Monday, March 17, 2008

Do We Deserve Our Incomes?

I received an email this morning from Chris Colin, a columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle, who has written an article flirting with the notion that no one deserves what they earn or what they have, because it's all based on the fortune of birth and the fortune of innate faculties. What is noteworthy about Colin's article for our purposes it that it includes a brief interview with Yaron Brook, the head of Ayn Rand Institute.

Here is the brief snippet:
"The essence of morality is the extent to which you apply your free will. If we're going to get rewarded for anything, it's for this," Brook told me.

And if someone doesn't have that free will for some reason, or doesn't exercise it as effectively as someone else?
"Then they don't deserve it."

Brook and I went back and forth over free will, and whether it really just comes from all those raw ingredients we acquired through sheer luck — my position.

"If we're completely determined, the whole concept of 'deserve' is out. Computers don't deserve anything. Animals don't deserve anything. What makes humans unique is we have the capacity to make choices," he argued. "Some people make choices that lead to success and prosperity and happiness, and some people don't ... (When) people make bad choices, they deserve the consequences."

I couldn't get Brook to agree that people who make bad choices have something in them leading them to do so — something the good-choices people don't have — and that this quality was just a more complex version of height or eye color. But Brook did acknowledge that at least sometimes our stations in life are undeserved: an inheritance, a lucky Lotto ticket, being born on a poor continent. Still, he said, just because our fortunes aren't always deserved doesn't mean we're not entitled to them.

"People are born in Africa and they're out of luck, and it's sad. But the fact they were unlucky enough to be born in Africa doesn't place a claim against me and my life and my wealth," he said. And if he won the lottery, "I wouldn't say I deserve this money. I'd say it's mine, not yours, and I get to decide what I do with it. The fact that I have money, no matter how I got it, doesn't give you a claim against it."

Finders keepers, in other words. I can't say I find it compelling, but at least it addresses the issue.

I don't find either side in this debate fully convincing. Colin exaggerates the extent to which people are determined by innate capacities while Brook exaggerates the extent of free will. And neither seem to entirely grasp the functional purpose of the idea of deserving. If we were to assume that we don't deserve our incomes because all that we earn is based on our innate faculties, then the obvious question would be: who then does deserve our incomes? If it is claimed that no one deserves it, then the argument is futile and we pass on. If, however, someone should argue that half our income is deserved by the homeless, then we have tacitly adopted a different criterion of deserving: to wit, that dysfunctional and/or unfortunate individuals are deserving of income because they are dysfunctional and/or unfortunate! The problem with this criterion is that, if dysfunction and misfortune becomes the standard of deserving in your society, what would likely be the consequences of such a moral revolution? Wouldn't it lead to a lot more unfortunate/dysfunctional individuals? You reward dysfunction you'll have more of it!

Moral standards need to work for the well-being and eudomania of individuals in society, while at the same time maintaining the necessary strength and coherence of that society so that it can defend itself from its enemies at home and abroad. Moral standards that don't work for these goals are self-defeating and, ultimately, suicidal.


Neil Parille said...

Funny, I got an email from the same guy.

Mike Huben said...

Mark Twain covered similar territory in his What is Man?

But like many philosophical questions, what you deserve is usually presented with a missing referent. A proper statement about deserving goes like this: A deserves B according to C. When making statements with a missing referent C, it is generally implied that the missing C is an inarguable authority, necessity, or some such unexaminable basis. And of course that is where the mischief lurks.

I wish I knew the name for that fallacy of argument.