praise, blame, and goodness. The following illustrates how desert relates to some of these concepts.
To ‘get what one deserves,’ for example, embodies the everyday notion of justice. Conversely, we tend to think that when a person does not get what he or she deserves, the outcome is unjust.
When a person bears a particular responsibility, and a person meets or exceeds the requirements entailed by that responsibility, we typically think that such a person is deserving of praise. When the responsibilities are not met, we generally think of the individual as deserving of blame or, in some cases, punishment.
We also tend to think that it is good to treat a person as they deserve and bad, or wrong, to treat them better or worse than they deserve. It is wrong, for example, to incarcerate a person when he or she is undeserving (when he or she has not committed a crime), or to issue capital punishment for a crime – for example, jaywalking – that does not merit such harsh punishment.
The concept of desert is also closely related to the concept of entitlement. When, for example, people profit by making shrewd (and legitimate) investments in the stock market, or a corporation profits through the ingenuity and innovation of its own employees, we generally think that the people, or the corporation, is deserving of their success. Moreover, they are entitled to the profits that they have earned.
If, however, the profits were gained illegitimately – through insider trading, for example, or fraud – we judge the individuals, or corporations, to not be entitled to the profits. Furthermore, people or corporations who have engaged in wrongdoing (i.e. fraud, deceit, insider trading) are often held to be deserving of punishment.« Back to Glossary Index