Misaeng (2014 Korean Drama) - Scene of Jang Geu-rae at Home

Life seems unfair to A-grade students who forsake sleep and leisure only to find themselves working for C-grade students who get to shine with their vision and creativity precisely because they do not bother as much with mastering rules. But life seems unfair as well to the majority of C-grade students, who far outnumber the number of business leaders and innovators society supports. From the point of their conception, they may be laden with genetic and/or cultural baggage, coupled with losing numbers in the parent lottery, that compromise cognitive capacity, stamina, maturity and even the inclination to work hard in school.

Jang Geu-rae, the protagonist in office drama Misaeng, was an A-student who chose to specialize in an economically unrewarding discipline, which made him both a beneficiary and victim of unfairness in life. Forced to abandon the study of Go in spite of his top standing and take on a full-time job after his breadwinner father’s demise, Geu-rae assumed a contract position at a large international trading firm with just a high school diploma under his belt. His under-qualification, together with the fact that he entered the firm through connections, brought him scorn and ostracism in the office. Nonetheless, his willingness to learn, ability to connect with people, stoicism and the wisdom developed through years of mastering Go eventually allowed him to pull ahead of his more “educated” peers. Unfortunately, the rigid promotion system in the firm, which prized credentials over actual performance, prevented him from becoming a permanent employee, so he had to leave the job at the end of his term. This raises the question of how a system should be designed to give people treatment they deserve .

Philosophers generally break down the concept of desert—the quality or fact of deserving something—into three components: the subject, the basis for deserving something and the object deserved. Some support an additional component: the source from which the object is to be procured. In the case of employment, the subject is obviously the job candidate. The grounds on which he may deserve something, however, may encompass considerations as varied as past efforts, past contributions (i.e. efforts that translated into benefits for one or more relevant parties), potential, moral rightness of activities (e.g. increasing a company’s revenue through proper means versus helping it launder money), innocent suffering and the simple fact of being human. Similarly, objects deserved can include financial compensation, recognition, fulfillment of basic needs (e.g. sustenance, shelter and rest) and treatment with dignity.

Much can be made about appropriate relationships between desert bases and objects deserved. Political philosopher John Rawls, for instance, argued that no one deserves anything for his actions and potential, since he gets to perform those actions and possess talents due to traits such as strength of character he was naturally endowed with and/or the environment he was born into. Many writers opined, on the other hand, that all of us, as members of the human race or at least as thinking creatures capable of experiencing pain and pleasure, have a right to fulfillment of basic needs and fundamental respect. Both views fly in the face of meritocracy, which apportions rewards according to individual abilities and disregards identities per se. In fact, yet others pointed out that, as with other ownership rights, people may have the right to benefit from attributes they were naturally endowed with and that denial of work done to develop and make use of abilities would encourage sloth.

Misaeng (2014 Korean Drama) - Baduk Board

The fourth component, nevertheless, can clarify the appropriateness of relationships between bases and objects. Whether an individual or institution should serve as the source of an object for a given reason may depend on its resources, functions and basic moral obligations. Beginning with fundamental dignity, it is widely agreed that the duty to refrain from harm, unless harm is required to bring about certain types of moral good, is universal. Accordingly, verbal and physical abuse (as opposed to constructive criticism) cannot be tolerated in the workplace. On the other hand, companies exist to maximize economic value for their shareholders, a duty which is often enshrined in law. Hence, they have the need to reward attributes of employees, be they efforts, contributions or potential, that best serve this function, even if, as Rawls would claim, the employees are not responsible for those attributes. While many corporate entities have also incorporated social missions into their agenda in recent decades, these missions do not always extend to employment matters. Ideally, firms should go beyond the call of duty to do good, but where job provision is the concern, limited vacancies and training budgets restrict the number of less suitable job seekers they can add to their ranks. Moreover, companies that fail to secure their own survival cannot provide long-term benefits to anyone, so corporate welfare is arguably a rightful priority, provided that it is not achieved by inflicting avoidable harm. In Japan and Korea, emphasis is also traditionally placed on bidirectional loyalty between employees and employers, which may raise the importance of past efforts in employee retention and promotion. Even so, firms are seldom obliged to reward job candidates or workers for accomplishments made prior to their careers with them, especially when these accomplishments are not the most helpful to their future work.

Optimization of conditions for individual flourishing and survival, meanwhile, is the very purpose for which governments are elected. They have the responsibility of helping people maximize potential, stretch personal abilities and meet basic needs to the best of those abilities. What they also possess is the power to mobilize extensive resources from across their countries to achieve these goals, through education (including creative leadership development in all students), job creation, vocation matching, (re-)training, subsidies, etc. Still, this power is often imperfect and resources are finite, such that skills contributing to the welfare of the masses in relatively direct ways (e.g. healthcare, economic improvement) have to be prioritized over more disposable skills (e.g. sports, arts and even basic research) and only the most needy groups receive state assistance.

