Does individual desert matter for distributive justice? Is it relevant, for purposes of justice, that the pattern of distribution of justice’s “currency” (be it well-being, resources, preference-satisfaction, capabilities, or something else) is aligned in one or another way with the pattern of individual desert?
This paper examines the nexus between desert and distributive justice through the lens of individual claims. The concept of claims (specifically “claims across outcomes”) is a fruitful way to flesh out the content of distributive justice so as to be grounded in the separateness of persons. A claim is a relation between a person and a pair of outcomes. If someone is better off in one outcome than a second, she has a claim in favor of the first. If she is equally well off in the two outcomes, she has a null claim between the two. In turn, whether one outcome is more just than a second depends upon the pattern of claims between them.
In prior work, I have elaborated the concept of claims across outcomes, and have used it to provide a unified defense of the Pareto and Pigou-Dalton axioms. Adding some further, plausible, axioms, we arrive at prioritarianism.
Here, I consider the possibility of desert-modulated claims—whereby the strength of an individual’s claim between two outcomes is determined not only by her well-being levels in the two outcomes, and her well-being difference between them, but also by her desert. This generalization of the notion of claims suggests a new axiom of justice: Priority for the More Deserving, requiring that, as between two individuals at the same well-being level, a given increment in well-being be allocated to the more deserving one.
If individual desert is intrapersonally fixed, this new axiom, together with a desert-modulated version of the Pigou-Dalton principle, and the Pareto axioms, yields a desert-modulated prioritarian account of distributive justice. Trouble arises, however, if an individual’s desert level can be different in different outcomes. In this case of intrapersonally variable desert, Priority for the More Deserving can conflict with the Pareto axioms (both Pareto indifference and strong Pareto).
This conflict, I believe, is sufficient reason to abandon the proposal to make claim strength a function of individual desert on top of well-being levels and differences. If distributive justice is truly sensitive to each individual’s separate perspective—if the justice ranking of outcomes is built up from the totality of individual rankings—we should embrace the Pareto axioms as axioms of justice and reject Priority for the More Deserving. In short: desert-modulated prioritarianism is a nonstarter. Rawls was right to sever distributive justice from desert.