Desert based theories of justice look good to me at some intuitive level. . . I mean, who wouldn’t want to give the morally best (and I’m assuming here the only definition of desert I could accept—desert meaning moral, for lack of a better word coming to me, uprightness) the most, and least reward to the most immoral.  The problem that I see with this system is related to the political problem of authority—who gets to decide?  In my conception, however, this is not the philosophical liberal critique that no conception of the good can be chosen—I think it can, and I will assume for my purposes that a society has agreed upon an objectively Right conception of the good.  My critique begins like this. . . we are all moral equals.  Our well being and ultimate potential give us equal moral worth, and as such, there must be a justification for one individual to have power over another to grant it legitimacy beyond force.  Democratic theorists and contractarians commonly claim that the source of this legitimacy is consent, for example.  Regardless of the source of the legitimacy of government in general, I am considering the possibility of legitimacy of desert determining distributive shares.

              These judgments of desert would have to be made from individuals within the government apparatus, choosing who is morally superior and who is morally inferior.  The only way to really determine this is through an examinations of someone’s historical actions, because one’s internal motivations cannot be determined (and I will not get into the problems posed by such information gathering).  Perhaps they weigh the overall number of “rights” versus “wrongs” in one’s historic actions, or perhaps they merely reward or punish over every year’s worth, considered in itself, or maybe even after every action.  Either way, the only way for this government to be legitimate in its determinations, I argue, is for it to be able to meet the moral standard.   In other words, anyone making these moral judgments in this society must be able to pass them—to judge the morality of another, one must be morally perfect for the judgment to be legitimate.  Otherwise, who are you to fail someone according to a standard you yourself cannot meet?  Even having a different set of historical wrongs from those you judge does not entitle you—perhaps you never murdered, but you didn’t give food to the needy to prevent death, or perhaps even used your connections to get out of a parking ticket.  While the latter is a comparably minor infraction, it shows that you yourself are morally imperfect, and under the rules of a desert based society imperfections must be counted.  I doubt that we could find even one morally perfect individual, and so I doubt the viability of a desert based distributive system.  It would suffer from moral hypocrisy, and consequently have no legitimacy.

              I do, however, think that society ought to help us approach perfection, but that such considerations are not the basis of distributive justice.  Instead, I propose that the purpose of punishment, for example, is to protect society and reform the criminal, and as such, minimal necessary means should be taken, and the basis of distributive justice should be something related to need.