Shedding Desert

The Desertless Life, part 2

Grace is a mix of concepts. Grace is unearned, undeserved. So it’s luck. Serendipity. But not just that.

Grace is also a name for the fact that the best things in life are free. They are just given.

Further, grace includes overtones of providence. No matter what, you are provided for.

Also wrapped up in the idea of grace is our response to it. Grace compels gratitude (a connection more obvious to Spanish-speakers, who have the same word, gracias, for both graces and thank you). In that gratitude, grace bids us, receivers of grace, to become instruments of spreading grace to others. When all the blessings we receive and the blessing that we are to the world merge into one thing – one thing in which giving and receiving are indistinguishable – that one thing is grace.

Central to the concept of grace is that it is undeserved. So I want to focus today on the concept of desert – that is, deservingness.

Desert theory is not about theoretical models of the effects or benefits of having something sweet after a meal. Desert theory has to do with deservingness – who deserves what – as in the old phrase “just deserts,” meaning something justly or fairly deserved.

It’s common for us to invoke desert. We say a hard-working and productive worker deserves a raise -- a vicious criminal deserves a harsh penalty – or someone who has suffered a series of misfortunes deserves some good luck for a change. This is a casual, loose way of talking. Does it really hold up?

Let’s do some philosophy on this – enter into the head-space of examining concepts. These are the concepts we live with, so it behooves us every once in a while to do some concept cleaning, and the Imbolc cleaning time seems the perfect time.

Do we need this concept of desert (deservingness)? For starters, let's notice a distinction between entitlement and desert. "Deserving of" doesn't mean "entitled to" and "entitled to" doesn't mean "deserving of." We would feel that a disrespectful and sometimes even abusive grandson didn’t deserve his grandfather’s inheritance, but if grandpa’s will says he gets it, then he’s entitled to it.

Entitlement isn’t the same thing as deserving, but they often overlap, and if we’ve got entitlement, maybe we don’t need a notion of deserving. So instead of saying that hard-working and productive employee deserves a raise, we could provide greater clarity for everyone involved by specifying the performance standards for a raise, thereby creating an entitlement when those standards were met. Entitlement can better do the work for which we sometimes lean on a concept of deserving.

Admittedly, the concept of entitlement is sometimes misused. Most concepts are. Neverthless, I would say we probably need to keep some concept like entitlement. Desert, however, we could maybe do without. Deserving is such a subjective, nebulous notion. It’s very hard to say where deservingness comes from. Entitlement, on the other hand, has to do with specified rules and procedures, so it’s easier to get a handle on when it applies.

Most of who we are and what we do is determined by a mix of native endowments, genetics, and by the circumstances into which we are born -- with perhaps some randomizing function in the way "nature" and "nurture" interact. I didn’t do anything to create my genes or the circumstances into which I was born -- nor have any control over the randomizing function. I didn’t create the universities that educated me. The extent to which I applied myself to my studies (middling, for the most part) came from sources which I also didn’t create: the mix of genetic predispositions and the habits and values instilled by my circumstances. So how can I deserve any of the consequences that come to me from who I am and what I do? Consequences certainly come, some positive and some negative, and they shape what I do going forward, but is there any point in calling some of those consequences “deserved” and other consequences “undeserved”?

Of course, entitlement isn't always a suitable substitute for deservingness. Sometimes setting up the rules and procedures of an entitlement would be deadly cumbersome. For example, suppose you want to do something nice for somebody named Bess. “Bess deserves it,” you say to yourself. It would kill the impulse if you tried to set up personal rules for yourself that dictated, for you, just what criteria someone could meet for you to do something nice for them. So, in this case, there’s no question of anyone being entitled to anything, under either a social institution or your own established personal policy. You just want to do something nice. Why? "Because she deserves it," you tell yourself.

But does the notion of deservingness add anything? Is there any content to what you’ve told yourself? You have a positive regard for Bess or for what she’s done, and either you want to reward it, to encourage more of it, or you want your relationship with Bess to be one in which the two of you simply celebrate your appreciations of each other. Neither of those two reason needs a concept of deservingness. For either of those reasons, or for a combination of them, you do something nice for Bess -- and those reasons are wholly sufficient. No notion of desert is needed.

The idea of deserving something positive can be replaced, in some cases, with policies creating entitlements. In other cases, desert can be replaced with notions of reward, or of celebrating appreciation (or a mix of the two).

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This is part 2 of 3 of "The Desertless Life"
See also
Part 1: Mid-Winter Groundhog Grace
Part 3: I Don't Deserve a Donut

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