Evaluating what we Deserve

Life, everyone knows, is unfair: we don’t always get what we deserve. For some people, social or economic circumstances prevent them from getting what they ought to get, while for others those circumstances allow them to get more than they should. So, the question is, do we ever get what we deserve? Are there ever times when life is fair?

Let’s think about the ingredients we need to answer these questions. At a minimum, we need to consider what a person knows and what a person’s decisions are. For example, if I want to know if my friend deserved to get fired from her job, I have to consider what she knew at the time and whether it was the result of a decision she made. That is, if she knew that she was prohibited from checking her personal email at a work, but decided to do it anyway, then there is a sense in which she deserved to get fired.

Still, whatever we think of this example, there are cases where one’s knowledge and decisions aren’t enough to determine if somebody got what they deserved. Sometimes, if we look at their social or economic context, it turns out that they couldn’t have gotten what they deserve. For example, people in the US whose income is a certain percent above the poverty line do not qualify for medical assistance. However, even if such people know that they won’t get assistance, and even if they “decide” to go without private insurance, there is still a sense in which they haven’t gotten what they deserved. That is, if someone is poor enough that they cannot afford the kind of insurance they need, and other decisions of theirs have not directly led to their health condition, then clearly they have done nothing to deserve to go without treatment.

Returning to our original question, we can see that life can be fair – but only under the right circumstances. For people who are too rich or too poor, the opportunities can vary in ways that either allow them to get more than they deserve or prevent them from getting what they deserve. The only way to make sure everybody gets exactly what they deserve is to have a level playing field, both legally and practically. But that’s another topic.