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Entitlement Ethics

Making Sense of our Entitlement Society

The one issue that divides us as a nation more than any other is “entitlement ethics.” Entitlement theory comes from the Theory of Justice. Here, I discuss the theory as espoused by two philosophers – John Rawls and Robert Nozick – and evaluate it against the Moral Theory of Rights put forth by Immanuel Kant. The issue of whom in society is entitled to the resources produced by others and how much of it lies at the foundation of the divide. An important point is there is no one right or wrong point of view. More important, there are practical limitations on those resources that must be considered in making the arguments.

Theory of Justice: Just Distribution of Resources

Rawls argues that the state should have whatever powers are necessary to ensure that those citizens who are least well-off are as well-off as they can be (though these powers must be consistent with a variety of basic rights and freedoms). This viewpoint is derived from Rawls’s theory of justice, one principle of which is that an unequal distribution of wealth and income is acceptable only if those at the bottom are better off than they would be under any other distribution. Hence we have the viewpoint to tax the rich and transfer resources to the least well off amongst us. This view of Justice Theory would justify the reallocation of resources in society.

Entitlement Theory of Justice

Nozick, on the other hand, responds to such arguments by claiming that they rest on a false conception of distributive justice: they wrongly define a just distribution in terms of the pattern it exhibits at a given time (e.g., an equal distribution or a distribution that is unequal to a certain extent) or in terms of the historical circumstances surrounding its development (e.g., those
who worked the hardest have more) rather than in terms of the nature of the transactions through which the distribution came about. For Nozick, any distribution of “holdings,” as he calls them, no matter how unequal, is just if (and only if) it arises from a just distribution through legitimate means.

One legitimate means is the appropriation of something that is unowned in circumstances where the acquisition would not disadvantage others (i.e., taxing the rich at, say, 50% would not disadvantage them – a popular notion espoused by the liberal point of view). A second means is the voluntary transfer of ownership of holdings to someone else (i.e., the Warren Buffett’s of the world
choose voluntarily to share their wealth with others less fortunate). A third means is the rectification of past injustices in the acquisition or transfer of holdings (i.e., those harmed by wrongful acts in the past deserve an increased distribution of resources). According to Nozick, anyone who acquired what he has through these means is morally entitled to it. Thus the “entitlement” theory of justice states that the distribution of holdings in a society is just if (and only if) everyone in that society is entitled to what he has. Ah, but there is the rub: Who is entitled to what?

Theory of Moral Rights

So, the key becomes how to define “entitlement.” In this regard we can turn to the theory of “moral rights.” Rights theory provides that human beings have certain fundamental rights that should be respected in all decisions: the right to free consent, privacy, freedom of conscience, free speech, and due process. A right is a capacity, a possession, or condition of existence that entitles either an individual or a group to enjoy some object or state of being. For example, the right to free speech is a condition of existence that entitles one to express one's thoughts as one chooses.

The moral force of a right depends on its strength in relation to other moral considerations applicable to the context in question. According to rights theory, as long as the distribution of wealth in society is achieved through fair acquisition and exchange, the distribution is a just one
regardless of any degree of inequalities that may ensue. The morally correct action is the one that a person has the moral right to do, that does not infringe on the moral rights of others, and that furthers the moral rights of others.

People who rely on rights theory to reason their actions emphasize the entitlement of individuals. Restrictions on behavior should prevent harm to others, but unless your actions harm others, you should be free to do as you please.

My discussion is, of course, a simplification of the theories made necessary by the limitations of blogging. Bringing it home in today’s terms, an entitlement is a guarantee of access to benefits 
based on established rights or by legislation. A "right" is itself an entitlement associated with a moral or social principle, such that an "entitlement" is a provision made in accordance with legal framework of a society. Typically, entitlements are laws based on concepts of principle 
("rights") which are themselves based in concepts of social equality or enfranchisement.

Individual Entitlements

In a casual sense, the term "entitlement" refers to a notion or belief that one is deserving of some particular reward or benefit—if given without deeper legal or principled cause, the term is often given with pejorative connotation (e.g. a "sense of entitlement").

In the past election Mitt Romney claimed that 47% of Americans "are dependent upon government.” That sounds about right. According to the Center on Budget & Policy Priorities, the percentage of the federal budget devoted to aid to others is about 54 percent: 20% social security; 21 percent Medicare/Medicaid/Children’s Health Programs; and 13% for “safety net” programs including programs that provide cash payments to eligible individuals or households, including Supplemental Security Income for the elderly or disabled poor and unemployment insurance; various forms of in-kind assistance for low-income families and individuals, including food stamps, school meals, low-income housing assistance, child-care assistance and various other programs.

On a practical level, we cannot sustain these levels of payments going forward given that: the numbers will increase with an aging population; poorly trained or poorly motivated young people are not competitive in today’s technology-driven economy; and the growing attitude that “I am entitled to be sustained by the government if I choose not to work because it is my basic right and the government’s duty to meet it.”

We need to distinguish between entitlement payments, including those in the supplemental security income programs, and rights-oriented payments including social security and Medicare, both of which most of us have paid into through payroll deductions throughout our working lives. Entitlement payments should be restricted to a percentage of the resources coming into the government so that if we become more prosperous as a nation i.e., GNP goes up, we can then share more with the less fortunate. The shortfall should be made up by religious institutions and private charities. As for social security and Medicare payments, these emanate from rights we have as tax-paying citizens. Oh, by the way, 47 percent of Americans pay no tax.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on March 25, 2013