27 May 2013

Day 224: Justice and Human Rights - Part 4 - Social Justice: Merits and Deserts

When Aristotle discussed the concept of Justice - he spoke of remedial or corrective justice, which specified how to punish offenders of the law, but he also spoke of distributive justice, where he asked how much each one should get of what, or: how should resources be justly distributed? Aristotle's concept of distributive justice is what is currently known under the term 'social justice'. It is thus not a 'new' concept, but one that has been occupying the minds of people since the ancient period.

We'll have a look at three principles that are often put forward as a basis for 'just' distribution of resources:
1. The principle of merit and desert
2. The principle of need
3. The principle of equality

The principle of merit and desert states that people should be treated according to what they deserve. Material rewards should only be handed out to the deserving. When someone receives something they didn't deserve or when someone doesn't receive something they DO deserve, an injustice occurred in this view.

The question that arises here, of course is: What constitutes a merit?

Is the fact that someone is more talented a basis on which to provide them with more material wealth? Does the person deserve this or is a person's talent merely a matter of luck or chance, and so - not part of one's merit? But then, what about those people who have a talent that they developed themselves through hard work, something they did not have a natural disposition towards, but a skill they developed until they became talented in it? And then - how to distinguish between natural endowments and merits?

Or does merit have to do not so much with how much one contributes by virtue of one's talents, but based on how much effort a person puts in. Here - two people who are equally productive may not be rewarded the same way, because for one it was a struggle while for the other it was a breeze. So - then, the reward-system of distribution based on deserts would create incentive for individuals to place themselvs in positions of struggle just so they could 'earn more'. But is that the kind of life you would encourage for individuals? And - if each one acts accordingly, by choosing a profession or a task they struggle at most - will this really produce the best results for society as a whole?

According to liberalists, the free market is the best system to evaluate merit and desert, where prices and wages determine what a person's contribution is worth to others in society. Yet - herein is not considered that most successful businessmen or businesswomen are not so because of 'merit' or 'desert', but because of privileged backgrounds, because of heritage, because of luck and because of socio-economic access to opportunities. And a classic example I like to use is: who deserves the highest pay: the mineworker who physically works every day or the CEO of the mining company whose most strenuous effort is to place a signature here and there? What is often argued is that the CEO has an investment to lose, and therefore is putting more on the line - but then the counterargument is of course: is the mineworker not putting his life on the line and is the CEO's investment worth as much as his own life?

Liberalists like to pretend that the free market models are perfect for assessing the merit of individuals in how much they contribute to society, but they are actually merely using these models to justify why such huge inequality exists - where they can say: 'Well, you're worse off because that's what you deserve'. And then difficult-sounding jargon is used and graphs are presented that apparently prove their point - but the truth of the matter is: the free market system is not based within merit - it is merely based within competition - and herein, the system does not consider who works harder or who deserves more - it does not make such value judgments - it simply balances opposing forces and then ends up somewhere in between.

Others of a more socialist orientation propose a planned economy, where a person's merit is directly measured by a public institution, such as a government. However, the problem still remains in objectively stipulating the conditions under which we are now speaking of merit and whether such merit-based system will provide the most favorable resutlts.

Psychologically speaking, deserts are linked to a person's expectations. If a person expects to receive high material rewards and then does not receive them, a perception of unjust deprivation will arise, whereas - if a person has adjusted its expectations to previous patterns and as such, does not expect much, may not feel as though they are being deprived of what they deserve - simply because the expectation pattern is different. However, does that mean that the one person is really being deprived and the other not? Is there an objective way of establishing just reward versus unjust deprivation or are these concepts too much influenced through relative perception?

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