Saturday, October 22, 2011


Here is a basic question that we have to answer for ourselves: When does a need for something become an entitlement to that thing?

This is a difficult question to answer, because there are a remarkable number of variables to consider.

Consider the fable of the grasshopper and the ants. The grasshopper frolics all spring and summer, while the ants spend their time working to lay in stores for the fall and winter. Eventually, as the seasons turn, the grasshopper starts to go hungry. Now, considering that this story is a fable, and thus a morality tale, conventional wisdom holds that the grasshopper has to appeal to the charitable instincts of the ants, and if those fail him, he goes hungry. But there is a counter-moral, which holds that for the ants to withhold charity is to fail in their moral obligations just as much as the grasshopper did, and two wrongs don't make a right.

Or consider this conundrum, which we argued vociferously back when I was a high-school student in a Catholic academy. A man's wife is dying. There is a medicine that can save her, but the price that the pharmacist asks is to high for the man to pay. May he legitimately steal the medicine? If he does, must he make amends to the pharmacist? If so, what may the pharmacist ask of him as recompense? What if he asks too much of the man? And so it goes. As you can imagine, it was a very contentious debate.

Leaving these somewhat contrived examples behind, and moving on into real life, things become even more convoluted, partially because things do not scale very well. Generally speaking, we are uncomfortable imposing on individuals measures that we are more willing to impose on communities. Neither do they transfer well - we tend to be less sanguine about measures imposed on ourselves than we are about measures imposed on others. There also the question of relative imposition - sometimes people are willing to impose one part of a deal but not another. (Generally speaking, given a arrangement that works to the advantage of both parties vis-à-vis the status quo, the least advantaged party may be allowed to impose this upon the other party, but the more advantaged party almost never is.)

At the bottom of it all is a simple concept that is often overlooked. Ideas such as fairness, justice and equity are not objective physical characteristics, but rather subjective understandings of certain situations, and defined in relation to how we each see the world. While it's a simple matter to get most people to agree that "Murder is always wrong," (especially given the fact that as a tautology, it's correct by definition) "the killing of someone who has done no intentional harm to you is always wrong," can be a subject of intense debate.

And it's that very lack of objectivity, and our difficulty in seeing and/or conceding it, that threatens to make this an endless debate.