I went to a friend's dissertation defense today. Jerry Steinhofer, the friend in question, seeks to account for the value of knowledge by proposing that the distinctive feature of knowledge is that it involves true belief which is deserved, and this fitness between the true belief being deserved and its being possessed is what distinguishes knowledge. This enables him to employ analogies with other forms of desert in filling in his details. There has, of course, recently been a great deal of interest in general in the analogies between epistemology and ethics, particularly with the popularity these days of virtue theories in both areas.
While listening to the defense, I thought about this analogy. Suppose one wished to construct a consequentialist epistemology, with true belief playing the role of pleasure in utilitarian ethical theories. Utilitarians do have things to say about desert, especially if they're rule utilitarians, so it's possible that such a theory could endorse Steinhofer's suggestion that desert is the criterion of knowledge. However, there doesn't seem to be an obvious candidate for an analog in ethics to the role that knowledge plays in epistemology. Various possibilities suggest themselves: 1) the absence of such an analog suggests a defect in the utilitarian picture of ethics, 2) knowledge is given too much special attention in epistemology, 3) there is some difference between ethics and epistemology which explains the lack of an ethics analog to knowledge, or 4) I'm not looking hard enough and there is some analog after all.
Plenty of philosophers would enthusiastically take option 1, and option 2 has had some advocates, but I want to look at 3. In the case of utilitarian ethics, it seems that there can be cases where someone deserves something bad (cases where punishment is appropriate). In such cases, if the person gets what they deserve, the fitting between what they deserve and what they get is still good, but what they get itself is bad. On the other hand, it seems that nobody ever deserves to have a false belief, or at least if they do it seems that the kind of desert involved can't be epistemic. In epistemology, it seems you can only deserve true belief or not deserve it, there's no further negative state of deserving something actively bad.
Thus, in epistemology, if someone gets what they deserve, that's always an unmixed good, while in ethics, if someone gets what they deserve, that can involve a component of badness, if what they deserve is something bad. This may explain why epistemology has a highly positive evaluative term for people getting what they deserve (knowledge), while there is no such highly positive evaluative term in ethics. Perhaps on this account the closest ethical analog to knowledge would be justice, an altogether more problematic notion.