On Philosophy

March 27, 2007

Feelings Of Entitlement And The Purpose Of Society

Filed under: Political Philosophy,Society — Peter @ 12:00 am

When it comes to taxes some people have very strong feelings. They think that they are entitled to the money that they have earned, and that the government is basically stealing some of it from them. This implies that they think that somehow their work entitles them to that particular sum of money, and thus by extension that they are entitled to more than other people if they are working harder than they are. But why should that be? There is no law of nature that states that the people who work more will receive more. Nor does ethics require us to treat those who work harder better than others; in fact it is the other way around, ethics requires us to treat people more equally. The only way to justify such differential treatment is to argue that somehow they are giving more to society, and thus that society owes them more in return.

This attitude rests on two poor assumptions. The first is that there is some level of rewards that your work automatically entitles you to. I don’t know about other economic systems, but that certainly isn’t the case with capitalism. Under capitalism you are only entitled to the money that someone is willing to pay you. That sum can be reduced by many factors such as an oversupply of workers and taxes. But just because there is some factor that is reducing that sum doesn’t mean that you are entitled to the full sum. From a free market perspective if that sum isn’t what you deserve then don’t work for it, do something else less demanding. Then the reduced supply of workers will force employers to offer more money, which in turn will result in more money to take home after taxes. Or, in other words, the market has decided that the amount you take home after taxes is the amount you deserve. If taxes were reduced, and all other factors were held constant (which obviously they couldn’t be, since elimination of taxes would have innumerable consequences) people would simply be paid less. Thus you are not “entitled” to your pre-tax earnings under capitalism, you are only entitled to what you get.

The second poor assumption that people make is that somehow what they are doing is beneficial to society, and that by working harder than someone else they are benefiting society more, and this probably rests on a misconception about what the point of society is. Most people are paid to make or sell some kind of product, and ideally these products make the people who purchase them happier. But the point of society is not to make people happy, rather the happiness of people is simply a by-product of a healthy society. Instead I think the point of society is to allow as many people as possible to lead the good life, which varies from person to person. This view can be defended simply by considering why people participate in society. If people choose to participate, or want to participate, in society it can only be because society facilities some goal of theirs, and fulfilling these goals leads to living the good life. If society didn’t offer people a better chance of leading the good life they would cut themselves off from it. Of course for some people the good life is a pleasurable one, and so society should spend some effort towards making people happy, but not everyone is so focused on happiness, and even someone who is usually has other goals. Thus the point of society is not to make people happy, or at least that is not the primary concern of society.

If the point of society is to allow people to live the good life then society’s primary concern should be with giving people the power and opportunities to do so. Obviously giving people opportunities means increased freedom, and power usually comes from the availability of tools and resources, with better technology usually giving people more power. And in order to do those things society must survive, which in the long term means expanding, or at least being able to support more people. And so society must develop technologically and intellectually in order to provide people with more power, in the form of better tools and knowledge, to develop better social systems, and to survive and expand.

Of course there are a few people whose work does better society, specifically successful scientists and social leaders, who give the rest of us more power and more opportunities. But I am not one of them, and I doubt that many of the people who feel that society owes them something are either. For the rest of us anything good that we have is thus better viewed as a benefit of society, a gift that society gives us. The opportunity to have money and the ability to buy what you want with it is such a gift from society, and thus we don’t have grounds to complain if society gives us less than we would like it too; and if society is really holding you back from leading the good life by taxing you then you can always leave (perhaps to be a hermit?).

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1 Comment

  1. The philosopher is subject to a classic free rider problem: if a philosopher gives a society good advice and they follow it and find it to be correct, what compels society to pay the philosopher now that they have already received the benefit of the idea? If we further suppose that certain kinds of philosophy are only possible if one devotes years of full time effort to them, then how will society receive any of the benefits of philosophy?

    I think the current system more or less works to resolve the problem: philosophers are forced to do a side job of teaching college kids logic and generally amusing them with reports from the life of the mind, in exchange for freedom to pursue philosophical projects as they see fit. But, the current university system does in a sense depend on philosophers being paid more than their “worth” if their worth was measured solely by what they do as part of their day job (teaching college kids semi-useful thinking skills).

    Comment by Carl — March 27, 2007 @ 4:19 pm


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