No one gets what they deserve

Look around your house. How many of the things you own do you truly deserve?

If you’re a carpenter and built your own house, or a farmer and grew your own food, you could fairly say that you earned those things as the work of your own hands. However, I can’t make that claim for myself. The mug of coffee on my desk was brewed from beans grown halfway around the world, and I don’t know the people who harvested, shipped or roasted it. My clothes are made of cotton that was picked, spun, woven and sewed in farms and factories I’ve never seen. I didn’t cut down the trees to make my own furniture.

So how did I come to have these things? What makes me so sure I deserve them?

In the superficial, capitalist sense – the tiny Ayn Rand on one shoulder – I “deserve” them because I worked a job where I exchanged my labor for money, and that money is evidence of worth. Anything that I want and can afford, I deserve. If I didn’t have enough money for a roof over my head or food to eat, then in this worldview, that would be a sign that I don’t deserve them (and should, therefore, have the good manners to starve quietly, preferably out of sight of rich people).

There’s an appealing simplicity to this view. Like Eastern notions of karma, or medieval ideas of God-ordained hierarchy, it proclaims that we each occupy our right and proper station in life. Best of all, it proclaims that morality is built in. We don’t have to fret over injustice or put in the effort to demand change, because the market does that for us. It’s an infallible dispenser of rewards and punishments, giving each person what their actions merit.

Rigged games

However, even a passionate advocate of capitalism would have to admit this isn’t the whole picture. There’s such a thing as random chance, which sometimes benefits and sometimes harms us. You can work your hardest and fail through no fault of your own, or you can be lazy and irresponsible and yet have success rain down on you.

Most importantly, we all came into being through a birth lottery. I was born into a privileged position, in the richest nation in history – rather than, say, being born as a Siberian peasant or a Chinese factory worker. Did I deserve that?

Even in the wealthy nations, there are huge gradations of privilege. Does anyone “deserve” to be born into a segregated slum with crumbling schools and polluted air and water? How about into a rich family with a private summer cottage, a yacht and a trust fund?

Regardless of how smart you are or how hard you’re willing to work, these advantages of birth go a long way toward determining where you end up in life. A few extraordinary people succeed despite a disadvantaged background, and a few feckless rich people squander their wealth and end up poor. That doesn’t mean that the competition was fair. More often, the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor, regardless of choices they make.

Capitalism can’t be the arbiter of what we deserve. It’s a rigged game, where advantages we didn’t earn matter as much as, or more than, individual choices or abilities.

Some might say that if economics can’t be the judge of what people deserve, the law can. The legal system, unlike the market, is at least supposed to dispense justice. Yet it, too, falls short.

There’s no good-faith dispute that racial and class biases influence who gets arrested, who gets charged, and how harshly they’re punished. And even discounting those biases, the law can never be more than a rough approximation of deservingness. We punish wrongdoers with fines or prison, but those don’t undo the harm they committed. You can compensate victims with money, but that rarely if ever makes them truly whole.

Last but not least, there are those intangible connections of love and friendship that, more than money or possessions, make life truly worthwhile. But here, too, we fail to find any grounds for deservingness. Does anyone deserve a loving relationship, or a harmonious family, or a fulfilling social life?

None of these are rights or entitlements. At best, they’re blessings that some of us are fortunate enough to receive. Your choices influence how your personal relationships play out, but in no sense can you say that they’re fully under your control.

Two viewpoints on what we deserve

From one point of view – call it the technological view – no one deserves anything, because nothing is given to us. We’re large primates living on a ball of dirt and rock, whirling around an unremarkable yellow star, itself spinning through a vast and uncaring universe. Nature has no concern for our well-being; it kills us without a qualm.

The only comforts we have are things we’ve figured out how to create for ourselves. Through painstaking trial and error, we’ve learned to transmute the raw stuff of nature into objects that make our lives healthier, more comfortable or more pleasant. None of this is owed to us, and nothing about our technology inherently limits it to some people and not others. Why shouldn’t we all benefit from our collective cleverness?

From another point of view – call it the moral view – we’re all human beings, alike in dignity. Some people want to draw artificial lines dividing us, lines of class or race or nationality or gender, but those are nothing but superficial chalk marks. They reflect nothing fundamental, they don’t carve nature at any joint.

All humans are the same species, with the same abilities. We’re nearly identical in our DNA, save for a few variations that some people place inordinate importance on. We all feel the same pains, the same joys, the same wants, the same loves. In an otherwise indifferent universe, we’re meaning-makers and storytellers and hopers and dreamers.

From this standpoint, it’s all but impossible to argue that one human being deserves something which another doesn’t. If there’s anything that anyone deserves merely by virtue of existence, then we all deserve it. Our equal standing as sentient creatures demands this conclusion.

Either way, it’s not plausible to treat “deservingness” as a proxy for virtue. There’s no good argument to be made that some people deserve ease and comfort while others don’t, or that the amount of money you possess says anything about your value as a person. That’s solely a rationalization made by people who’ve benefited from the unfair nature of the world and want to reassure themselves that this is okay.

When you adopt this reasoning, it prevents you from developing an unhealthy attachment to the material goods you possess right now – or a belief that you stand above other human beings because you possess them.

I find this to be a welcome dose of humility. You don’t deserve the good things you have, because nobody does. At the same time, we all deserve a life of safety and comfort, within the bounds of our collective ability to create those things. It’s a reminder to be grateful for the privileges that we possess, despite not deserving them in any cosmic sense – and to be generous, as much as your circumstances permit, for those who haven’t had the same good fortune.


  1. Katydid says

    That’s a philosophical start to the morning.

    You also touched on what a lot of faiths preach (but not many people follow): to recognize the lucky breaks and luxuries while not assuming they’re strictly on merit, and striving to share instead of hoarding.

    I think this also touches on the hysteria of the “I’ve got mine” crowd; when it’s pointed out that nobody is 100% self-made and that the playing deck of life is stacked for some and against others.

  2. John Morales says

    It’s a reminder to be grateful for the privileges that we possess

    If so, being ungrateful for the privileges that we lack would be the converse, the necessary symmetry.

    Phrasing matters to me; specifically, gratefulness implies some agency to which the gratitude is due due to gifts given or kindness shown. But the universe is not a conscious agent. So… gratitude to whom?

    Had you written ‘appreciative’ instead, no such problem with a referent would exist.
    One can appreciate good fortune without concomitant gratitude; the appreciation suffices.

    • says

      I think you can be grateful for the privileges you have without being grateful to anyone in particular.

      I use the word in the Stoic sense: to think of the good things in your life and realize that you might not have them if things had been otherwise. It’s a good reminder to be glad of having those privileges and not treat them as an entitlement that’s owed to you.

          • John Morales says

            Silentbob, is not Adam some agency to whom gratitude is due?

            (Why, yes!)

            Again: agency and volition are due gratitude, luck of the draw is due appreciation.
            The two are not exclusive, of course, but neither are they synonymous.

            (Yes, I know. You’re trying to be jocular, but I’m just repeating myself)

  3. DanDare says

    I like that perspective.

    I want to add a feedback loop consideration.

    Do we consider what others need, in order to fullfill a role in the many systems that eventually comes around to provide us with things that we need or desire. Conversely do we consider the needs of others that would help them to avoid damaging the feedback loops.

    Further do we persue such considerations where we are unsure about how specific individuals effect what becomes available to us.

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