The Missing Gaps in David Miller’s Moral and Economic Justice Theory

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In this essay we will explore the contention that the guiding principle for income distribution of work should be the principle of desert, whereby the desert is the contribution to the social product - drawing upon the work of David Miller. Miller argues for income distribution to be desert-based, where monetary rewards are provided as a portion of net output whereby the individual is responsible. The critique will begin with pointing out considerable weaknesses in his arguments, and a comparative perspective to Rawls’ Difference Principle on wealth redistribution.

Miller’s principle provides coherence for fairness within a pluralistic society by viewing society as solidaristic on culture and beliefs, and instrumental between individuals. Individuals are able to communicate on a common ethos and contribute to each other based on their relationship: “you get what you give”. The act of working co-operatively using rewards for social contribution provides individuals the liberty to act for their own needs and those close around them. Redistributing individual incomes causes dead-weight loss (Case, and Fair, 1999) as the subjectivity and relatively of one’s own needs is ignored. The desert-principle allows individuals to choose their level of work for what income they believe is sufficient for them. For example, if a sub-set in society increases their utility by indulging in more expensive aspects of life, they will put in more effort to achieve these goals. If another group can maintain the same utility on a less extravagant life, then this group is pareto efficient at a lower level of input to society. Pareto efficiency refers to points where no one can be better off by moving away from those points (Jennings, 2012).

In saying this, applying the Difference Principle where wealth should be distributed to the least advantaged (Rawls, 1971) would mean punishing the well-deserved, the rich, for possessing more wealth, rather than rewarding them for their social contribution; ultimately taking away incentive for society to progress. Removing this incentive would also disallow individuals to self-progress: “working harder, not smarter”, and in turn result in a regressive society. Desert-based principles allow individuals to re-evaluate oneself to become more productive, taking the most advantage out of their own unique natural talents. It is argued that these natural talents are unjust as they are given by luck at birth, however the same talents can be utilised to create purpose and identity for each person and fulfils the most important human needs: self-gratification and self-achievement – to deserve what those have worked hard for. Desertness allows people to integrate into a productive and self-sufficient citizen of society in allowing growth. Without a consistent means as an incentive to work, how many people will move the world forward? The innovative leaders will no longer increase productivity, the world economies will become stagnant and society will regress.

Too much power and wealth can do mostly more harm than good, however the desert principle elects qualified leaders chosen by society, and many have the natural talent of leadership, whereas others prefer to follow – hence a healthy amount of power will find its free-market equilibrium. Though natural talents may attract an advantage for power and wealth, it also means more responsibility. Allowing individuals to work on a desert-basis principle strikes a balance between using one’s own inherent abilities with earning a living they want and deserve for themselves and others around them.

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Miller’s theory of justice may at first sound reasonable and coherent in theory, but there are major flaws in which his arguments are proven invalid in many situations (Celello P: 2019). To begin, Miller’s arguments give no lexical ordering to his proposals, hence can often lead to difficult situations if there exists a relationship with more than person; for instance, a family run business where two or more family members run the business and thus work together (Celello P: 2019). Albeit, Miller does acknowledge for a wide range of examples where his arguments show that there is a ‘just’ outcome of the relationship that can be achieved in order to reach a desirable level of social justice (Celello P: 2019). Here, Miller commits the fallacy of using explanations as excuses. In the family business situation, the desert principle is not a necessary condition for social justice - let’s say the male owns an accounting business and the female is a home-maker, the male would not keep the entirety of the proceeds to himself, rather he would use it as a means of income for both himself and his female partner. Miller has not considered personal relationships in his theory, as both man and woman appreciate that the proceeds can be equally distributed without the need for desert.

