Deserving One’s Wages

February 23, 2004 | 14 comments

Russell’s qualified repudiation of the idea that all those with a six-figure salary are on their way to hell has got me thinking about wages and what one can deserve.

Russell argues that one can still make it through the eye of the needle so long as (1) one doesn’t think that one needs the six-figure salary; and (2) one doesn’t believe that one deserves the salary.

I find the second proposition more interesting. I am curious as to what it might mean to “deserve” a salary. Here are some possible ideas:

1. You could think of deserving a salary by virtue of a legal contract. I agree to perform a certain set of services for my employer and she agrees to pay me a certain amount of money. Offer, acceptance, consideration, contract. I perform the services, so I now deserve the salary.

2. You could think of deserving a salary on the basis of the work that one performs. The entitlement, in this theory, comes not from agreement but from the fact that by virtue of doing some particular kind of labor one is entitled to some particular level of compensation. An honest wage for an honest days work.

3. You could think that you deserve a particular salary on the basis of your needs. The bread winner(s) of a particular family deserve a living wage, etc.

I am not sure which notion of desert Russell is repudiating for the soteriologically sufficient six-figure salary earner. I will let him comment on that (if he wishes). What I find more interesting is that a market economy does not deal out economic rewards according to any of these criteria (except, perhaps, 1).

Markets reward those who satisfy the expressed preferences of others. Period. By expressed preferences, I don’t mean the desires that people profess to have or even the desires that people even think that they have. I mean simply the desires that they are willing to back up with a commitment to alienate rights to scarce resources, e.g. money, labor, assets, etc. Markets are wholely indifferent to the worthiness (or not) of those preferences. They are also brutally indifferent to the labor performed or the needs of the person who claims a salary. Markets do not reward a person with an honest days wages for an honest days work. They do not reward those of great moral worth. They do not reward those whose work is of great valued when measured according to some rubric other than the rubric of the market. To repeat myself, markets reward ONLY those who satisfy the expressed preferences of others.

Now for some the exclusive emphasis on expressed preferences is evidence of the moral bankruptcy of the market. There are a number of forms that this criticism could take. One might say that the mere fact of expression tells us nothing about the underlying value of the preference expressed. Markets reward those who satisfy the desire for adulterous and anonymous sexual intercourse as well as those who satisfy the desire to learn about the good, the true, and the beautiful. One might argue that the emphasis on expressed preferences is improper, since the ability to express preferences through economic transactions is a function of one’s wealth, and the underlying distribution of wealth in society is unjust.

There are, of course, powerful arguments to be made in favor of markets. Given expressed preferences, they are likely to allocate resources quite efficiently, certainly more effeciently than alternate institutional arragments. There is also a sense in which markets might be desireable because of the way that they are brutally indifferent to narcissism and reward only behavior that is in some sense (if only accidentally) other regarding. You are only rewarded in a market to the extent that your labor is of benefit to others. Those who pour their energies solely into things of value only to themselves will be punished by the market. This is hardly charity, but there is a powerful bias in favor of sociability.

Given that we live in a society in which many, many people have desires — and hence expressed preferences — that are unworthy or immoral, we can be certain that these desires will be expressed in the price of particular goods. Hence, the price mechanism can never be a reliable indication of the underlying moral worth of any given activity. Lawyers are relatively well paid. However, this is because they satisfy the expressed preferences of others who desire legal services. However, those desires may be good or evil. The same is true of academics and others.

There is thus a sense in which everyone who works within a market society is implicated in the moral decisions that others make. I am not entirely sure how significant this implication or complicity. Furthermore, I am deeply skeptical that one can avoid it through one’s personal decisions. The ubiquity of the price mechanism as an allocative device makes this virtually impossible. Furthermore, the complexity of the inputs into the price of anything makes it highly unlikely — in my opinion — that we can know enough to ever fully understand the nature of all of the desires upon which our wages are predicated.


