In his article “Merit: Why Do We Value It”, Louis Pojman (1999) writes that “the virtuous are rewarded and the vicious punished in proportion to their relative deserts” (p. 100). The idea of rewarding the good and punishing the bad is a basis for every culture in the world to approach certain situations and consequences of these situations (Pojman, 1999, p. 90). It is essential to our society to use merit and desert to keep order and balance especially in a society where the dangers to and the probable contributions to the welfare of the society are present.
Louis Pojman further explains the difference between merit and desert. That is, he defines merit as rewards we are awarded for things, whether good or bad, that we cannot control (Pojman, 1999, p. 83). For instance, children and the elderly get to board a plane first as a merit because of their physical conditions or of their lower physical fitness compared to healthy adults. On the other hand, deserts are consequences of an individual’s action. For example, Mary submits a flawless essay to her professor as part of her academic requirements for literature. She deserves to obtain a grade of A because of her action that resulted to the superior quality of her essay. On the other hand, David turns in a faulty paper filled with grammatical and factual errors. He deserves to obtain a grade of F on his paper as a consequence of his actions or of his failure to comply with the paper requirements.
Pojman also makes the argument that “rewarding good works encourages further good works” whereas “punishment deters bad action” (p. 89). Parents know that positive reinforcement is successful because of the positive results it can bring to their child. For example, my son, Isaac, makes very good grades in school. As a result of his positive academic efforts, I commend and praise him. He also gets five dollars for every A or above 95% score he is able to obtain from his school subjects. His efforts are rewarded in both verbal and material ways; the positive behavior or action is reinforced by the benefits acquired.
On the other hand, my other son, Chris, wrecked his car because of his habit of driving too fast in streets regardless if they are crowded or not. I took away his car for a month as a punishment for the actions that he has committed. As a result, it has been over a year after his car accident and he has not run into any new accidents in recent months. Moreover, Chris has not even gotten a traffic violation ticket for more than a year now. In essence, he was punished for the wrong and harmful deed that he has committed in the past. Apparently, his behavior of over speeding was deterred for fear of the consequences of another traffic violation which could immediately put his life in grave danger.
In a larger context, society demands that we reward the good deeds and we punish the bad deeds. The measure of merit is how useful that merit is to the rest of the society. A police officer merits our respect even if the officer is being unfair simply because of the duly vested authority of the police officer. In general, “a society that has a commitment to rewarding those who contribute to its well being and punish those who purposefully undermine it survives and prospers better than a society that lacks these practices” (Pojman, 1999, p. 89). It may be hard to accept the idea that even an unfair officer deserves respect, but the very reason that the police officer is an authority requires at least a sign of respect from individuals. It is one thing to give respect to an officer as a merit from authority. It is another to deprive respect simply because of being unfair.
Pojman also answers the question of desert in the sense that a criminal who “must have done something” deserves harm (Pojman, 1999, p. 89). If a person murders another person, then the person who has committed murder deserves to be punished. It is important to note that justice does play a part in what people deserve. If an individual kills to save one’s family, then the action of the individual in turn helps society as a whole. The person merits mercy because of the circumstance that the person had to struggle with and address with a concrete and immediate resolution; mercy is essentially a part of serving justice in this case.
The idea that we get what we deserve is a basis for the perception of many of us in the society. Most individuals feel that we deserve to have some kind of reward precisely because we are working diligently. It might be more money in terms of a wage in the salary, or even a word of praise from our employer. Even in the animal kingdom, wolves kill off the weaker members of the pack. Killing other members of the pack may seem on the surface that this is unjust and bad. But in order for the rest of the pack to survive and be strong the weaker members deserve to be killed. Indeed, if there are no more available options to choose from other than killing a member for the pack to survive, then it is not exactly unjust to take that option. Meritocracy dictates that because the other members of the pack are stronger the weaker deserve to die (Pojman, 1999, p. 94).
In conclusion, I agree that people should get what they deserve. If a person inflicts harm to another person, then the person guilty of doing harm to the other should be punished. If an individual helps another individual, then the helpful individual should be rewarded. Respect is important in the case of a person of authority like the police officer because the person merits to be respected. The theory of meritocracy keeps the rest of the society in full check which, in effect, makes society prosper. More importantly, justice ought to be observed by all individuals in the society. We can not just punish people without evidence because it is not ethical and has no room in a civilized society.
Pojman, L. (1999). “Merit: Why Do We Value It,” Journal of Social Philosophy 30(1): 83-102.