I think a lot about deservingness. I think most of us think about deservingness all the time, but I’m not sure many of us really think about the concept and idea of deservingness itself. As a student of political science, however, deservingness was something that I was taught as being central to how we understand our relationships between each other, and how we make political decisions with scarce resources. Deservingness plays a central role in how we decide who gets what and when.
Deservingness is a tricky and complex idea that includes concepts of seniority, judgments of effort, evaluations of value, and considerations of disability. In the end, however, we generally rely on vague intuitions and general notions of worthiness to determine who is and is not deserving. In the United States we have decided that senior citizens who have worked for 40 years and paid taxes are deserving of social security checks. We have decided that men and women who have served in the armed forces are deserving of government sponsored insurance and healthcare. And we have decided that people addicted to opioids don’t deserve much of anything (though this sentiment is slowly changing as the demographic of opioid addicts slowly changes to include senior citizens, war veterans, and other deserving people).
I highlight ideas of deservingness to serve as a background context for a quote in Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens. Harari writes, “A significant proportion of humanity’s cultural achievements owe their existence to the exploitation of conquered populations.” We are in a movement today where the contributions of exploited peoples are gaining more recognition. We are seeing people who have historically been marginalized and exploited celebrated for their perseverance, grit, and achievements despite their oppression. Rather than viewing exploited people as inferior and justifying their exploitation on the grounds of higher crime among impoverished neighborhoods and low education among such people, the narrative is being flipped. Oppressed people are being seen as more deserving for the dirty jobs they do and the ways in which they have supported the upper classes which have produced incredible cultural achievements. (I will note, in the United States this particularly applies to minority communities. In my sense, white communities of oppressed people are not being recognized to the same extent, likely contributing to the racial anxiety of our times.)
Harari’s quote can be seen in the infrastructure of America. The Capitol Building and some monuments around Washington DC were built by slaves. An oppressed people enabled our founding fathers to pursue philosophy, art, and a political revolution. In this way, America rests on an exploited and oppressed population.
Much of the animosity and hostility we see between different political parties today is a result in the radical shift in ideas of deservingness that we see with relation to oppressed peoples in our country. The backlash against Critical Race Theory, against Black Lives Matter, and against changing cultural values is in many ways a backlash against the way we view deservingness. Younger generations today are seeing exploited people as being more deserving than those who perpetuated their exploitation. The oppressors were the ones who were educated, lived hygienically, pushed scientific and technological breakthroughs, and created artistic and culturally valuable masterpieces. Yet they did all this while standing on the shoulders of an exploited population. For generations, the oppressors were the ones seen as deserving, but increasingly, the oppressed are now seen as deserving, while the oppressors are not. In this radical shift, groups that have historically been higher in terms of socials status and wealth are threatened, and I believe that is a substantial contributor to the anger and animosity we see in our political system today.
Deservingness is not static. It shifts and changes based on the narratives our cultures believe. We always fight over ideas of deservingness because they can be the difference between government financial support and bankruptcy or the difference between prison and rehabilitation programs. The narratives of deservingness are important and our current radical shift in how we understand deservingness is a big part of the political turbulence we are all experiencing.