A prostitute, the PM, Gina Rinehart, Novak Djokovic, and a paraplegic—no, they didn’t meet in a pub and this isn’t a joke—it’s about opportunity and whether people deserve what they get in life.
Johnny thinks he deserves an ice-cream. Why? Because his mum told him that if he behaved well, he’d get one. He did behave well, so he’s entitled to it (he thinks).
This isn’t a very new or interesting idea—we’ve all experienced it and can understand it. What happens though, if Johnny’s friend Jimmy is also promised an ice-cream? What if he tries to behave well but can’t because he’s got Tourette’s syndrome and can’t stop swearing? Johnny’s mum tells the crestfallen Jimmy that he doesn’t deserve an ice-cream whereas Johnny does.
This example is a simplified version of entitlement theory. The concept of deserving something can be broken down into the subject, object, and basis for entitlement. Johnny and Jimmy are the subjects, the ice-cream is the object, and the basis is their good behaviour.
Somehow this situation isn’t fair: does it feel right to say that Johnny deserves the ice-cream although Jimmy doesn’t? The behaviour of the two boys is partly outside their control: Jimmy has Tourette’s which affects his language, and Johnny has a strict mum.
Johnny, surely, does not deserve something simply because he has the good fortune of not having Tourette’s.
This situation has been theorised by John Rawls who describes it as the [in]equality of opportunity. More colloquially, it has come to be known as a sort of ‘natural lottery’. Meaning that some people are, through no work of their own, granted certain opportunities by virtue of their genetics, upbringing, or even the family or country into which they were born.
Again, we’ve all experienced this, perhaps by comparing our IQ to people who manage—thanks to their intelligence— to gain educational success or a job we cannot. Or perhaps we’ve realised that our body is not suited to succeed athletically, no matter how hard we might try. Most would call this situation unfair, but they’d also not worry about it very much since that’s life—it’s the luck of the draw.
This becomes more controversial, however, when we start claiming that we deserve something simply because we’re lucky enough to have the opportunity to gain it.
Just like Johnny and his ice-cream, to what extent does the university student deserve his position, or the athlete their gold medal? Naturally, a considerable amount of effort has surely been done by these subjects—be it studying or exercising—but does that mean they deserve what they end up with? Does working hard mean you deserve something?
The paraplegic might argue that the athlete is lucky to have a body which allows them to be physically superior. The 18 year old forced to work to provide for her family might argue that the university student is lucky that they have the time and means to study. So where’s the line between opportunity and entitlement? Is there a line?
You can’t deserve a present—you can receive one. You’re not entitled to an opportunity—you just happen to have one.