There’s No Need to Rethink Desert: A Reply to Pummer


Pummer (Philosophical Review 123(1): 43–77, 2014) ingeniously wraps together issues from the personal identity literature with issues from the literature on desert. However, I wish to take issue with the main conclusion that he draws, namely, that we need to rethink the following principle: Desert.: When people culpably do very wrong or bad acts, they deserve punishment in the following sense: at least other things being equal they ought to be made worse off, simply in virtue of the fact that they culpably did wrong—even if they have repented, are now virtuous, and punishing them would benefit no one. (Pummer Philosophical Review 123(1):43–77, 2014: 43–44) Pummer offers an argument that is intended to show that this principle, along with widely-held views about personal identity, entails an inconsistent triad of propositions. I agree. But I think Pummer's argument attacks a straw man. I believe that no-one holds Desert, at least as it is stated, and that once the principle is stated correctly it is easy to see that no inconsistent triad follows from it. So, Desert does not need rethinking. It just needs to be stated correctly.

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  1. 1.

    Pummer is clear that this argument fails for a limited number of views about personal identity, e.g. the Simple view according to which there is a (brute) fact in cases of fission about which of the resultant persons is identical with the original. But Pummer assumes for the sake of argument that any such view is false. (Pummer 2014: 46) At any rate, his argument should be endorsed by anyone who holds one of a wide variety of views on personal identity, including the views advanced by Shoemaker (1984), Parfit (1971), Lewis (1976) and Olson (1997). So Pummer’s argument has a wide scope.

  2. 2.

    See McLeod et al. (2013) for an excellent overview of the literature on desert. McLeod’s review contains references to seventy-two philosophers nearly all of who explicitly endorse the view that desert has at least these three ingredients.

  3. 3.

    Incidentally, Numbers Matter FUSION (which, remember, is (ii) of the Fusion Problem) implies both (1.) Dorothy deserves the same punishment as the resultant person in Multi Fusion, and (2.) Carol deserves less punishment than the resultant person in Multi Fusion. But (1.), (2.) and (i) of the Fusion Problem (i.e. Dorothy deserves the same punishment as Carol) are mutually inconsistent. So, no matter what one says regarding (iii) of the Fusion Problem (i.e. Division Multiplies Desert), if one maintains Desert one must reject either (i) or (ii).

  4. 4.

    Incidentally, I don’t think Numbers Matter actually has anything to do with Desert. I am inclined to say that in the cases that it applies to each person deserves exactly the same amount of punishment as they would deserve were we able to give them as much individual punishment as we wanted (so, no matter how large n is, each n still deserves 20 years of punishment). It is just that, in such cases, we have no way to give everyone the punishment they deserve. The issue here, then, seems to me to be one of fairness, i.e. the issue is how to punish each fairly given that each deserves a certain amount of punishment. Cases like First Angela Divides, by contrast, concern how much punishment we should give to a single person, and so do concern issues of desert. At any rate, I here concede for the sake of argument that Numbers Matter does concern Desert, i.e., I concede for the sake of argument that our intuitions about how much punishment we should give to each person are intuitions not about fairness but about how much punishment they deserve.


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Correspondence to Benjamin L. Curtis.

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Curtis, B.L. There’s No Need to Rethink Desert: A Reply to Pummer. Philosophia 43, 999–1010 (2015).

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  • Desert
  • Personal identity