Deserve’s Got Nothing to Do With It

I’ve read a few articles and posts in the last few days that highlight something that I think is fundamental to the perpetuation of economic injustice. The first is a month old article by Paul Krugman about the War on the Unemployed (which I found via Fred Clark’s always awesome Scenes from the Class War link farm series). The second is one that I read quickly and neglected to bookmark and thus can no longer find, but dealt with a similar argument in relation to health care, in which those who are sick are conceptualized as deserving their suffering due to their poor choices (inactivity, unhealthy eating, smoking, etc). 

I have often responded to these arguments by pointing towards the many examples that contradict these presumptions of deserved suffering (the obviously-not-at-fault health conditions, for example, or the hardworking unemployed), or by suggesting that multiple structure barriers exist for certain groups and individuals that do not exist for others, such as the high cost of healthy food, or the quality of educational opportunities. And many things about those examples are valid and true, and they point towards the need for policy reform that is based in evidence. But as Krugman points out, evidence doesn’t get through, because the counter-positions aren’t based in evidence. They’re based in what I can’t hesitate to call a toxic moral philosophy of deserved suffering.

I don’t want to make those arguments anymore. The argument that I want to make is summarized entirely in the title to this post, which is not only about recognizing that people rarely get what they ‘deserve’, either negatively or positively, but also about saying that ‘deserve’ has no place in these conversations. I am tired of arguing that poverty is not an earned condition, but more than that, I am overwhelmed by arguing with those who take comfort in the idea of a moral order being realized by deprivation and punitive acts.

The conversation is happening in a cultural framework that values suffering, either through economic sanction, dehumanizing incarceration practices, or the physical pain that comes with untreated health conditions. Deserve’s got nothing to do with it, not just because of the many examples of people who have not earned their suffering (or, for that matter, their luxuries) but because this way of talking about people’s lives is fundamentally broken. In the absence of a way to say that quickly and easily, though, I think I’ll probably continue to fall back on those old arguments, even though I also feel gross when I do it.

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3 thoughts on “Deserve’s Got Nothing to Do With It”

  1. I think more than wanting to feel that people deserve to suffer, it’s more an inherent part of believing that one’s positive aspects (prosperity, good health, etc) are deserved. People like to believe that they deserve the good things they have…and along with that goes the thought that if other people don’t have it so good, they must deserve their misfortune.

    It’s totally false and rather sad…but a lot of people buy into it. Hell, I seem to recall we were on the same side an argument about this very subject back on Christianleft, about prosperity theology.

    1. You make a good point here, and I am being somewhat uncharitable in my framing. I think part of that lack of charity comes from having thought this way for, as you point out, several years, and getting might damn tired of encountering it despite the growing number of examples of the ways that it causes suffering. After a time of it, it certainly starts to feel like the suffering of others is a feature, not a bug, but maybe that perspective deserves a bit more scrutiny.

  2. No, I don’t think you’re being especially uncharitable…I don’t think that callous disregard for the suffering of others is much (if any) better than consciously desiring the suffering of others. At best, it’s like saying, “sure, I walk all over poor people…but at least I don’t intentionally stomp on their sensitive parts, that makes me a good guy, right?”.

    I was just pointing out that a difference in framing makes it a lot easier for people to rationalize…which could contribute to how widespread it is.

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