The basic tenet of virtue ethics lies in the argument that it is imperative not only to perform the right action but also to posses the suitable disposition, inspirations, and emotions in being good and aspiring to do good.
The ethical moralists postulate that our ethical standards should not only be judged according to our actions but also according to our own emotions, character, intentions and moral habit. It is against this backdrop that Pojman, a social philosopher, came up with his moral assertion that individuals “should strive to form a world in which the virtuous are rewarded and the vicious punished in proportion to their relative deserts.” Although very many propositions have been formulated around the philosophy of virtue ethics and the laws of justice in the recent past, Pojman’s assertion that individuals should be rewarded or punished according to their relative deserts have raised a lot of heated arguments. The proposition’s appropriateness in solving contemporary issues is the object of this discussion. To properly evaluate the proposition and its appropriateness, it is imperative to understand what is really meant by such phrases as merit and desert. The term merit is used to denote any feature or characteristic that is used as a basis for dispensing either positive or negative attributions such as praise, prizes, censure and punishment.
On the other hand, the notion of desert, though vaguely understood, is deeply ingrained in everyday morality. For purposes of this discussion, desert will be used to represent a condition or action that deserves a response – either positive or negative. For example, thieves deserve punishment for perpetuating acts of crime. Going back to the main argument, it is indeed true that Pojman’s proposition have triggered a lot of discussion towards ascertaining the authenticity and moral practicability of the argument. At best, the proposition has received an equal measure of support and criticism from individuals and systems such as the criminal justice system. According to this argument, individuals should receive rewards or punishment based on the exact measure of their actions. In this perspective, I do not agree with his proposition since it advocates for some humiliating and retributive actions that continues to have negative effects on the society. For instance, this ethical proposition validates the practice of execution and beheadings for murderers by making passionate appeals to the fundamental principle of retribution used in many criminal justice systems around the world.
It is imperative to note that retributive theories functions by evaluating the nature of the offence and imposing some form of punishment depending on the evaluation. This proposition means that murderers will forever be condemned to the gallows, lethal injections, or electric chairs. While it is widely agreeable that imposing a death penalty to a murderer is a just punishment, individuals are not morally obligated to execute the wrongdoers. The second argument put against this proposition is based on the fact that it is almost impossible to quantify the deserts used to allocate rewards or punishments to individuals. Here, the problem exhibits itself through his stance that rewards and punishments must be based on the relative deserts of individuals. For instance, can we justify rewarding an individual for returning a stolen parcel to its rightful owner due to fear of being reported by his child who accidentally witnessed the robbery? Although the owner of the parcel may reward the individual for returning the parcel, the ethical concepts discussed in this paper clearly demonstrates that such an individual ought to have been punished. This example reveals that it is possible to punch holes into Pojman’s proposition based on the fact that any system or society aiming to distribute rewards and punishments according to individual deserts will be engaging in a hopelessly impractical undertaking.
Newspapers are full of stories about individuals who have been wrongly convicted or released by the criminal justice systems because their deserts were either overrepresented or underrepresented. The above arguments shows that it is often hard to determine a person’s individual moral merit, level of personal effort or productivity while pursing good or evil aims, and so on, then go ahead to allocate the benefits and burdens accordingly. In this perspective, Pojman’s assertion is a non-starter. Third, Pojman’s proposition has attracted a lot of criticism from human rights and religious groups for its somewhat radical approach. For instance, many Christians feel that the proposition goes against biblical teachings since it advocates ‘eye-for-eye’ type of interrelationship.
Human rights activists have often claimed that such a proposition is used by religious fundamentalists to perpetuate their murderous beheadings. While I may not dwell on issues of religion and human rights, concerns have been raised about the inability and ineptitude of this proposition to reform wrongdoers in most criminal justice systems. The concept of rewarding the virtuous and punishing the vicious is indeed a noble undertaking for any society. However, the problem lies in using the same measure, known as relative desert, to reward or punish individuals. Hardworking and virtuous individuals should be encouraged to remain this way through offering more incentives.
In the same vein, research have revealed that criminals who are convicted using retributive justice systems, often informed by Pojman’s kind of thinking, end up becoming more hardened as they are given little or no chance to reform themselves. As such, Pojman’s proposition does not serve the best interests of society. In essence, utilitarian theories, which lay their focus on deterrence and prevention, are increasingly been used in our criminal justice systems as they are supportive of the rehabilitation and reformation component of most criminal justice systems. All said and done, it is clear that Pojman’s proposition bears a lot of loopholes. The moral proposition has exemplary intentions in that good work should always be rewarded and bad work punished. For instance, a doctor who causes anguish to a patient by providing the wrong prescription deserves punishment; but the theory misrepresent practical facts and realities when it suggests that the punishment meted to the doctor must be exactly relative to the anguish caused to the patient. This is both conceptually and materially impractical. In this perspective, I beg to differ with Pojman’s assertion that individuals deserve what they earn.