In this post, David Benatar (U. Cape Town) discusses his article recently published in the Journal of Applied Philosophy on the paradox of desert, exploring the issues that arise from ‘acting rightly’ and the costs it may incur.

(C) David Benatar. Camondo Stairs, Galata, Istanbul, 2022

Imagine that you are a soldier fighting a militia that is embedded within an urban civilian population. You face situations in which, in the fog of war, you are unsure whether the person you confront is a civilian or a combatant, not least because the combatants you are fighting often dress like civilians. You can either shoot and ask questions later, or you can pause, even momentarily, to take stock, and risk being shot.

Depending on the precise circumstances, pausing may be either a moral requirement or merely supererogatory (that is, a case of going beyond the call of duty). Either way, the soldier who pauses is morally superior to the soldier who shoots without hesitation. However, there will be situations in which a soldier is killed precisely because he acted in the morally better way.

Understanding the paradox

This is only one example of what I call the “paradox of desert”. This paradox is not the familiar observation that “bad things happen to good people”. Instead, it is that the very thing, namely acting rightly, that incurs the cost, also makes the cost (especially) undeserved.

The paradox arises is various ways. It is not always the case that the person who fails to act rightly deserves the fate suffered by the person who does act rightly. This is partly because the phrase “acting rightly” can mean either “doing one’s duty” or “going beyond the call of duty”.

If, for example, pausing before shooting is supererogatory and not a moral requirement, then we certainly cannot say that the soldier who shoots deserves to die. However, even in such circumstances we can say that the soldier who pauses, least deserves to die.

Another reason why a person who does not act rightly may not deserve the fate that befalls the person who does act rightly, is that nobody may deserve that fate. For example, it is clearly unreasonable to think that somebody who fails to act as a whistle-blower deserves to die, even if that is the fate that befalls the person who is a whistle-blower. However, it remains the case that the whistle-blower is especially undeserving of paying the price of acting rightly.

The paradox of desert manifests very often, and not only in extraordinary circumstances such as war or whistleblowing. For example, extremely charitable people may give away so much of what they have, that they later find themselves unable to afford some important good, such as health care.

Similarly, a person who assiduously avoids contributing to global warming may, for that reason, be deprived of benefits, such as reunions with geographically distant but emotionally proximate relatives. By contrast, the person who flies without compunction thereby gains those benefits.

The paradox of desert has both retrospective and prospective manifestations. Retrospectively, we simply observe that somebody got what they least deserved. Prospectively, the paradox generates a dilemma for the person who is deciding whether to act rightly. Should you act rightly and pay the price, or should you not act rightly and thereby avoid a cost by not acting rightly? What you deserve is not fixed until you act, but however you act, you will get what you least deserve. That is paradoxical.

Responding to the paradox

One possible response to the paradox is to deny that the costs of acting rightly are net costs. This response will be effective in some situations. For example, charitable contributions can benefit not only the recipients of charity but also the givers.

However, while it is reasonable to think that acting rightly brings some reward, enough reward sometimes to outweigh the costs of acting rightly, it is implausible to think that the rewards of acting rightly always outweigh the costs. This is because of how severe the costs sometimes are. They might include death, considerable suffering, imprisonment, and social ostracism.

The paradox of desert does not have to arise in every circumstance. It need arise only sometimes, which it does when the costs of acting rightly are greater than any benefit of doing so. Indeed, it is very likely that the paradox of desert arises with great regularity. If we look carefully at the human world, we find that although it sometimes does pay to be good, the reverse is also often the case. This is not a license to act wrongly, although it may sometimes be a valid reason not to go beyond the call of duty. Recognizing the paradox of desert can itself have value. Although some instances of the paradox of desert are not avoidable, others are. At least collectively, we can limit the situations in which acting rightly is a net cost, and acting wrongly is a net benefit. Thus, if we recognize the paradox of desert, we can go some way to meliorating its manifestations.

The Journal of Applied Philosophy is a unique forum for philosophical research that seeks to make a constructive contribution to problems of practical concern. Open to the expression of diverse viewpoints, it brings the identification, justification, and discussion of values to bear on a broad spectrum of issues in environment, medicine, science, policy, law, politics, economics and education. The journal publishes in all areas of applied philosophy, and posts accessible summaries of its recent articles on Justice Everywhere.