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June 16, 2011 9:49 PM   Subscribe

What does it mean to "deserve" something?

When we say, "You deserve to have someone who loves you for who you are" or "you deserve an honest answer" or "you deserve a chance to make a living" or "we all deserve to be treated equally" or any time we say "you/I/we deserve" something, what does that mean?

Does it mean that you have some kind of 'right' to that thing? In which case, who or what is supposed to enforce that? Is it just a case of "you (magic word)deserve(/magic word) it, so keep asking/trying/complaining until you get it?"

I'm confused by the use of this word and I'm not sure how to answer when someone says something like "You deserve better" or "I want X, I deserve it!" What does 'deserve' really mean, when used this way?
posted by Pastor of Muppets to Society & Culture (36 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Deserve in my mind means something you've earned, or put in the work for, and are entitled to. Individuals deserve certain things by their very existence (equal treatment under the law, etc) and deserve certain other things by the actions they commit to in their lives.
posted by msbutah at 9:57 PM on June 16, 2011

Well, when we say "You deserve a break today" it means, instead of making your own healthy breakfast, be lazy and buy some congealed animal fat in a paper wrapper, this making McDonalds Corporation richer.

"Deserve" is a word suited to Baby Boomer white Americans, who can't or won't acknowledge the costs (usually apportioned to others) of their bottomless maws of want want want.
posted by orthogonality at 9:58 PM on June 16, 2011 [9 favorites]

It means that the thing is something any person should/can reasonably... expect/hold out for... and if you accept less, you are treating yourself unfairly.
posted by moxiedoll at 10:00 PM on June 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Well, when someone says 'You deserve better', they often mean 'you should not allow yourself to settle for this bad thing you have now, and instead continue to seek a better version of it'. They're not saying anyone out there is going to enforce it, but are suggesting that you yourself should stand up for it and demand it. Mostly applied in situations where either The Man or your man has done you wrong.

Basically it either means 'you should have this because it is basically appropriate for anyone in your situation' or that 'you should have this because you have earned it in some way'. The things you can deserve can be concrete things (a raise in pay, ice cream) or nebulous things (respect, honesty), and the things you do to earn those things can be similarly concrete (finishing the TPS report, getting an A on your test) or nebulous (being a good person yourself, having acted in good faith).
posted by jacquilynne at 10:04 PM on June 16, 2011 [6 favorites]

"Your worth is such that you should get this outcome."

If you have treated your partner with honesty, you have earned honesty in his or her treatment of you. Assuming you are not a raging asshole, you merit someone who loves you for your unique qualities instead of, say, your social stature or bank balance.

It's horrendously overused to the point of being almost meaningless these days, though, so I'm not surprised you are confused. (See also: tragedy and hero.) People often use it in place of entitled, and tend to use in reference to things they are not, in fact, entitled to.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:07 PM on June 16, 2011 [5 favorites]

I've always seen it as the tangible and specific results (or potential results) of one's willful actions. So if someone works hard and proves their worth at work, then they "deserve" a raise. If they steal from the company and lie to their boss, they "deserve" to get fired.

While I prefer not to use it with abstractions - such as "You deserve to have someone who loves you for who you are," - it can work, as jacquilynne pointed out nicely. I just find myself asking, "Well, why do you deserve it? Show your work." But that's just me being cynical. YMMV.

