- Free Will Skepticism and Personhood as a Desert Base
In contemporary free will theory, a significant number of philosophers are once again taking seriously the possibility that human beings do not have free will, and are therefore not morally responsible for their actions. (Free will is understood here as whatever satisfies the control condition of moral responsibility.) Free will theorists commonly assume that giving up the belief that human beings are morally responsible implies giving up all our beliefs about desert.1 But the consequences of giving up the belief that we are morally responsible are not quite this dramatic. Giving up the belief that we are morally responsible undermines many, and perhaps most, of the desert claims we are pretheoretically inclined to accept. But it does not undermine desert claims based [End Page 489] on the sheer fact of personhood. Even in the absence of belief in moral responsibility, personhood-based desert claims require us to respect persons and their rights.2 So personhood-based desert claims can provide a substantial role for desert in free will skeptics' ethical theories. This paper has four sections. In the first, I will explain the idea that desert claims can be based on personhood alone by way of a comparison with Saul Smilansky's account of desert. The second and third sections are arguments against claims that imply that skepticism about free will undermines personhood-based desert claims along with action-based desert claims. The second section is an argument against the claim that one's personhood can be a desert base only insofar as one is morally responsible for becoming a person, and the third section is an argument against the claim that personhood implies moral responsibility. In the fourth section, I will use an argument involving a version of Rawls' original position to sketch what justice would be if personhood were the only legitimate desert base. I will argue that even if the belief in moral responsibility is given up, and action-based desert claims are therefore rejected, personhood-based desert claims can be used to reconstruct legitimate analogues of action-based desert claims in some cases.
I The Idea of Personhood as a Desert Base, and a Comparison with Smilansky
To begin, let us consider in more detail why free will theorists often think that giving up the belief in moral responsibility implies giving up all our beliefs about desert. Joel Feinberg's idea of desert bases is helpful here (Feinberg, 1963).3 A desert base is whatever grounds a desert claim. It is widely agreed that an action can be a desert base only if an agent is morally responsible for that action. For example, it is only if an agent is morally responsible for an action that he can deserve to be blamed for it. This means that if one rejects the belief that agents are morally responsible, one must also reject the belief that actions are desert bases. But actions are the only kind of desert base typically under consideration in free will theory. This makes it natural for free will theorists to suppose that rejecting moral responsibility implies that there are [End Page 490] no legitimate desert bases. This does not follow, however, if actions are not the only kind of desert base.
It is by no means absurd to suppose that actions are the only kind of desert base, since the category of action-based desert claims is very broad. Desert claims about praise, blame, reward, and punishment are all typically based on actions, and desert claims about property are based on actions when construed in Lockean terms (i.e. in terms of the idea that one comes to deserve property when one 'mixes one's labor' with objects). Action-based desert claims also include claims that might initially appear to be character-based, because fair-minded ethicists recognize that legitimate desert claims can be based on agents' character-traits only if those agents have acted in such a way as to develop or cultivate those traits.4
Yet despite the breadth of the category of action-based desert claims, there are desert claims that cannot plausibly be supposed to...