14 Responses to Deserving One’s Wages

  1. clark on February 23, 2004 at 4:16 pm

    I’ve always wondered about this topic. In one sense we are to consider ourselves unworthy and undeserving. But that always appears to be relative to the things God has done for us. i.e. his acts are so overwhelmingly valuable that our contributions are like a single penny put towards the national debt.

    Yet when this issue is discussed, we tend to ignore scriptures like Luke 10:7 (oft quoted in the D&C) where there appears to be a strong sense of “deserving” reward for ones labors. Our theology of works also seems to move in that direction.

    Perhaps the difference is that our work is relative to those around us or the task at hand? i.e. the issue is what we are comparing things to?

    I admit that the approach some take (often more socialist views of Catholicism) makes me nervous. The idea that we are all equally unworthy suggests that somehow the laggard and lazy *deserve* from *us* exactly the same as those who work hard to. I just have a very hard time accepting that. It just seems that rewards ought in some sense to be tied to production. Now what we *do* with those rewards is certainly up from grabs, as our STQ topic dealt with. But the reward bit just seems hard to swallow.

  2. Dave on February 23, 2004 at 5:18 pm


    Some endorse the popular “the rich won’t get to heaven” doctrine. Conversely, others feel strongly that God wants everyone, but especially them, to get rich, or that riches are somehow a greater test that God bestows on the truly righteous. Paradoxically, many embrace both doctrines, feeling riches are morally tainted but seeking riches nonetheless. I don’t believe the Church has any “official” pronouncement either praising or proscribing wealth or the rich beyond general platitudes. Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.

    More seriously, I’m not sure it is productive to speculate on who “deserves” riches, anymore than who deserves the other arbitrary favors life bestows in a rather fickle fashion: good health, good looks, good parents, or talents of any description. Any discussion along that path either invokes fallacious appeals to a preexistent fund of merit (“I was born to rich parents because I was especially righteous in the Preexistence”) or becomes an exercise in self-justification and pride (“I’m rich because I deserve it–let me count the ways”). I don’t think any explanation invoking merit or the term “deserves” gets us very far.

  3. lyle on February 23, 2004 at 5:26 pm

    Since only the Enemy is happy when others are unhappy, comparisons are constantly berated in GC, and Adam fell that all (wo)men might have joy…it stands to reason that meeting the expressed desires of others, which tends to make them happy, is thus a net goode; i.e. (s)he who provides the most happiness for others WINS. In this sense, I think one can find some moral claim to worth/wages; as the labor theory of value (your #2?) doesn’t work in light of God’s assertion that we are unprofitable servants/even the dirt obeys more regularly than we do/he gives us the breath of life needed to live.

  4. Greg Call on February 23, 2004 at 5:59 pm

    Just to nitpick: Don’t markets also reward those who *create* preferences? I am thinking of the old story about how when the town had one lawyer, he was poor, but when the second lawyer moved in, they both became rich. The underlying criticism of lawyers in this story is that they create a need or preference for their labors where none existed before. Much of modern marketing is an attempt to create needs and wants where none existed before, and the market richly rewards success in doing so.

    Anyway, here’s a heartfelt little essay from the Columbia Law Review on how (as Nate puts it) we are all implicated in the moral decisions others make, and how that idea might apply to tort doctrine:

  5. Nate Oman on February 23, 2004 at 6:14 pm

    Greg: I think that you are essentially right, although I think that in practice it is often difficult to determine when entrepreneurs are creating desires and when they are simply overcoming information problems. In theory, I think that there may be a problem of equating expressed preferences with “real” or “actual” desires. On the otherhand, if you go far down that road it will become virtually impossible to draw conclusions about welfare levels based on voluntary transactions. This seems like a rather untenable position, so I am stuck with trying to figure out what the significance of expressed preferences is. (I am working right now on an essay on differing notions of voluntariness in contract law theory, so I am unusually tortured by these questions of late.)

  6. Nate Oman on February 23, 2004 at 6:21 pm

    Lyle: I don’t buy your argument and I suspect one of two things is going on. Either we are equivocating about the word “happiness.” For example, from a market perspective someone willing to pay for a prostitute inorder to committ adultery is “happy.” The Book of Mormon, however, suggests that wickedness never was happiness. Seems like we have different definitions of happiness.