All too often, though, "deserve" is indeed used as a synonym for "want," and not just by Boomers....
posted by MShades at 10:08 PM on June 16, 2011

For some people, there's such a thing as moral desert, metaphysically endowed but occasionally thwarted by humanity. For others, there's just such a thing as having legitimate expectations. See here and here.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 10:10 PM on June 16, 2011

IMO, it simply means to be worthy. To be worthy of love, to be worthy of an honest answer, etc. There is something about you that makes you worthy of these things. To many people, that something is just being a good human. So you wouldn't call it a right. I would call it more of a principle. We consider good humans to be inherently valuable, have inherent worth.
posted by Ashley801 at 10:12 PM on June 16, 2011

"X deserves Y" means "I want it to be the case that X Y"
posted by Electrius at 10:18 PM on June 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

It often doesn't mean much. It means whatever people want it to mean. Saying it refers to someone's "worth" or what's "appropriate" just begs the question. People use "deserve" to justify whatever they already believe, as if they arrived at their conclusion by figuring out what's deserved.
posted by John Cohen at 10:32 PM on June 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

You say it to your friends or acquaintances who you think are good people as a way of telling them they shouldn't put up with a bad situation. I probably wouldn't say "you deserve better than x situation" to someone I didn't respect (for ex, someone who was treating myself or other people unkindly). It's supposed to be encouraging and validating.
posted by sunnychef88 at 10:35 PM on June 16, 2011

There are some social psychology principles at work here - the Reciprocity principle for one, and the Just World hypothesis spring to mind. The former refers to the idea that we all seem to have that good actions should be followed by good outcomes, and bad actions should get bad outcomes. The link between the action and the outcome is the "deserve" part. If you do something nice, you deserve something nice in return, or so we think.

The Just World hypothesis is similar. We like to believe the world is not arbitrary, that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad. According to this theory, when a bad thing happens to a good person, we search around for some explanation that shows that the person "deserved" the bad thing to happen. Like if someone dies in a car crash, we ask if they were wearing seat belts, or if they have cancer, we try to determine if they smoked, anything to prove that it wasn't random, that the person did something to deserve their fate, thus preserving our sense that the world is just.
posted by jasper411 at 10:36 PM on June 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think there are at least a couple of ways of thinking about it.

One way is that rewards and punishments have a weight or a value, and if your own conduct weighs the same, then you getting that reward or punishment would be fair and appropriate. This is almost a justice or karma approach to 'deservedness', and probably goes down well with consequentialists.

Another way is to suppose that we have duties in respect of one another. I have a duty to give you an explanation. We have a duty to treat one another equally. If there's something standing in the way of you making a living, we have a duty to do something about that. This creates a corresponding entitlement on your behalf; if these duties are universal and inalienable (or even if we suppose they apply to a particular class of person, and you're in that class), then you have a reasonable expectation that others will fulfil that duty in repsect of you - you 'deserve' that.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 10:37 PM on June 16, 2011

You say it to your friends or acquaintances who you think are good people as a way of telling them they shouldn't put up with a bad situation. I probably wouldn't say "you deserve better than x situation" to someone I didn't respect

Actually, this is a good example of how vacuous "deserve" is: you see it all the time here in AskMe, said to people who post relationshipfilter questions. "You deserve better than someone who ___s!" Often, this is said to an anonymous OP. We don't know anything about this person! How could we know what they "deserve"? So, it doesn't really have to do with assessing how well someone has measured up to any standard. It just means you should take something better if you can get it, since that's what's in your interest.
posted by John Cohen at 10:41 PM on June 16, 2011 [4 favorites]

I'm not sure if you're asking about casual usage, or if this is a question about ethical terminology. But I'm going to assume the latter, mainly because I have something to say about that and nothing to say about the former ;^)

I had an interesting discussion with a philosophy prof years ago about what a "right" is. I remember arguing that "rights" or "desert" are not things one really has. Rather, such language is just a way of rephrasing an obligation. Instead of saying, "Hey everyone in the world, don't do X to me" we say "I have a right to not suffer X" or "I don't deserve X." In the process, you lose the sometimes thorny issue of who exactly it is that owes you the thing in question - sometimes the answer is "everyone" (civil rights, e.g.) and other times it's harder to pin down (for example, a "right to happiness"). Phrasing it as "possession" of a nebulous thing makes it useful as an argument stopper, too, especially in the nation that gave humanity the phrase "inalienable rights."

