Two Kinds of Desert

22 Pages Posted: 6 Oct 2023

See all articles by David O. Brink

David O. Brink

University of California, San Diego; University of San Diego School of Law

Date Written: September 24, 2023


The concept of desert figures centrally in our reactive attitudes and practices in both morality and law. A philosophical tradition that includes Butler, Price, Kant, and Ross focuses on aretaic desert, which claims that people deserve rewards and sanctions commensurate with their overall aggregate levels of virtue and vice. By contrast, accountability desert assesses the praise or blame agents deserve for particular actions. An important special case of accountability desert is retributive desert, which insists that culpable wrongdoing is the desert basis of blame and punishment.

These desert contexts display both unity and diversity. On the one hand, these different desert contexts are all regulated by a conception of moral agency and responsibility that is grounded in a conception of accountability in which responsible agents are conceived as reasons-responsive agents who have the fair opportunity to exercise their normative capacities. Desert is a matter of fitting responses, positive or negative, to conduct for which the agent is accountable. On the other hand, there are also important differences between aretaic and accountability desert concerning the focus, scope, and valence of desert. Crucially, whereas accountability desert has an atomic focus on individual actions, aretaic desert has a holistic focus on aggregate virtue and vice.

If so, one cannot assume that what is true of aretaic desert is true of accountability desert, and vice versa. A case in point is the critique of retributive conceptions of punishment that appeals to assumptions about aretaic desert. The problems that would result from combining retributivism with aggregate lifetime desert are not a good reason to reject retributive conceptions of blame and punishment, which operate with an accountability focus on atomic desert.

This defense of the retributive focus on accountability desert is compatible with a wide-ranging conception of the factors that are potentially relevant to sentencing and sanctions. On the one hand, we can sensibly deny the relevance of aretaic desert to sentencing and sanctions, insisting that aggravating and mitigating factors must be specified in relation to the particular wrong for which the agent is accountable. On the other hand, even if we conceded the legitimacy of appealing to aretaic desert at decisions about sentencing and sanctions, it would not be part of the retributivist desert basis for proportionate punishment, which is accountability desert. Rather, it would stand as a factor external to retributive desert.

Keywords: Accountability, accountability desert, aretaic desert, desert, retributivism

Suggested Citation

Brink, David O., Two Kinds of Desert (September 24, 2023). Available at SSRN: or

David O. Brink (Contact Author)

University of California, San Diego ( email )

9500 Gilman Drive
Mail Code 0502
La Jolla, CA 92093-0112
United States
858-534-4881 (Phone)


University of San Diego School of Law ( email )

5998 Alcala Park
San Diego, CA 92110-2492
United States
858-534-4881 (Phone)
858-534-8566 (Fax)

Do you have negative results from your research you’d like to share?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics