We have this idea that people who do certain things deserve rewards, and people who do bad things deserve punishment. We also say that someone who hasn’t done something doesn’t deserve the corresponding reward, and that someone who hasn’t committed a crime doesn’t deserve the punishment for it. This sounds logical and fair, but that is only because it sounds like a sort of equal exchange. Unlike in science, the idea of deserving is not like conservation of mass or energy. It is perfectly possible for someone to work hard and not get any reward, while energy is simply transferred or transformed because that is how energy fundamentally works, without any help or systems set up to make sure that it how it happens.
Rewards and Punishments
Rewards and punishments do not work like that. They need to be set up carefully with systems in place to ensure it, and more importantly they have to be agreed upon. Not everyone agrees on what punishments are deserved for what crimes, and how severe those punishments should be. We don’t even always agree on whether some things should be crimes and deserve punishments. This is not just a pedantic point that physical laws happen naturally while human laws of justice require enforcing, it is to show that the notion we have of deserving being something that is logical is one based on a comparison that doesn’t make sense. We incorrectly associate this proposed idea of rewards and punishments with fairness, thinking that it somehow balances out. It is incorrect to think that somehow a punishment will counter a crime that has already been committed. If something was stolen, the only way to correct that is to return the object. If something was broken, the only way to fix it is to fix it. If someone was killed, there is no possibly way to correct that injustice. Hurting the perpetrator won’t make anything better, it won’t bring the person back, and it won’t make anyone feel better unless they’ve been fooled into thinking that revenge is good. It requires quite some delusion to be content after getting revenge, but still having lost someone you care about and having done nothing to fix that (because there is nothing to fix that).
In essence, punishing someone who has done something wrong is trying to fix a wrong with another wrong. It causes more pain on an attempt to alleviate pain. This is the proverb “two wrongs don’t make a right”. But then it would also make little sense to think that a good act requires another good act to balance it out. There is of course no issue necessarily with wanting to reward someone, because rewards are good things, unlike punishments which are bad things. There would be no moral issue with giving everyone a reward then, if that were feasible, but the idea that people who do good things necessarily require a reward is illogical and arbitrary. It is not bad, nor is it harmful, but the underlying idea that someone’s good actions have earned them a reward is completely arbitrary, and hence it is not valid logic.
Alternatively you could reward someone who hasn’t necessarily done something good, but who has suffered. In this case one could argue that you are not rewarding the act itself, but compensating for the bad that this person took on and suffered in order to accomplish that task. This is more logical than the previous examples given, however it is important to note that most things we do in society are only rewarded if they are deemed useful. We do not generally reward people for working hard but doing the wrong thing. Sometimes we do, or feel that we should, but especially in academic and professional environments, doing the wrong thing, no matter how hard you worked to accomplish it, generally “earns” you a punishment. This is because they don’t care about how hard you worked, at least nowhere near as much as they care about results.
In this case, I would argue that compensating someone for hard work is not really a case of them deserving it or having earned it, it is simply an act of good will that we do not because of what the person has done, but because of the tired, angry, hurt, or other negative state they might be in. This does not mean that we should ignore hard work, as it is often beneficial to recognise it. Perhaps in a way I could agree that hard work or accomplishments can deserve recognition, if the work reflects well on the person or the achievement is noteworthy.
Deserving compared to good will
If someone who worked hard received something good a reward, it is generally seen as deserved. If someone who has done nothing gets something good they wanted, one could say that that person should not have received it because they did not earn it. Why do we have to earn it? We don’t earn out birthday presents, we don’t generally need to actively do anything to live another year that merits a reward, but we still get something. Does living for another revolution of the earth really earn you a reward? I would absolutely say that you do not earn anything for that, however it is nice to commemorate someone’s birthday, and there is absolutely nothing inherently wrong with that. I don’t think most people give someone a birthday present because they think the person has earned it, it is more likely that they want to be nice to the person (or that they’re simply going along with the tradition).
There is little difference between a reward and a present; they are both positive things that someone either wants, needs, or will somehow benefit them. The only difference is that for one we simply give it wishing well to someone, while the other we label as having been earned.