A feminist critique of Miller would begin with his separation of justice. For the sake of argument, if one person is not engaged in one sphere, then they are unable to ever receive a “just” distribution in reference to their deserts or needs (Feldman F, and Skow B: 2019). Take for example, an individual that does not have any family or indeed any friends as they live in the wilderness (Feldman F, and Skow B: 2019). Now that individual by definition would not belong to a “solidaristic community” that is able to distribute goods in order to compensate their needs, beyond those goods which they as an individual receive as being a citizen. Moreover, an individual who has never worked, nor someone who will ever be able to work, take for instance, a severely disabled person, such people will never receive the benefits or “dues” for their labour or any activity for which they engage in (Feldman F, and Skow B: 2019). Hence, according to Miller’s theory of desert, such people would get nothing. Whereas, within a well-functioning liberal-democracy, such people in society will still be provided with the basic public goods, that will enable them to live their lives.

Moving away from the theoretical implications of his arguments. In practical terms, Miller is defending desert as a principle of social justice. Miller has a deterministic view of the world which ultimately leads him to the conclusion that individuals are not responsible for their skill levels, abilities and talents, hence it is unjust to be rewarded for such inherent traits (Feldman F, and Skow B: 2019). If one rejects the deterministic argument, then the proposition of ‘merit’ which is morally justifiable also must be accepted as well as intellectual “merit”. Liberal democracies are founded upon meritocracy, and to reject this principle, as Miller would, is to reject the most fundamental value of modern society. Additionally, Rawls’ argues for his position on desertness from a position of merit (Feldman F, and Skow B: 2019). Here, Miller argues that desert can only be achieved if and only if the allocative capacity of the market is strictly controlled, with the implication of limiting inequality (Feldman F, and Skow B: 2019). However, it is naïve of Miller to argue that the talents that society values can only be measured by the market, and thus must have economic value upon them - as this is not the only way, nor is it the “just” way to determine whether someone else is deserving.

Additionally, Miller’s blatant support for a liberal-nationalism relies too heavily on the normative assertion that we ought to give greater moral obligations to those with the same nationality than to those of different nationalities (Feldman F, and Skow B: 2019). This argument fails because it relies on the assumption that all nations are equal and are thus able to provide the necessary public goods for their citizen’s needs, as well as their rights. This claim does not coincide with reality. As there are numerous dictatorial states such as Venezuela and North Korea that do not provide the basic public goods for their citizens, thus other nations, working in correspondence with the United Nations, have an obligation to assist in supplying such rights to people of these nationalities. Moreover, one simply must look at the issue of energy and see that Miller’s desert argument also fails to acknowledge the inequality of natural resources – which are grossly undistributed between nations (Feldman F, and Skow B: 2019). Such a placement on the inequality of natural resources is itself morally arbitrary. Hence, in terms of distribution of income, those born into wealthy families also suffer from moral arbitrariness; but in any sensible democracy, they ought to have the right to inherit the proceeds of their parent’s labour. Nevertheless, people born into such circumstances, have a moral obligation to provide aid for those born into poorer families.

In this essay we have explored the contention that the guiding principle for income distribution of work should be the principle of Desert, drawing upon Miller’s argument that income distribution should be desert-based, where monetary awards are provided as a portion of net output whereby the individual is solely responsible. Miller’s theory of justice has good intentions for a liberal state, however fails to reason the downfalls of his arguments on the desert principle. As aforementioned, his theory provides a consistent justice theory however inconsistent applications, however, the critique offered explained the considerable weaknesses in his arguments, when analysed from a comparative perspective to Rawls’ Difference Principle on wealth distribution as well as feminist and rational perspectives.


  1. Case, Karl E.; Fair, Ray C. (1999). Principles of Economics (5th ed.). Prentice-Hall. ISBN 978-0-13-961905-2.
  2. “Desert,” by Peter Celello. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ISSN 2161-0002, (Celello P: 2019)
  3. Feldman, Fred and Skow, Brad, 'Desert', The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = . (Feldman F, and Skow B: 2019)
  4. Frank, B., Jennings, S., Bernanke, B. (2012) Principles of Microeconomics (3rd Ed). McGraw-Hill.
  5. Rawls, John, 1971, A Theory of Justice, Harvard, MA: Harvard University Press..
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The Missing Gaps in David Miller’s Moral and Economic Justice Theory. (2022, Jun 09). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 18, 2024, from
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