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Do You Deserve To Be Talented?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 February 2011

Universidad Torcuato Di Tella (Buenos Aires, Argentina)


Are inborn characteristics deserved or undeserved? Using Bertrand Russell's theory of descriptions and Peter Strawson's objection to this theory, I argue that this question does not make sense. In order to know whether a person deserves something she has, it is necessary to evaluate what she did before having it. But people did not exist before their birth, so they did not exist before having their inborn characteristics. Therefore, talking about people deserving their inborn characteristics does not make sense: these characteristics are neither deserved nor undeserved.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2011

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1 This argument could refer to natural inborn characteristics, like talent or a physical disability, or social inborn characteristics, like the high or low socioeconomic power of one's family.

2 Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice, rev. edn. (Cambridge, Mass., 1999), pp. 86–7Google Scholar. See also Rawls, John, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, ed. Kelly, Erin (Cambridge, Mass., 2003), pp. 74–5Google Scholar, 79. Finally, see Nagel, Thomas, ‘Justice and Nature’, Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 2 (1997), pp. 303–21CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 309.

3 The term ‘luck egalitarianism’ was introduced by Anderson, Elizabeth in ‘What is the Point of Equality?’, Ethics 109 (1999), pp. 287337CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 290.

4 Ronald Dworkin, for instance, claims that inborn disadvantages must be compensated: see Dworkin, Ronald, Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality (Cambridge, Mass., 2000), pp. 90–2Google Scholar. And so does Cohen, Gerald in ‘On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice’, Ethics 99 (1989), pp. 906–44CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 931–2.

5 Nagel, Thomas, ‘Moral Luck’, Moral Luck, ed. Statman, Daniel (Albany, NY, 1993), pp. 60Google Scholar, 64–6.

6 Russell, Bertrand, ‘On Denoting’, Mind 14 (1905), pp. 479–93CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 Strawson, Peter Federick, ‘On Referring’, Mind 59 (1950), pp. 320–44CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 Russell, ‘On Denoting’, pp. 479–93.

9 The two remaining groups are formed by (1) sentences involving phrases that denote a definite object, like ‘the present Queen of England’, and (2) sentences involving phrases that denote ambiguously (like ‘a man’). See Russell, ‘On Denoting’, p. 479.

10 Russell, ‘On Denoting’, pp. 480–2.

11 I assume that Russell's analysis could be applied to sentences that include proper names, like ‘Lionel’. However, I could replace ‘Lionel’ with a description of Lionel, such as ‘the football player who plays in the Football Club Barcelona team and was born in Rosario city’. I also assume that Russell's analysis could be applied to other sentences that do not contain descriptions, like ‘People did nothing to have their inborn characteristics’. It is unnecessary to construct sentences that contain descriptions of each and every individual person.

12 Although Paris exists now, the sentence ‘Paris did nothing to have her inborn characteristics’ refers to an inexistent person because the expression ‘did nothing to have’ refers to Paris before her birth.

13 Strawson, ‘On Referring’, pp. 320–44.

14 Strawson distinguishes between a sentence and its use. A sentence is meaningful in itself and does not have truth-value. But a sentence could be used as an assertion which is true, false, or this sentence could be spuriously used. It depends on the context in which the sentence is uttered. See Strawson, ‘On Referring’, pp. 324–8. In this article I leave this distinction aside.

15 Strawson, ‘On Referring’, p. 331.

16 Strawson, ‘On Referring’, p. 330.

17 David Schmidtz claims that a person could deserve a good if she does certain things when she already has it. Under this conception, talking about people deserving their inborn advantages could make sense. See Schmidtz, David, Elements of Justice (New York, 2006), pp. 4054CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

18 This distinction is also drawn by Flew, Antony, Equality in Liberty and Justice (New Brunswick, NJ, 2001), p. 150Google Scholar.

19 In criminal law, ‘not deserved’ and ‘undeserved’ are on a par. Punishing a person who had not been born when the crime was committed and punishing an innocent person who had been born are equally unfair. In this case, these expressions are on a par due to the functions of punishment: arguably, re-education, deterrence and retribution. These two persons do not need to be re-educated, punishing them does not dissuade potential criminals and there is no evil to be retributed.

20 Russell contemplates this. For him, the sentence ‘The King of France is not bald’ is true if and only if it means that it is false that the King of France exists and is bald. See Russell, ‘On Denoting’, p. 490. Note that ‘is not bald’ is irrelevant. This sentence simply says that the King of France does not exist.

21 The idea of identifying luck with lack of control was introduced by Thomas Nagel, ‘Moral Luck’, p. 59.

22 An earlier version of this article was presented at the Faculty Seminar of the Escuela de Derecho, Universidad Torcuato Di Tella in August 2009. I am grateful to my audience there. I also thank Martín Hevia, Horacio Spector, Guido Pincione, Eduardo Rivera López, Marcelo Ferrante, Damián Trabilsi, the editor of this journal and two anonymous reviewers for their comments and advice.