I was wondering what 'punishable merit' means in this text.

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, who was heavily involved in the process, defended the use of past practice by pointing to the intractable disagreement within the commission: “Why didn’t the Commission sit down and really go and rationalize this thing and not just take history? The short answer to that is: we couldn’t. We couldn’t because there are such good arguments all over the place pointing in opposite directions … Try listing all the crimes that there are in rank order of punishable merit … Then collect results from your friends and see if they all match. I will tell you they won’t.”

From Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment by Kahneman, Daniel​.


1 Answer 1


This doesn't seem to be a standard phrase; all relevant Google hits lead back to Breyer's quote. So we just have to infer the meaning from the definitions of the words and the context.

You might be confused by the use of "merit" since it is often used to refer to the good qualities of someone or something. But more generally it can refer to either good or bad qualities. See e.g. definition 6 at https://www.wordreference.com/definition/merit: "something that is deserved, whether good or bad."

So I would read this sentence as:

Try listing all the crimes that there are, ordered by how much they deserve to be punished.


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