The prof countered that we often have obligations that would be absurd to phrase as rights - if I have an obligation to punish a criminal, does that mean the criminal has a right to the punishment? Does a lazy student have a right to fail? I introduced the concept of desert to answer those objections.... We went back and forth in several papers - he was writing a book on the topic. It's not like we solved the problem in any meaningful way, but I think it helped us both refine our thinking on the subject.

I think my instinct to make rights into a linguistic construct stems from a general dislike of the sort of metaphysical ideas M. Caution refers to above. Having since abandoned my dream of creating a rock-solid non-theistic ethical system, I now find Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue fits my outlook on ethics best. He talks about the narratives of our various social roles creating obligations (and deserts). It's a pretty good and readable book; if you are a non-philosopher asking thorny ethics questions, you might find it worth your time.
posted by richyoung at 10:51 PM on June 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

Hmm, I'm thinking it wouldn't be appropriate to say "You deserve better..." if the OP sounded like he was being an unfair douchebag to his SO with his actions. We know a little about the OP through the explanation given for the questions. The standard would definitely arbitrary, though.
posted by sunnychef88 at 10:52 PM on June 16, 2011

I don't see it as a statement of judgment (i.e. "you've done x tangible decent things therefore you are deserving"), but rather as a gentle reminder to the recipient to knock off their self-hatred/self-loathing. It's really easy to get down on yourself and convince yourself by twisted lines of logic that for whatever reason you actually aren't worthy of love or happiness or whatever, that you've done something horrible or there's something wrong with you. The speaker is just telling the person to knock of that nonsense and don't be your own worst enemy.
posted by Rhomboid at 10:55 PM on June 16, 2011

We know a little about the OP through the explanation given for the questions.

How can we know anything about someone based on their own one-sided, self-serving account of what happened? Face it, even if there were such a thing as someone's general "worth," you couldn't figure it out from reading one of their AskMe posts. The "deserve" line is either meant to make people feel better or to point out that they have better options.
posted by John Cohen at 11:00 PM on June 16, 2011

Yes, it's cringeworthy in an anonymous Askmefi for exactly the reasons John Cohen mentions, but in that case, I think it's shorthand for "anyone deserves better" (than than TMF you should DA).
posted by orthogonality at 11:06 PM on June 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

It's just a nice hopeful thing people say to try to make their lives (or others) suck a little less.
posted by zephyr_words at 11:16 PM on June 16, 2011

People have been called out for sounding ridiculous with their questions. "How do I get my wife to lose the baby weight faster so I can be attracted to her again...?" and "Why wouldn't my boyfriend switch religions when I asked him to? " likely wouldn't get as many "deserve" statements in response.
posted by sunnychef88 at 11:18 PM on June 16, 2011

Philosophy has a lot to say about the concept of desert (that is, what it means to say a person "deserves" something in the ethical sense).

You might also be interested in further debates in what's called "meta-ethics" - that is, if we think that it's an ethical truth that "x is a morally right action", what makes that true? What makes right actions right? Is it only our conventional agreement about the meanings of the words involved, or is there a deep absolute truth about what's right and wrong, or are these ethical terms basically just like sayng "yay" or "boo" for actions we approve or disapprove?
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:22 PM on June 16, 2011

Any social grouping has behavioural norms. There is always some set of behaviours that is expected of group members by others. Failure to conform to these expectations will always have consequences of some sort, ranging from shunning all the way through mildly raised eyebrows and into adulation.

Some norms don't generally get explicitly formulated; they get transmitted from member to member by pure monkey-see, monkey-do. Others are codified in extreme detail.

Rights and deserts are, effectively, a compact way to codify certain expected sets of behaviours.

Being told that you deserve X is a compact way to say that you have your social group's encouragement and support to engage in whatever the accepted set of behaviours is for gaining X.

