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Monday, January 07, 2008

Earning & Deserving

I've been thinking about what it means to earn your income recently. We have an economy that makes compensation almost completely independent of any conscious evaluation of how valuable or difficult your work is. I suppose your employer may make such an evaluation, but the variation in how much money your employer gives you is much smaller than the variation based on what job you have.

In some sense, earn just means money your received for doing a job. However, earn can also mean getting something you deserve. So here is my hang up, I think if you earn a nice living, you should be thankful for it. Because, while you earned your salary in a legal sense, in a moral sense you really don't deserve 10-20 times more income than others working as many hours or as hard.

What do you think? Is it accurate to say that our system of capitalism necessarily means no one should feel that they deserve their income from a moral perspective, and as a result they should respond with thankfulness and charity? Or, is this standard limousine liberal self-loathing?

P.S. I came across some Biblical instructions on lending. As you might expect, one is supposed to loan money with no interest and forgive all debts every seven years. But just as I was about to ponder whether Christians should be picketing pay day loans, I read this: You may charge a foreigner interest, but not a brother Israelite, so that the LORD your God may bless you in everything you put your hand to in the land you are entering to possess. Deut. 23:20. Ug.


Josh Gentry said...

Sounds healthy to me. Thankful and generous rather than guilty.

Matt Dick said...

To quote William Munny, in a maybe not so different context, "Deservin's got nothing to do with it."

I'm not sure I can connect earning a salary and a moral position.

The quote from Deuteronomy is a good example of why Christianity is better through the prism of 1000 years of secularism.

JimII said...


The William Munny line is exactly my point, right? Deserving it has nothing to do with it, yet so many believe they deserve what they have. Am I wrong? If your perspective is that your are fortunate to have the life you have, doesn't that change the way you look at the world?

Matt Dick said...

No, we are not saying the same thing. I actually think I'm closer to Munny's quote, but maybe you are.

You are saying, if you don't deserve it in some positive sense, then you are lucky to have anything good.

I am saying that "deserving" as a concept is misplaced in this context. Does the ant deserve his fate -- whatever that may be? I would argue that the ant's actions, and hence his fate, is value-neutral with regard to deserving.

This points to exactly the difference between a religious mind and a secular mind. You believe in a stationary reference point, and I do not.

Nothing is clean, so I am not a total moral relativist, but nobody's pure.

shadowfax said...

How do you index the value of work? How hard a job is isn't a good measure. I think the nurses in my ER possibly have a harder job than I do, but get paid a small fraction of what I do. If the relative importance of a job were the metric, teachers would be paid more than lawyers (for example).

The utilitarian answer, of course, is that you pay as much as you have to in order to get the "best" person for the job, and from the perspective of the individual you get as much as you can from your employer. Is this the same as "deserving" your money? I dunno. For my case, I could have done a number of other things as well or better compensated. As a result I do feel that my work has a value, compared to the rest of the market, which is fair, and that I deserve a fair compensation. This is, it is important to understand, a relative value, and should the economy change -- and become more or less stratified, my perspective of fair compensation would track up or down, respectively.

I don't feel guilty or self-loathing about my income, though maybe a little defensive sometimes...

JimII said...


I understand now. My point is that because our income is unrelated to what we deserve X, Y, and Z. Your point is that one cannot deserve income. So the fact that it is not deserved does not give rise to anything.

Cool. Now I have to think.


JimII said...


You seem to be arguing the opposition position of Matt. For you, some people DO deserve their income, just not for the absolutist reasons I suggested. You write, "For my case, I could have done a number of other things as well or better compensated. As a result I do feel that my work has a value, compared to the rest of the market, which is fair, and that I deserve a fair compensation."

First, I'll let you continue the delusion that you could have made it as an investiment banker or professional baseball player or whatever other job you passed on.

More importantly, I reject your assertion that because you could have other jobs that were compensated in a fashion detached from (1) how hard you work or (2) how valuable your occupation is, that this means you deserve your the income from your current job.

Isn't your relativity argument just another way of saying that we don't get paid based on any abstract idea of value or worth, but based on a vaguely arbitrary system?