There is no issue of fairness when doing something good for someone. Some might claim, as children often do, that it’s not fair because they didn’t get something too. This is again some sort of misinterpretation of balance and fairness. Friends, partners, and family give each other presents without them having deserves it, and we don’t usually think that that is a bad thing, or even focus on ourselves who did not get a present. We should view one person getting a present as a good thing, not focus on everyone else or just ourselves who did not get presents. One person’s happiness is a good thing, and does not mean that everyone else has been unfairly treated. They have definitely been unequally treated in that moment, since not everyone got a present. However justice is not giving everyone the exact same rewards and punishments at the same times, and to even apply the idea of justice to something so trivial and harmless does not make much sense.
Whenever you do something good, do you think you deserve a reward every time? When you do something bad, do you think you deserve a punishment every time? If we’re iffy about whether or not we deserve these things, then we shouldn’t so arbitrarily and dogmatically enforce these things on others. And if you do reward and punish yourself, I don’t understand why, as it would be pointless.
The idea of deserving can be harmful. At best it makes us feel better, and at worst it makes us become self entitled and think that society is obligated to gives us what we think we deserve. Someone with a skill that society doesn’t need may be very good at what they do and work very hard, but if no one wants what that person does then he will not be rewarded, and this is often brushed off as “laws” of business or economics. In reality it is a hypocrisy in the supposedly meritocratic system, where in reality merit is only given by those in charge to the things they need. If out actions are not rewarded, the idea of deserving suggests that we have been unfairly treated and that we deserve compensation. We might simply be bitter because of this and become cynical, hating people or the system, which is still something that no one should be. Instead we might take what we think we deserve, breaking laws because we think we have earned the right to. This is harmful in general, but more importantly simply does not have any logical founding.
What really happens is that someone has worked hard when they didn’t have to. This is unfortunate and we should try to avoid it, not just for ourselves but to help others avoid it too. It is a strategic mistake either caused by us not knowing how hard we need to work, or others misinforming us or expecting more than we need to do. This is something that wastes peoples time, makes them tired and sometimes makes them suffer. It is a shame when it happens and we should make sure it doesn’t, but we should not think we deserve something in return.
This idea of someone deserving something because of their actions is arbitrary. There is no universal, moral, or other law dictating that actions deserve corresponding consequences. There is no magic scale that is balanced when someone is sent to prison or executed or unbalanced when Jimmy gets a new toy and you don’t. When John does half the work you did and gets a better grade than you, that isn’t a reason to be angry or feel cheated. They are simply events that happened and that we should learn from. We should be happy for Jimmy and John, as they got something good and didn’t even need to suffer for it. We shouldn’t want people to suffer or do poorly, and next time we’ll know that we won’t have to do as much work if we don’t want to.
We have been given a system in which those who do what is asked of them are rewarded. Passing tests and doing well at your job is considered good because it’s beneficial to those in charge. Those who don’t have what we want are dismissed and we allow them to suffer. We punish those who break laws because it theoretically stops them from doing more harm, but as soon as we think about it beyond that we see that it’s simply a form of revenge to make us think justice has been done. It is a primitive system, as even Hammurabi’s Code advocated an arbitrary idea of the punishment being the same as the crime. Entitlement and revenge are backwards, selfish, and unreasonable fallacies.
The idea that people deserve retribution because of what they have done is falsely based on an idea of it being a fair equilibrium, but there is no system which is unbalanced because of someone not getting punished or rewarded, or someone getting a reward they didn’t earn. Things happen and there is no counter balance to restore things back to normal, or to ensure a primitive and false idea of justice. What matters more than this irrational idea of fairness is morality, and avoiding people getting hurt while also trying to make everyone happy. This does not mean that we need to give everyone a present, or that we’re going against the somewhat arbitrary idea of “you can’t make everyone happy all the time”, it simply means that we should look out for each other.
We say that doing good things deserves rewards and doing bad things deserves punishments, assuming that doing so makes the system fair and just again, while really that is an arbitrary idealisation that has no basis.