Being told that you don't deserve X is a compact way to say that X is a consequence of behaviours that your social group generally disapproves of (either your own behaviour in the case of something like "you don't deserve to be paid as much as you are", or somebody else's in the case of something like "you don't deserve to be treated like a doormat").

Viewed in this light, it is clear that the set of things that each of us deserves is not and cannot be universal; it depends entirely on the social groups we find ourselves being involved with.
posted by flabdablet at 11:29 PM on June 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

> "We don't know anything about this person! How could we know what they "deserve"?"

I think the idea in these cases is that they deserve it as a human being.
posted by auto-correct at 11:57 PM on June 16, 2011 [4 favorites]

I suspect that some of the uncertainty about the meaning of “deserve” stems from the use that John Cohen notes above. In an advertising and marketing context, “deserve” has come to simply mean “because.” As in, “Get the home you deserve,” “get the car you deserve,” “get the vacation you deserve.” Acquire this thing which you desire (or at least, have been told that you should desire), but which seems unattainable or extravagant. Why should you do this? Because it is a thing that a person who is you should have. It's the laziest sales argument ever... American exceptionalism on a personal level.
posted by mumkin at 12:31 AM on June 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Does it mean that you have some kind of 'right' to that thing? In which case, who or what is supposed to enforce that? Is it just a case of "you (magic word)deserve(/magic word) it, so keep asking/trying/complaining until you get it?"

How about
"you (magic word)deserve(/magic word) it, so rightfully you ought to have gotten/soon get it"

The usage of the word is vague enough to allow for what I'd tentatively call colloquial stretch. This potential may be the reason for your confusion, but I'm sure it is the reason people keep using the word like they do: it is often meant to suggest some basic right of a kind that almost could be enforced but somehow can't. Like, when you wake up with a pimple on your face on the day of a job interview, you don't deserve that, but what are you gonna do.
posted by Namlit at 1:47 AM on June 17, 2011

In the specific context of relationshipfilter questions, especially the DTMFA ones, "deserve" usually indicates "you should not have to put up with your current situation, because you are capable of better." It's not a specific evaluation of one person's worth or karma or whatever; it's a belief that all humans should be treated with a baseline of kindness and respect. I don't believe anyone "deserves" to be scared in their own home, or feel unloveable or ignored, or be physically or verbally abused. Not even jerks.

There's a line in The Perks of Being a Wallflower that goes, "we accept the love we think we deserve." Often, people in unhealthy thought patterns or unhealthy personal relationships have it in their head that what they currently have is the best they can get, or that for some reason they're not as good as other people. Sometimes they need to hear from an outside source that they have worth like everyone else.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:41 AM on June 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

"Deserve" is the difference between what is happening and what we believe should be happening.

Thus, in a lot of cases, "deserve" is connected to the ego. It is a way to rationalize what the ego wants, or an appeal to some unseen authority. To say someone deserves or doesn't deserve something is to sort of handwave or skip over the question of whether something is fair or equitable, and simply state that it is or it isn't.

"I want a fine automobile" = this person wants something, and if you disagree, you have to state the case as to whether getting that thing is feasible or not.

"I deserve a fine automobile" = this person wants something, and if you disagree, you are forced to state a case about the person's worth.
posted by gjc at 6:55 AM on June 17, 2011

Deserve: to be worthy of. (m-w.com)

We can say to anonymous strangers on AskMe that the deserve to be with someone who doesn't treat them like crap, for example, because that's something that everyone is worthy of by virtue of being a human being.
posted by J. Wilson at 8:27 AM on June 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

I would ask you the question, are rights contingent upon the ability to enforce that right? You said this:

Does it mean that you have some kind of 'right' to that thing? In which case, who or what is supposed to enforce that? Is it just a case of "you (magic word)deserve(/magic word) it, so keep asking/trying/complaining until you get it?"

I apologize for pulling this out as an example, it's maybe a little heavier than getting McDonald's, but I want something that most people will agree is a genuine injustice:

Premise 1: Millions of Jews were killed by the Nazi government.
Premise 2: They had the right not to be killed.

