You don’t deserve it (or anything?)


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.

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5 thoughts on “You don’t deserve it (or anything?)

  1. I’m marking students’ essays. The mark I give them should reveal two things: their innate ability and their effort. So it’s a mixed bag. Some can’t do better than a pass. And some bright students can but don’t. Nature and nurture and hard work all in a packet.

    • Would you say the mark they get is according to a subjective standard of entitlement?

      As in, they deserve an HD only in so far as they follow the rules?

      • There’s always subjectivity involved. But the attempt is to be impartial.

        The mark reflects the merits of the essay which includes following the explicit rules (a rubric helps this) and the implicit rules (like, write in 12 point not 5 point font, print in black not multicolour etc). But whether people can and do follow the rules is in turn dependent on aptitude and effort.

        So desert (not ice cream) in essay marks depends partly on the (unmerited?) opportunity that chance has doled out. If you’re born with a silver spoon and a large brain you’re a long way towards the unmerited opportunity to do medicine.

  2. 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.

    Isnt this confusing opportunity and capacity? I have the capacity to write a good MA thesis, but I goof off producing sermons and spending my days church planting. So I dont get my MA thesis done. I have the capacity, and I might have even cultivated the capacity so that we can say I have the ability (because I got a good honours degree that got me into the MA). Seems not unreasonable that I feel entitled because I havent exercised my capacity. I havent utilised my opportunity to get it done.
    so Capacity alone doesnt entitle. Ability on capacity builds an entitlement case for being given opportunities. But results/outcomes have to be measured against opportunities. I squandered the opportunity goofing off, so have no entitlement.

    But what if I squandered my MA time because I had to work to support my aging widowed mother? That swings the balance back in favour of a different sort of capacity – capacity relative to time to make the most of opportunities. So that changes our moral calculus. Think of people who have inherited familial gambling debt. They dont deserve it but are sort of entangled in it because of familal bonds.

    Then there’s giving people minimal standards of living (welfare) because they are human etc, but Im not sure how this fits in to the thrust of entitlement.

    Im not sure you are helped in bringing in the idea of luck except as a place holder for the notion of random alloaction of starting points and capacities and opportunities. And perhaps dispositions to make use of those starting point positions.

    Can you refine your ideas in relation to the opportunity/capacity distinction?

    • Hi Cal,

      In my mind opportunity/capacity are linked.I’ll try and explain my position…

      You have the capacity to write your MA because you are educated, but don’t you first need the opportunity to have had a good education, upbringing, etc?

      So I’m arguing that regardless of whether you now have the capacity to write your MA, in the first place, you didn’t deserve the opportunities you have had which lead to you gaining that capacity.

      I agree that there is some kind of entitlement, or reward that seems deserved—within the subjective parameters of essay marking for example—that is needed when someone turns their opportunity to study, into a capacity to excel, which lead to an HD essay.

      Yes, they have worked hard, and the work itself seems to necessitate some reward—if that’s the subjective criteria being used—but in an objective sense, I don’t think they ever deserved the opportunity to study in the first place.

      As to your mum, well yes I guess you’d be entitled to special consideration if that’s the rules of the uni, but again the fact that you’re at uni suggests to me that you’re the recipient of a lot of fortunate opportunities. Thus, in the long run, not deserved.

      What do you think?

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