How then should self-actualization be facilitated for the Jang Geu-raes, who are fit enough to work but possess interests and/or strengths manifest in areas not valued by companies and the state? In the case of strengths, one obvious solution is to explore how they can be cross-applied to valued areas, as Geu-rae did with mental skills gained from Go in his corporate work, and encourage flexible hiring and promotion schemes. When that does not work or when interests are also a concern, this may be where self-help groups should step in. Although these organizations may lack the authority and financial prowess of the public and private sectors, their social capital, forged through grassroots ties and gathering of leaders in niche areas, allows them to be more knowledgeable about aspirations, problems and proven solutions of the disciplines they represent. A group of artists in New York, for instance, have set up fora for exchanging and examining experiences in their industry, which led them to understand remuneration woes faced by fellow practitioners and establish programs certifying client organizations that offer sustainable wages for art projects. Such endeavors are unlikely to resolve all issues under the sun, but they can bring individuals trapped in unfulfilling vocations or unemployment a small step closer to their dreams.

Importantly, too, a self-starting mentality lets one take charge of the game rather than languish as expendable pawns on the board. Many times, it is still a losing game but there may be greater dignity in dying by rules you are in control of.

Misaeng (2014 Korean Office Drama) - Baduk Board

The Philosophy of Desert                  The Drama

Philosophy Resources                       Drama Resources

7 thoughts on “Desertocracy

  1. theotheri says:

    It sounds as if you are exploring – on a much more sophisticated level than I – the whole complex problem of equality, diversity, and fairness. Great post.

    • Inequality is such a complex beast, who can possibly cover it in its entirety in one post? Out of curiosity, which of the four countries you have lived in is the most egalitarian and tolerant in your opinion? What were the sacrifices made in pursuing these social ideals and how do you think they can be minimized?

      • theotheri says:

        Oh wow, what a question! The 4 countries I have lived in (as opposed to visited) are all western democracies – The US, Spain, Britain, and Denmark. I’m not sure that I could say which one today is the most egalitarian — so much has changed in the last ten years. Immigration is a problem in each country, though with different nuances. I can say that attitudes in the U.S. seem less egalitarian than they were 20 years ago. Britain has UKIP, which wants to severely restrict immigation though they are a minority party. I have not been to Denmark for close to 40 years. Then it was open, welcoming, and proud of its resistance to the Nazis. Now they are struggling with Islam.

        How do I think the sacrifices of pursing social ideals can be minimized? Would you believe me if I told you knew the answers? There is probably a limit to the speed with which human societies can accept cultural change. But I doubt that gets to the heart of the challenge. It gets back to this “us” and “them” mentality, doesn’t it? Are there any forces that can push us toward realizing that we need “us” in the final analysis to include all of us? Christianity was supposed to embrace all of mankind, but as an institution its failures have been profound. America is supposed to be based on tolerance, but it began with the ethnic cleansing of the American Indian and still bears the scars of African slavery.

      • Immigration is indeed a thorny issue around the world. How about socioeconomic inequality that is separate from religious/racial/nationality issues? All things equal, can a cab driver earn the same respect that a neurosurgeon earns in Spain? How do you think the economic trade-offs (in particular, taxes: should be mitigated? Interestingly, though, some economists argued that egalitarianism need not be incompatible with economic efficiency.

  2. theotheri says:

    I will read the Putterman, Roemer (my grandmother’s maiden name) & Silvertre article and let you know my thoughts if they seem worth it. I’ve thought about this issue of egalitarianism for most of my life. As you may have noticed,in my blog, I set out as a teenager to work in undeveloped countries. Technically I was a nun but my goals were to be something of a life-time Peace Corp worker. Today my goals would not be to work for equality but rather for opportunity. That does require a society in which people have reasonable access to food, medical services, shelter, education, dignity and safety.

    I also think it is vitally important for our survival and prosperity as a species to protect human diversity and creativity. From what I have seen and from my understanding of history, I suspect that systems whose goals are economically egalitarian risk being dangerously repressive of human ingenuity.

    I also read a brief article earlier this year suggesting that conflicts between “us” and “them” is worst in those places where one or more groups feel disenfranchised or that their own livelihoods are being threatened. According to this view, the apparent conflicts may be religious, but they are really economic. By and large, people want to live in peace, but not at the cost of being limited by lack of opportunities that others around them enjoy.

    I look forward to reading your posts and further thoughts on this subject — perhaps one of the most important issues facing our world today, don’t you think?

    • What a coincidence with respect to your grandmother’s maiden name. Do let us know your opinion about the value of the article when you have found the time to browse through it. So far, it is not one of the papers that have been accessed through this site :|. All three authors are teaching at respectable universities. Among them, John Roemer holds a position at Yale. The Journal of Economic Literature ranks second among economics journals in terms of impact factor. The paper itself, though, may be a bit dated.

      Indeed, there are many rewards that should not be handed to people on a silver platter. In particular, an individual does not have as much a right to complain about systematic unfairness if he has not worked hard first. On the other hand, society can afford to treat the less abled with more compassion, although it may not be able to afford them financial equality.

      Last but not least, thank you for your concern and take very good care of yourself too, what with the arctic weather!

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