Sounding more defiant than the day before, eyes flashing and voice steady, Floyd Landis looked into the cameras Friday and said he would prove he "deserved to win" the Tour de France.
In his first public appearance since a urine test showing a testosterone imbalance cast his title into doubt, the American said his body's natural metabolism - not doping of any kind - caused the result, and that he would soon have the test results to prove it.
What difference, exactly, does it make whether Landis's high levels of testosterone are the result of a regimen of drugs or just a natural fact of his physiology? Insofar as higher levels of testosterone give Landis an advantage over his competitors, it seems like those levels are unfair and undeserved. What makes Landis so special that facts about his physiology totally beyond his control make him "deserve" anything at all? That testosterone didn't literally fall out of the sky...but it might as well have.
Now, in the case of sports, you can sort of wave this talk away as pointlessly academic because, after all, you can just treat sports as ways of evaluating whose natural physiology is best suited to such-and-such activities. That works because the outcome of a game is just precisely insofar as the winner has abided by the rules. (This is part of the reason I find sports so inconsequential and, therefore, boring.)
Most of the rest of the world isn't like that; the outcome of an event typically has implications for the welfare of at least one person. Frequently, as in the case of many government activities, the outcome has very significant implications for the well-being of many individuals. In terms of the concept of "desert", though, the analogy to sports survives entirely intact.
We tend to think things like, "Mr. Jones earned his money because he's a smart, capable, hard-working individual. He deserves the things he has." And once we tie an asset (e.g., money) to the idea of desert, we become increasingly disinclined to see that asset redistributed. "What did that poor person do to deserve Mr. Jones's money?"
Well, nothing. That poor person certainly didn't earn Mr. Jones's money. But, then, neither did Mr. Jones. Mr. Jones didn't earn his intelligence or his capability. For that matter, he didn't earn his work ethic, either. Those are all characteristics that are inherited through genes or sculpted by external forces. Nobody chooses to be hard-working, at least not ultimately. Such a choice, in any event, is itself going to be the result of entirely accidental facts about one's physiology or environment. To put it another way, you can't choose to choose to be hard-working.
Desert, as a concept, often plays a very useful role because it inclines us to set up institutions that allow for very large degrees of autonomy and privacy. At the margins, though, we run into cases in which by infringing upon the demands of the concept of desert we can create a situation that is, on balance, more just. In such cases it's useful to remember that desert is a useful idea, but not an intrinsically valuable one.
P.S. - There is an unfortunate use of the word "desert" that allows us to say things like, "All people deserve to be treated with respect." I think those statements are true, but they seem to use a somewhat different definition of "desert" - one less tied up with the idea of "earning" something - than the one I'm referring to above.