Have you been getting what you deserve lately? Are there some people you can think of who you’d like to make sure get what they deserve? It seems that we can use the idea of people “getting what they deserve” in diametrically opposing ways. For example, we can think about the poorest global citizens getting what they deserve in terms of access to timely, affordable, high-quality health care. And we can think about con artists who swindle elderly pensioners getting what they deserve.
Having polarising ways of discussing the same concept is not the only interesting thing about the idea of people getting what they deserve. There is an inescapable judgement being made any time the idea of someone being deserving of something is discussed. The immediate question that springs to my mind is “Who makes the decision about what other people deserve?” And that question is quickly followed by, “So who decides what the person who decides what others deserve, deserves?”
There are certainly problems in the world that need urgent solving, but I don’t think that focusing on what people deserve is going to help us much at all. In fact, it could very well make things worse. Paul Farmer is an inspirational medical anthropologist and physician at Harvard University who co-founded Partners in Health (PIH). He is quoted as saying, “The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.” These are strong words, but words that I think are also pretty accurate.
If the idea that some lives matter less is the very essence of what is wrong with the world, then the “deserve” concept is part of the cause, rather than the cure, for some of the most serious problems of our time, such as health and social inequity. A life that is deserving surely matters more than a life that is not deserving. It’s a chilling concept.
I think we need to change the conversation. Rather than a question of what people deserve, a far more constructive question might be to wonder what people require. And, of course, once the conversation gets around to considering what people require, the obvious next question is “Require to do what?” The idea of “require” necessarily implies that something might be going to happen if the necessary requirements are in place.
There seems to be an inherent future focus to the idea of “require” that’s missing from the notion of “deserve.” The gaze of “deserve” is much more fixated on the past. As a just, humane, and compassionate society, we might decide that the answer to “Require to do what?” is “To lead a productive, contented, valued life.” Of course, whether a person does lead that kind of life or not is entirely up to them, but it should be the responsibility of organisations and governments at all levels to ensure that the requirements are in place for them to lead the kind of life they would wish for themselves.
So, another benefit of thinking about living from a “require” rather than a “deserve” perspective is that it allows us to demarcate areas of responsibility. From this perspective, it is the responsibility of governing bodies and policy makers to ensure that environments are sufficiently resourced so that the people who busy themselves in those environments have the necessary requirements to go about their business without preventing others from doing the same thing. Whether people do go about their business or not is another question entirely.
And if we understand people to be controllers, we can move a long way down the track of establishing environments for people to flourish. We are all controllers. Even little babies are controllers and, with their very restricted means of communication, the newest humans can indicate when they have what they require. Ironically, we’ve even labelled one of the conditions that develops when babies don’t have what they require as “failure to thrive.” Perhaps we should be considering “failure to thrive” as a general condition, not restricted to babies. Poverty of the human spirit might be the most damning deprivation of all.
People with “green thumbs” who masterfully entice plant life to flourish have mastered the knack of providing what is required, at least in the garden. And thinking about what plants require can be instructive. Plants require a “just right” amount of water. Too much can be just as damaging as not enough. Plants also require a “just right” amount of nutrients. Again, too many can be just as damaging as not enough. And even though plants can’t talk, tweet, or send emails, they are definitely able to let you know when they are not getting what they require. The empty pots and withered stalks in my backyard are testament to that.
Although the differences between flora and fauna are many, all plants and animals are controllers. As controllers, we have “just rights” that constantly need balancing in the same way that plants do. The balancing is the same, but the just rights are different. We certainly have just rights for how much water and nutrients we require but we also have just rights for much more complex things such as the life we want to live and who we want to live it with.
If we are going to build relationships, homes, neighbourhoods, communities, towns, cities, and nations where we all have the opportunity to flourish, we need to think about what people, as controllers, require, not what we deserve. There is strong evidence from a health and social-equity perspective that we could be doing much better at providing what people require. Infant mortality, suicide rates, violence, debilitating psychological distress, and significant differences in life expectancy are some of the indicators that we need to change the conversation.
Contented and productive social living must not be about getting what you deserve. Instead, let’s grow a conversation of requirement. Harmonious communities will emerge when people have what they require to live a life that is just right according to their own design.