You deserve what you get

While waiting for our dinner guests to  arrive last night, the Doctor remarked on the (apparently) sad state of some of our friends’ lives, where they appear to be involved in relationships that aren’t bringing them much joy. Of one in particular, the Doctor remarked that “he doesn’t deserve that”, and it was clear what she meant – that the friend in question is a lovely man, dedicated to doing as little harm to others as possible, and that we’d therefore prefer a world in which he was as happy as possible.

Hearing “he doesn’t deserve that”, though, immediately brought to mind the thought that – for most of us – you deserve what you get, because of the choices you made. In the discussion that followed, it became clear that this particular speech act was something which did little but indicate a sort of sympathy or regret, rather than having any epistemic value. My thoughts are something along these lines: in this particular case, the friend had indicated a wariness about the relationship in its formative stages, but allowed himself to be swept up in its’ current. Two things then came into play – his “niceness”, whereby he is reluctant to let others down (a character trait not common to all), and something like an escalation of commitment bias (or sunk-cost fallacy), which is common to us all, and describes our habit of justifying poor choices we have made by weighing what we have already invested in that choice irrationally when compared with the probable future costs of that choice.

In this light, when we optimistically proceed with some course of action, even though we have reservations (and even though we know – as a matter of empirical probability – that relationships usually don’t work out anyway), it’s really our own fault if we end up being unhappy. And it’s therefore also the case that – in general – you deserve what you get. Of course there are exceptions, such as cases in which you don’t have much choice, or where you are misled as to the virtues of some particular choice (therefore presenting you with a false choice). But this is true less often than we think, and I suspect that it’s far more probable that we develop this social norm of saying things like “he doesn’t deserve that” as a way to reinforce our own desire to be able to appeal to the viccisitudes of fate when our own choices don’t work out quite the way we would have liked them too.

If others can be said to not deserve some particular misfortune, then by extension we can sometimes say the same of ourselves, and use this as a way of masking, or ignoring, our own responsibility for what happens to us. But in cases where we could – should – have known better, perhaps it’s more healthy for us to own up to that, and thereby perhaps make it slightly less likely to happen next time. It’s also perhaps the responsibility of friends and family to sometimes remind us of this, and not allow us to wallow in our perceived misfortune.

Finally, and most crucially, the sunk-cost fallacy is not only an issue at the start of some chain of events, like a marriage or some other sort of investment. There are decision points all down the line, such as when you decide to have a child, buy a house together, etc. At all of these choice-points, we should remember that while it’s certainly true that we will often cause much harm and resentment through terminating that chain of events, that harm needs to be weighed as objectively as possible, and compared with all the future harms we may incur (to ourselves as well as the affected others) by staying in the situation we are in. If you are resentful or unhappy now, you might be doubly unhappy in 5 years time – and everyone may be better of with a (relatively) quick, sharp shock now, instead of another X years of everyone being miserable (and more resentful in the long run, if it were ever discovered that one or both parties had reservations that they never disclosed).

As always, looking after oneself and others is about the long-term, and having the courage to make difficult choices – not simply about doing what’s expected of you.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.