Now, if they were killed, then it follows that their right to not be killed was not enforced. Does the failure to enforce that right mean they never had that right? I think it does not.
posted by RobotHero at 10:01 AM on June 17, 2011

"There is no man so good that if he placed all his actions and thought under the scrutiny of the laws, he would not deserve hanging ten times in his life."

~Michel de Montaigne,
posted by IndigoJones at 11:48 AM on June 17, 2011

I don't think "deserve" really means anything. Life doesn't exactly work like karma. Good people get bad things happening to them, horrible people get good things happening to them. "Deserve" means nothing in reality. But most people don't acknowledge that or are in denial or something.
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:35 PM on June 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entry on Desert is pretty good. You seem to be talking about Desert as it relates to Entitlement (section 5.3).
posted by AceRock at 2:40 PM on June 17, 2011

jenfullmoon: How does this work? If I say, "you deserve a smack upside the head," are you incapable of discerning any meaning from my claim? Are all claims as to how things should be meaningless unless they are accompanied by some magical means of transforming desires directly into a changed physical state?
posted by RobotHero at 2:58 PM on June 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's a used to describe worthiness. When I hear someone say so and so deserves (or doesn't deserve) something, it bugs me a little--whose to say what anyone 'deserves'. Nthing that it doesn't matter what a person deserves, anyway (life doesn't work that way).
posted by marimeko at 4:50 PM on June 17, 2011

Well, you're asking two different things here. One has to do with the literal meaning of the word: is there a fact of the matter on the question "What do I deserve?" (For this, the Stanford Encyclopedia entry that AceRock links to might be a good place to start, if you're the sort of person who can stand to read modern philosophy.)

But the other question is, what's the social meaning of the word? What is someone trying to do, socially, when they tell you "You deserve X," and how should you respond? That's a big hairy complicated question. But here's a stab at it.

Often, when someone tells you you "deserve" X, what they want to convey is, "If you ask for X, or try to get X, I'll approve of what you're doing [rather than, e.g., considering you a whiner or an asshole for it]." It's a pretty weak show of support — they're not offering to help you get X, or even back you up publicly if you ask for it — but it's a show of support nonetheless. So an appropriate polite response would be "Thanks, I appreciate the support." Or, if you have no intention of trying to get X, you can gently inform them that their support is unnecessary or misplaced: "Well, thanks, but X isn't even really what I'm going for here...." (You could even say "No, I really don't think I deserve X" — meaning something like "Well, I'd think less of myself if I tried to get X" — but a casual conversation, revealing a deep personal doubt or hangup like that is going to sound a bit strange.)

Anyway, when someone says "I deserve X," they're often trying to recruit that same sort of support and approval from their listeners. Someone who says "I deserve a vacation" is hoping to hear back "Yes, you do deserve one" (meaning "Yes, I would totally respect you if you asked for a vacation, and I wouldn't think you were being lazy or anything like that"). So if you can honestly give that sort of approval, say so. If you can't honestly give your approval, you can sidestep the issue by giving a noncommital answer instead: "Well, yeah, who doesn't want a vacation?" Explicitly withholding approval is a pretty hostile thing to do, but it's occasionally appropriate: if you really know someone well, and you're absolutely dead certain they want brutal honesty, you might be able to come right out and say "No, actually, asking for a vacation right now would be kind of a dick move." But be careful there.

Negation works like you might expect. Someone who says you "don't deserve" X is often trying to convey something like this: "If you ask for X, or try to get X, I won't approve." Like I said a minute ago, explicitly witholding approval is pretty hostile. But maybe you like brutal honesty, and in some situations it's warranted. Appropriate (but not necessarily polite) responses range from "Gee, you're right, maybe it would be a mistake to insist on X" to "Well, fuck you, I don't care what you think," depending on the situation.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:16 AM on June 19, 2011

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