(Cross-posted on 3 Quarks Daily, where it has received many comments. This essay also appeared in the Humanist, May/Jun 2011, and was included in three college anthologies in the U.S. from Sage Publications, McGraw-Hill, and Bedford/St. Martin's, and a fourth anthology forthcoming in Sept, 2013.)
I often think of the good life I have. By most common measures—say, type of work, income, health, leisure, and social status—I’m doing well. Despite the adage, ‘call no man happy until he is dead’, I wonder no less often: How much of my good life do I really deserve? Why me and not so many others?
The dominant narrative has it that I was a bright student, worked harder than most, and competed fairly to gain admission to an Indian Institute of Technology, where my promise was recognized with financial aid from a U.S. university. When I took a chance after graduate school and came to Silicon Valley, I was justly rewarded for my knowledge and labor with a measure of financial security and social status. While many happily accept this narrative, my problem is that I don’t buy it. I believe that much of my socioeconomic station in life was not realized by my own doing, but was accidental or due to my being at the right place at the right time.
A pivotal question in market-based societies is ‘What do we deserve?’ In other words, for our learning, natural talents, and labor, what rewards and entitlements are just? How much of what we bring home is fair or unfair, and why? To chase these questions is to be drawn into the thickets of political philosophy and theories of justice. In this short essay, inspired by American political philosopher Michael Sandel’s Justice, I have tried to synthesize a few thoughts on the matter by reviewing three major approaches to distributive economic justice: libertarian, meritocratic, and egalitarian, undermining en route the dominant narrative on my own well-being.