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Arts & Letters Daily


9d. Desert - Ms. Young - PE teacher


Judgements about ‘desert’ and about ‘motive’


Duty. Ms. Wong, a middle years teacher for the past 12 years, had been a coveted physical education teacher till three years ago when she was immobilized in a car accident. Now she was teaching English, another subject she loved. When she applied for the position of vice principal in her school, her application was refused on the grounds that she would not be able to fulfil all the duties of a vice principal because her mobility was restricted because she is in a wheel chair.

Senior management felt an apparent conflict of duties. On the one hand, they wanted to  appoint a vice principal who could attend to the varied and complex tasks and situations that arise in a high school. They thought this required a highly mobile person who could move about freely in crowded hallways, attend huge sports complexes for away games, drive at a moment’s notice, just to mention a few challenges. On the other hand, Ms. Wong had demonstrated creative mobility, outstanding communication skills with staff and students and exceptional organizational skills. At the same time, management knew they had to make a decision.

Rights. Ms. Wong objected to the decision on the grounds that her rights had been violated. There were creative ways of accommodating her physical handicap. For example, she could introduce a Student Civil Service Program which would not only support her in executing her duties but would educate students in providing volunteer community service. Management commended her for her creative solution but rejected her application. They maintained that even though she had a right to make an application, they were not obligated to receive it. Ms. Wong challenged the decision on the grounds that she had a right to demonstrate that she could fulfill the duties of a vice principal. Administration had no right to deny her the appointment on the grounds they cited.

Motive. The Management Team was convincingly impressed by Ms. Wong’s skills and abilities and trusted her creative ability to manage her physical handicap. That is all the members except one, Mr. Carpenter, who was a close friend of one of the alternative candidates. He did not disclose this special friendship. He kept on emphasising potential problems that could arise as a result of Ms. Wong’s physical handicap to the point where the other members of the Management Team began to wonder about Mr. Carpenter’s motive. Why was he so opposed to the appointment of Ms. Wong who was clearly the front runner?

Desert. There is little doubt as to what Ms. Wong deserves; she deserves the appoint. It’s not so clear what Mr. Carpenter deserves when he opposed the appointment of Ms. Wong on questionable grounds and advocated another candidate. Did he deserve an expression of disapproval for his questionable motive? In fact, that is what happened. When one of Management Team members, Mrs. Gillis, learned about the special relationship between Mr. Carpenter and the candidate he recommended for the appointment, she expressed her disappointment about Mr. Carpenter’s behaviour. At the very least, she maintained that he should have disclosed his special relationship with the candidate he favoured.


  • What appeared to be the motive of the members of the Management Team? Explain.
  • Discuss other situations where people use this kind of thinking.

You may want to discuss other dilemmas.

Consider this view of the connection between desert and motive

  • Crooked thinking

There is no direct connection between judgements about ‘desert’ and judgements about ‘motive’.

  • Straight thinking

There is a direct connection between judgements about ‘desert’ and judgements about ‘motive’. It has been said in different ways that a person deserves approval or rewards for doing morally good acts and a person deserves disapproval or punishment for doing morally bad acts. The degree of the severity of a punishment is determined by the seriousness of the wrong act. In other words, judgements about ‘desert’ take into account the motives of the person as well as the rightness or wrongness of the act. For example, suppose a teacher has to decide whether a young boy deserves punishment for throwing a snowball across the street when a car was passing by. First, the teacher must consider whether throwing snowballs toward moving vehicles is a wrong act. The wrongness of the act can be established by checking with the Highway Traffic Act as well as by considering the possible consequences of startling a driver by hitting the car with a snowball. Second, the teacher would have to consider the boy’s motives. Did the boy intend to throw the snowball at the car or was he throwing it at a friend, or an object located on the other side of the street? If it could be established that the boy intended to hit the moving vehicle, then he would have thrown it for the wrong motive. In that case, since the act in question was a wrong act and since he did it for morally wrong motives, he committed a morally bad act. This conclusion would be arrived at by making an judgement about ‘motives’. Once it has been established that the boy committed a morally bad act, the teacher must decide whether the boy deserves to be punished or whether he should only get an expression of disapproval. This involves making a judgement about ‘desert’ which is by no means easy. People frequently disagree on the seriousness of the wrong act and subsequently on the moral badness of the act. The implications of this disagreement can be quite significant. For example, different teachers have different opinions about the seriousness of throwing snowballs towards moving cars. Some consider it from the possibility of causing the driver to lose control of the vehicle and consequently getting involved in an accident. A teacher with this viewpoint would consider the act as being seriously wrong and therefore morally very bad. Undoubtedly, only a serious punishment would be considered appropriate for the boy. Another teacher might view the snowball throwing as little more than an annoying incident to any driver. The wrong would not be considered very serious and therefore it would not be regarded as morally very bad. A mild form of punishment probably would be considered appropriate.

Moral principle value tests

An application of the moral principle value tests probably illustrates most clearly what is entailed in evaluative reasoning. They are:

It is important to emphasize that the moral-value principle tests are not designed to resolve issues (guarantee right answers!) but to assess the ‘justification’ for moral value decisions.

To view the Dilemma from the perspective of Duty, Rights, Motives, Desert and Justice, click on the following:

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