Recently I was watching some sports and a recurring commercial came on that featured an elderly gentleman urging senior citizens to take advantage of the Medicare enrollment period and to get what they deserve. The assumption was that older people deserve a certain amount of benefits as a result of their age, or perhaps the years that they have worked, or something else of that nature. For a variety of reasons I tend to be rather hostile towards arguments based on just desserts, and this particular commercial struck me as particularly galling.
In the United States, there is a general expectation that the current benefits that are received by the elderly are not going to be able to last all that long and that there will be drastic reductions for those in the years to come before I reach that age myself. Will people deserve less because there is less to give? Is my generation somehow more wicked than current senior citizens, and what we deserve will be a shove into the cold or working until we die? This is the sort of problem one runs into when one assumes that entitlement is deserved. The entire issue with entitlement culture is the belief that people are themselves entitled to certain things from others, obligated to support those who are not necessarily worthy of anything on their own personal merits.
What is it that we in fact deserve? I do not think that this question receives nearly enough attention. This question can be divided into two parts. The first question is what have we earned? This question is straightforward enough, and the answer is that it depends on where we are and when we have lived and what terms we exist under. In general, we may say that someone earns reciprocal treatment to what they have given. In a moral sense, we deserve death for the sins that we have committed, and no one can earn or be worthy of grace from God or anyone else. Depending on the companies or people we have worked for or the places where we live, we may have earned a certain amount of Social Security credits or pension benefits or something else of that nature through the work we have done over the course of our lives. These terms, of course, may change at any time, and depend to a large extent on what others are willing to or able to provide.
The second question strikes more at where entitlements become a problem, and that is what do we think we are owed by others by virtue of who we are without having in fact earned anything? It is easy enough to think of what we deserve in terms of reciprocity with others, but what most people demand from others is far beyond that. Are others being unjust to us if they do not treat us how we demand to be treated? What we demand may not in fact be reasonable and just to begin with, and we often think in terms of what we demand from others, and not the reciprocal demands that would be placed on us if we treated others the way we wanted to be treated. What we give in this life and what we get may differ wildly from each other, and we may think we deserve far more (or far less, but that is another issue) than we in fact do. We are poor judges of our own causes. It would be better if we gave to this world what we wanted to get from it, and let our example do more of the talking rather than our demands.