Philosophy Ph.D. Dissertations


Desert in Context

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)



First Advisor

Steven Wall

Second Advisor

Fred D. Miller, Jr. (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Jeffrey Moriarty (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Ellen F. Paul (Committee Member)


The two main goals of this dissertation are to provide a clear and practical conception of desert that is applicable across distributive contexts and to provide a detailed account of the role that desert can and should have in different contexts on different levels of a just society. This dissertation advances the view that desert is an important, but not the only important, conceptual component of justice. In addition to offering a defense of the concept of desert itself and its use as a distributive criterion, the dissertation provides a detailed conceptual account of desert. The dissertation advocates a conception of desert in distributive contexts that is based on a person's efforts and performances, and it includes important distinctions between different types of desert and between desert and other important distributive concepts. A main contention in this work is that, since desert is an important conceptual component of justice, it should always be considered when questions of justice arise.

John Rawls has written about the basic structure of a society, which he understands to be the structure of a society's major political and social institutions. Rawls rejects the idea that desert is an important criterion that must be accounted for in basic-structure principles of justice. While giving special attention to Rawls's difference principle, the dissertation examines certain difficulties surrounding his rejection of desert as an important component of basic-structure justice. The opposing view of this dissertation is that, if they are to be just, basic-structure principles must leave room for desert in various contexts so that it is not trumped by some overarching social concern. In addition, the dissertation advances the view that the use of desert as a distributive criterion is most appropriate in local contexts. The dissertation ends with an examination of the role of desert in certain issues of local justice, such as employment and university admissions decisions, and with an examination of the extent to which the use of seniority and affirmative action policies track, and can be justified on the basis of, desert.