    Of course, one might unify one’s theories of happiness and argue that the man hiring the prostitute is simply ignorant about his true interests and true happiness. I think that undoubtedly true. Perhaps he is simply improperly discounting the eternal consquences of his act.

    BTW, in my law review note (“Wagering on Religious Liberty,” 116 Harv. L. Rev. 946), I made the somewhat quixotic argument that religious freedom reflected a constrained and proper discounting of the value of hellfire. My fellow editors thought that the article was fun but bizarre. Which is about right…

  7. Nate Oman on February 23, 2004 at 6:25 pm

    Dave: I agree with much of what you say, but I don’t think that we can escape the notion of desert when it comes to discussing wealth. Suppose someone at your job embezzles all of the company’s money and they can’t pay you for your work. Is this right or wrong? Have you been hurt in a way that is morally meaningful? We can’t even begin to answer these sorts of questions without some notion of who deserves the company’s money.

  8. lyle on February 23, 2004 at 6:25 pm

    So…what is the morality/efficiency/worth of being successful at:
    1. selling alcohol
    2. selling internet porn
    3. selling tobacco
    4. selling law review articles
    5. selling mormon theology, philosophy and legal books
    6. selling a better product
    7. selling a cheaper product

    if these items meet the expressed needs/preferences of other…isnt’ there inherent value in providing moral agents with opportunities to exercise their agency?

  9. Bob Caswell on February 23, 2004 at 6:49 pm

    So, this was started by a comment based on six-figure salaries… Does anyone want to define wealth for us here? Nate, you’re the ring leader on this one. How much should one make before one starts pondering the “deserve” question here?

  10. Nate Oman on February 23, 2004 at 6:52 pm

    Bob: The question seems inherent in the notion of property. As soon as you own anything, you must face the issue of whether you deserve to do so.

  11. Bob Caswell on February 23, 2004 at 7:05 pm

    Ah, thank you Nate, for your prompt answer. You know, I just reread this post to better understand, and it came to me that my father has continually said most of what you mentioned, although in a much shorter form: LIFE ISN’T FAIR.

  12. Dave on February 23, 2004 at 8:52 pm


    Everyone thinks they “deserve” the company’s money or at least a bigger piece of it: the owners (contributed capital), the workers (contributed labor), the customers (who loyally buy widgets and deserve rebates), the government (tax revenue for providing infrastructure and courts to enforce contracts), the local school system (for educating the company’s future work force), Native Americans (who once had a claim to the land the factory is on), the embezzler (who is underpaid and overworked), a village full of poor wretches in Central Asia (who were born with the worst set of initial endowments of any group on the planet and deserve some sort of compensation if there is any justice in the world).

    Everyone has reasons they “deserve” the money. If one doesn’t have an accepted theory of distributive justice that tells you who really “deserves” the money and in what proportions, then one can’t really say the embezzler doesn’t “deserve” a piece of the pie like everyone else. Of course, despite the absence of an accepted theoretical model of distributive justice, the real world settles the practical question of who actually gets the money using markets, hierarchies, contracts, and coercion (law, courts, crime, punishment). This “natural distribution” itself represents one possibility for what people “deserve.”

  13. Russell Arben Fox on February 23, 2004 at 10:45 pm

    “If one doesn’t have an accepted theory of distributive justice that tells you who really ‘deserves’ the money and in what proportions…”

    Actually Dave, as you probably know, there are many theories of distributive justice (most famously Rawls’s original theory) that operate without any principle of moral or economic desert whatsoever. Which, I think, is just as well. There is, probably, some sense in which one may speak of “deserving” something, perhaps in relation to some virtue scheme. But the strict notion of desert strikes me as a philosophically bankrupt, and ultimately self-defeating, response to injustice, and best abandoned.

  14. Nate Oman on February 24, 2004 at 11:45 am

    “The strict notion of desert strikes me as a philosophically bankrupt, and ultimately self-defeating, response to injustice, and best abandoned.”

    Why exactly?


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