Saturday, July 29, 2006

He Earned His Hormones Fair And Square

I'm not a sports person, but sports do provide plenty of opportunities to examine our ideas of justice, fairness, and desert. So, springboarding off of my earlier post on the doping charges being leveled against Tour de France winner Floyd Landis, I want to talk (read: gripe) a little bit about the way we typically think about deserving something.

Landis's defense:
Sounding more defiant than the day before, eyes flashing and voice steady, Floyd Landis looked into the cameras Friday and said he would prove he "deserved to win" the Tour de France.

In his first public appearance since a urine test showing a testosterone imbalance cast his title into doubt, the American said his body's natural metabolism - not doping of any kind - caused the result, and that he would soon have the test results to prove it.

What difference, exactly, does it make whether Landis's high levels of testosterone are the result of a regimen of drugs or just a natural fact of his physiology? Insofar as higher levels of testosterone give Landis an advantage over his competitors, it seems like those levels are unfair and undeserved. What makes Landis so special that facts about his physiology totally beyond his control make him "deserve" anything at all? That testosterone didn't literally fall out of the sky...but it might as well have.

Now, in the case of sports, you can sort of wave this talk away as pointlessly academic because, after all, you can just treat sports as ways of evaluating whose natural physiology is best suited to such-and-such activities. That works because the outcome of a game is just precisely insofar as the winner has abided by the rules. (This is part of the reason I find sports so inconsequential and, therefore, boring.)

Most of the rest of the world isn't like that; the outcome of an event typically has implications for the welfare of at least one person. Frequently, as in the case of many government activities, the outcome has very significant implications for the well-being of many individuals. In terms of the concept of "desert", though, the analogy to sports survives entirely intact.

We tend to think things like, "Mr. Jones earned his money because he's a smart, capable, hard-working individual. He deserves the things he has." And once we tie an asset (e.g., money) to the idea of desert, we become increasingly disinclined to see that asset redistributed. "What did that poor person do to deserve Mr. Jones's money?"

Well, nothing. That poor person certainly didn't earn Mr. Jones's money. But, then, neither did Mr. Jones. Mr. Jones didn't earn his intelligence or his capability. For that matter, he didn't earn his work ethic, either. Those are all characteristics that are inherited through genes or sculpted by external forces. Nobody chooses to be hard-working, at least not ultimately. Such a choice, in any event, is itself going to be the result of entirely accidental facts about one's physiology or environment. To put it another way, you can't choose to choose to be hard-working.

Desert, as a concept, often plays a very useful role because it inclines us to set up institutions that allow for very large degrees of autonomy and privacy. At the margins, though, we run into cases in which by infringing upon the demands of the concept of desert we can create a situation that is, on balance, more just. In such cases it's useful to remember that desert is a useful idea, but not an intrinsically valuable one.

P.S. - There is an unfortunate use of the word "desert" that allows us to say things like, "All people deserve to be treated with respect." I think those statements are true, but they seem to use a somewhat different definition of "desert" - one less tied up with the idea of "earning" something - than the one I'm referring to above.


Rebecca C. Brown said...

This could also be analogized to affirmative action. Who "deserves" to go to a good university? Well, whoever will make that university better, that's who. The complication there, though, is that having parents with lots of money don't inherently make you a better student (whereas being good at tests does), but parents' income and test scores tend to directly correlate. Then, of course, you can argue about what actually makes a university better.

Rebecca C. Brown said...

Oh, but to address the idea of "deserving" anything. You skirted around the issue of free will, which you have a better academic understanding of than I do. You implied that brain chemistry and environment in tandem dictate everyone's decisions and abilities, which I'm inclined to agree with for the most part. You could abandon the ideas of desert and fairness in favor of asking, per my previous comment, Will rewarding this person elicit the desired effect for me? But as a society it's not best to only reward those who already have what we want. Making efforts to "even the playing field" (e.g., universal free education, holistic university admissions criteria, ROPs), I would argue, improves society, which benefits everyone. I'm not disagreeing with your argument, by the way. Just fleshing it out a little more. I'm also more comfortable with "earning" than "deserving;" I don't think they're the same thing.

Paul said...

I didn't mean to skirt around the free will thing. As an intellectual issue, I don't believe in it. What I meant by the "You can't choose to choose to be hard-working" comment was this:

Any time somebody says, "I chose to do X," you can respond by asking, "Why did you choose to do X?" The answer to that question, as best I can tell, has to either be something the person clearly cannot control (in which case the idea of free will wouldn't apply) or something they might feel like they can control (maybe they say, "Well, I chose to do X because my New Year Resolution was to lose weight.")

But even if they come up with something like the latter example, you can just ask again, "Well, why did you choose to make that your New Year Resolution?" And then you're in the same position and you can keep digging, but eventually you're going to hit bedrock, and you're going to find the physical/physiological/sociological facts that, together, caused this person to do X.

A choice is an event like any other - it is determined, entirely, by the state of events that immediately proceed it. (Either that, or it's random, which is hardly free will either.)

Tommaso Sciortino said...

This reminds me of a post Matt yglesias had where he was agreeing with something from maxspeak. I've been looking for it all day but I can't find it.

Paul said...

Yglesias always has all of my good ideas well before I do.