Thursday, October 09, 2008


In a random remark at a recent dinner, one person was being offered support for deciding not to work for a while with the justification that "you deserve time off." Ever since McDonald's told us via Barry Manilow, that "you deserve a break today," the American penchant for claiming right to care for No. 1 has taken off. But is it justified?

To deserve is to be worthy of, qualified for, or have a claim to a reward or punishment. Most of us eagerly claim rewards and just as enthusiastically decline punishment. What do we really deserve?

We cannot claim very much of who or what we are as our own individual merit. We did not choose, despite the pseudopatriots who are "proud to be American," to be born in the United States. We did not elect to be born to households with running water and electricity, a given educational and income level.

Much of who we are or have become is an accident of birth.

Then there's luck. Happening on an idea when a society was ready for it -- or not. Imagine being Nelson Mandela in 1964 and having the idea that apartheid should end. Yes, in the end (in the 1990s) he triumphed. But he could be forgiven for wondering where he had gone wrong as he languished in his prison cell in the interim. So should we ponder where luck has helped or hindered.

Finally, there is the matter of free will. Are we really free, or are we a mass of socially and genetically determined impulses that predictably propel us down a course marked for us before we were born?

Sure, as humans we claim "inalienable rights," meaning that our fellows may not deprive us of a fair share of resources and social "bandwidth." Yet, how do we really know that humans are inherently endowed with such rights and not, say, cats or bees or rocks?

In the end, it is very difficult to claim we deserve anything, good or bad.
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