In his book Elements of Justice (reviewed in the Journal of Markets & Morality here), University of Arizona philosophy and economics professor David Schmidtz introduces the idea of desert not simply as a compensatory notion, but also as including a promissory aspect. That is, what we deserve isn’t always about only what we have done. There might be a real sense in which what we do after an opportunity provides a kind of retroactive justification for having been given a chance.
There has been a flurry of negative reaction to the naming of President Obama as the recipient of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Even those in the mainstream media, considered by many to be rabidly pro-Obama, have noted that the committee must have been attempting to reward intentions rather than results.
Speaking of the concept of desert, Schmidtz writes that “what it needs to be in human affairs” is “a message of hope that is at the same time life’s greatest moral challenge.” It seems patently obvious that Obama does not deserve the Nobel Peace Prize according to any kind of compensatory calculus. The only even apparently viable justification, even if inadequate in the case of a prize like this, is promissory.
Others have noted what it might look like if potential starts becoming a valuable part of award formula. While the committee awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics this year to Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson, Greg Mankiw made the case for the potential and promise present in a first-year econ grad student.
More seriously, Francis Beckwith points out how the concept of “potential” fails to be applied where it is most deserved: in the case of the unborn.