We think we deserve things.
I study hard, and I get good grades. I treat people nicely, and they’re nice to me in return. I lie to someone, they discover the lie and get angry. In each of these pairings, one event joins to another by something more than causality, by a relationship of ‘deserving’. What does this relationship involve?
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In part, it involves a debt. To deserve is to be owed. Someone or something owes success to the diligent, praise to the charitable, scorn and punishment to the law-breakers.
Who owes? In former times, God; today, the cold impersonal universe. At all times, though, society, or rather, society mystified as God or nature. ‘What one deserves’ functions as a debt owed by society to a person for their good or bad deeds.
The relationship of deserving expresses a temporarily unrealized potential in the relationship between an individual and their group. To ‘get what one deserves’ realizes the potential, discharges the debt.
Certain events break the logic of deserving. Does anyone deserve to own billions of dollars? Does anyone deserve what happens to them in a genocide? We react to these anomalies in various ways, trying to restore the logic of the system of deserving.
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Deserving has another, more intimate dimension. We believe that we deserve things. I deserve this accolade for my accomplishment. I deserve the respect of others, their esteem, their love. Or I do not — I deserve scorn and rejection for the immorality or the ineptitude of my actions, for my bad deeds.
We define ourselves in part by what we think we deserve. Deserving constitutes part of the fabric of our selfhood. So we struggle, not just to achieve certain things, but to deserve them.
Likewise, when someone else deserves something, that obligates me. If a person deserves respect, I owe them respect; if they deserve love, I should love them. If they deserve punishment, I must find a way to punish them or to participate in society’s punishment of them.
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From a strictly materialist, scientific view, this concept of deserving seems to involve some mystification. For instance, why should a person who works hard ‘deserve’ good grades or financial success? Working hard leads to one or the other of these outcomes some of the time, under the right conditions, as a causal relationship. If I throw a ball at a target I can hit the target; does that mean I deserved to hit the target? What makes hard work to an end different from throwing a ball at a target?
Why does a person perform any act, good or bad? In the first instance, because they have a motivation. Where did the motivation come from? Perhaps from their own values and desires. But at some point, retracing the chain of consequence leads us somewhere beyond the boundaries of the person. Our motives come from beyond ourselves, from the complex interplay of our basic biological nature, plastic and protean as it is, and the networks of relationships we have with human and non-human others in the world around us. We may choose what to do at any given moment, but we did not choose to be who were are.
In other words: who I “am”, and what I do, results from a play of forces I mostly do not control and mostly have no awareness of. Even my conscious choices have causes and consequences that I cannot know. Why should society owe me esteem or disesteem for these choices made under these conditions?
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Perhaps we can grant this for little complex choices made in ordinary circumstances: the choice to buy someone a birthday present that turns out not to quite suit them, or to spend more time than one should with someone who is not one’s lover. But our impulse to moral judgment, to assign just desserts, comes roaring back in when we confront the extreme cases: the woman who sacrifices her life to rescue strangers from a burning car before fire crews can arrive, the man who tortures and murders for his own sadistic enjoyment. Surely, we say, these people deserve something.
What if we did not? What if we heard that impulse, the impulse to say “they deserve/I deserve” and simply did not act on it?
We would begin to experience events around us less for what they mean to us, what debt they incur in us or how they affect the debts owed to us. We would begin to perceive beyond these relations of indebtedness to the more complex, ambivalent, and contradictory forces that motivate people’s actions.
What could we do then? What could we not do?