Reading Guide For Miller

“The Concept of Desert”

Chapter 8 of Social Justice, eds. Clayton & Williams, pp.186-200


In this article David Miller offers an explanation of concept of desert and a defense of its role in our thinking about social justice. In large part Miller is responding to the claim of Rawls and others that judgments of desert are ultimately arbitrary and therefore have no place in a just society. As you read this essay, it will be helpful to keep in mind not only Rawls’s objections to the concept of desert, but Nozick’s idea of entitlement and Anderson’s critique of luck egalitarianism.


• Explanation of skepticism about desert
• Primary judgments of desert distinguished from secondary judgments of desert
• Intention distinguished from motive; relationship of both to desert
• Judgments of desert as basic, related to performance
• Judgments of merit as secondary judgments of desert
• Sham judgments of desert
• Integral luck distinguished from circumstantial luck
• Discussion of how circumstantial luck does and does not bear on desert
• A reply to the Rawlsian argument that desert is grounded on arbitrary characteristics
• A defense of the role of desert in moral judgment
• Four categories of judgments about desert
• A defense of desert as a criterion of social justice

Study Questions

1. What does Miller think are the sources of skepticism about desert? What do critics of desert think that appeals to desert actually wind up doing?

2. In the second section of the essay, Miller makes two key distinctions. Explain both:
a. The distinction between primary and secondary judgments of desert
b. The distinction between intent and motivation

3. Miller argues that desert is created only upon performance, and the judgment that someone deserves something on the basis of performance is basic. What does Miller mean by ‘basic’ in this sense? Do you agree with him about this? Why or why not?

4. How is desert different from merit, according to Miller? Give an example of your own that illustrates the difference between desert and merit.

5. When, on Miller’s account, is a judgment of desert a “sham judgment”? Would the judgment that all human beings deserve a life of freedom from extreme poverty be a sham judgment on this view? Why or why not?

6. Section IV of the essay is about the relationship of desert and talent. Recall that Rawls argues that since possession of talents is accidental and arbitrary, there is no special entitlement to anything one gains through the use of talents. How does Miller respond to this claim? With whom do you agree more? Defend your position

7. In the last section of the essay Miller takes up the question of how desert should enter into our thinking about social justice. He answers this question by describing four categories of judgments about desert that he thinks bear on judgments of social justice. Describe each of these categories.

8. Having read Rawls, Nozick, and Miller, you are now in a position to consider the following question:

To what degree, if at all, is it just for one’s entitlement to what one earns (i.e. one’s deserts) to be compromised in order to provide for the urgent needs of others in unchosen circumstances of desperation?

Reflect on this question and answer it as best you can, drawing on the readings you’ve done. Support your answer thoroughly. If it helps you, you may focus your answer on a specific good, such as health care, education, or wealth.

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