I’ve been thinking about the question of deserving for some time now, but it came to a head with the pundits falling all over each other asserting that Americans deserve to know the details of the raid on Osama bin Laden, that they deserve to see the photos of his body. That’s only the latest take on what Americans deserve. It comes up as everything from deserving to pay lower taxes to deserving to own a flat screen TV. Not long ago a young newly minted real estate agent complained that he worked so hard for his license, he deserved to make some sales. Apparently there is nothing we cannot or do not deserve. We deserve slim bodies, great sex, more money, better education, healthier lives, and exotic trips. Corporate mouthpieces can be heard muttering about how business deserves tax breaks, tax funded investment incentives, nonunion shops, lower pay for workers, and reduced pension costs.
What a world we live in with so much deserving. At funerals we hear the bereaved explain how their late beloved deserves heaven even though he/she neither believed in nor observed any known religion. Apparently deserving flows into eternity with ease.
Deserve is a word commonly used by almost every one about almost everything, but on what can the assertion of deserving be based? What does it mean to deserve something? Apart from its dictionary definition, it seems to fall into two categories. One has to do with the idea of contract. I agree to do something for you in exchange for some kind of payment. If I perform as promised then I deserve my payment; I’ve earned it. The Enlightenment expanded the concept of personal contracts and gave us the idea of social contracts. Government is said to be a contract between the people and the government in which each side deserves to be well served by the terms and conditions of that contract. Moreover, the theory holds that the social contract is derived from the people, not from the government. We deserve our civil rights only because they are the part of the social contract that is recognized, granted and guaranteed by law. From time to time various societies will rewrite a portion of the social contract to recognize new civil rights, but those rights do not exist outside of the law that recognizes them.
There are rights that all people deserve, and that exist whether a law recognizes them or not. The other category of what it means to deserve falls under the idea of human rights. Human rights are a fungible commodity. The definition of them is always changing, and again, in their modern form they spring from the Enlightenment. Our Declaration of Independence used Enlightenment thinking to declare that, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These human rights are not defined by contract but are what persons deserve simply because they are persons. What those human rights are have been debated and the list expanded century by century. It’s always changing, and it differs widely from culture to culture. The result is that anyone can claim anything on behalf of an individual, group of people or an entire nation as being something they deserve because it is their human right.
In an odd twist, I think we Americans have added a verb to the definition. We have rights that are ours not simply because we are human, or even American humans, but because we are human consumers.
It is exactly at this point that critical thinking needs to step in. The question must be, do we mean deserve in any classical way, or do we mean desire? My niece, for instance, recently got her drivers license and has been heard to say that she deserves a car. What she really meant was that she desires a car, and there is a huge difference between desiring something and deserving it. Therein lies the heart of the issue. It is not only that we Americans often say that we deserve something when we mean that we desire it, I think we really believe that desiring leads to deserving. What we desire to consume we deserve to consume as a human right.
As for the news pundits, when they assert that the American public deserves to see the photos or know the details, what they really mean is that they desire to see and know those things and are projecting their desires onto a vaguely defined public under the guise that a public of news consumers deserves to consume whatever they desire to consume.
Desiring and deserving. Two ‘D’ words with enormous differences in meaning, yet sometimes they can merge. What do you think about that? What do you desire as opposed to what you deserve? Where do deserving and desiring come together for you? What has led to the uncritical conflation of deserving and desiring? I demand an answer. I deserve to know!