A distinctive feature of the ideology of “social justice” is that it eliminates desert. Unlike ordinary justice, which insists that people should get what they deserve, the doctrine that everyone has a right to be equal and to be treated equally has no use for that idea. For if everyone should get what they deserve, they will get very unequal things. Desert, or merit, explodes equality, and so equality prohibits desert. John Rawls, the philosopher of “social justice,” teaches that not only do we not deserve the talents we are born with, but also we do not deserve whatever we accomplish with those talents. If we run in a race with a prize promised for first place, then, he allows, the one who comes first can be said to “deserve” the prize, in the sense of having a “reasonable expectation” of receiving it, because it was promised, there was an “institution.” But there is no such thing as “natural desert” or “pre-institutional desert,” desert as most people understand it, that would hold good in the absence of an institution such as a promise. From which, of course, it would follow that a murderer does not deserve to be punished unless murder has antecedently been threatened with punishment by the civil law; though Professor Rawls curiously does not discuss this.
The announcement of Mr. Obama’s Nobel prize has aroused the objection that he has done nothing to deserve it. The objection is perfectly true. But for the partisans of “social justice” who awarded the prize the objection is beside the point, because they do not believe in desert. As Mr. Obama himself does not. No one who believes in redistribution, “sharing the wealth around,” believes in giving people what they deserve. What we deserve depends on what we have done. Mr. Obama has been awarded the prize simply for being Mr. Obama and not Mr. Bush.
In understanding the brave new world the Left wishes to create for us, it is important to realise it is a world like Mr. Obama’s prize: entirely without desert. Their vision of human life does not include anybody deserving anything, as desert is normally understood. Desert is replaced by compassion. Compassion for pain is of course a requirement of ordinary humanity, but compassion belongs within desert, not in place of it. Socrates argued rightly that criminals should be punished not only because they deserve it but also because punishment of guilt heals the soul. Human life without desert is childish and therefore pathological. Very many of the pathologies of our society can be explained by our refusal as a society to accept desert. Our schools have “social promotion” because it would be too painful to give the students the grades they deserve; so the students never fail, but the schools fail. Our workers have minimum wages because it would be too painful to pay them only what their labor justifies in the market; rather let the firm fail. There must be two different sets of examinations for entrance into the police force because it would be too painful to pass only those who deserve to pass. We have women serving in the military, not because of their military abilities but because it would be too painful to accept inequality.
The ability to accept desert is a requirement of growing up. Compassion is fine and beautiful, but it is no substitute for the adulthood of desert.