Are Shifting Cultural Values Creating an Entitlement Society?
(This is a guest column by Steven Mintz, the Ethics Sage. I am proud to have one of his columns appear on my site. I strongly recommend you visit his site (listed below), favorite it and visit regularly. jp)
We often hear that an entitlement society has developed in the U.S. over a number of years. 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”).
Philosophically, entitlement theory comes from the Theory of Justice. John Rawls argued 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, 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.
The issue I deal with here is what is behind the entitlement mentality. I am not saying some people do not want to work and feel entitled to benefits from the government out of a sense of justice. Rather, I believe the entitlement notion stems from a shift in cultural values brought on, in part, by what we see on television and in social media. People with wealth flaunt it. TV shows glorify it. Social media exacerbates the feeling of jealousy for those without it. It’s in our face all the time from the housewives of wherever to the grossly over-the-top CNBC program The Secrets of the Super Rich.
What is the average person expected to think when they see such a television program that glorifies over-the-top wealth? Last Wednesday one segment featured a $200 million-plus ridiculously lavish yacht. The reality is that if that amount was split between 5,000 people it could clothe, house and feed them at the rate of $40,000 per year.
The entitlement mentality also comes from the way in which many Millennials were brought up and given just about anything and everything they wanted. Moreover, today we are debating whether children should be rewarded not for winning a competition but for just competing, even if they come in last. They are entitled to be recognized for their effort. But, is that how the real world works? Do you think in China and other Asian countries youngsters are rewarded for finishing behind the pack or last? I doubt it.
Students on college campuses feel entitled to voice their views in a way that shuts other voices down. The administration of many such colleges give in for fear of alienating one person or one group without thinking about the rights of others.
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.
So, in my view entitlement is linked to having a fair and equitable opportunity to reach one’s God-given potential within the free exercise of one’s will. The goal is best achieved through persistence and practice. As the ancient Greeks knew, we develop good habits and ultimately success by applying them in a variety of situations.
Especially in a capitalist society, people must be free to develop their God-given talents without interference from the government. All well and good but does this occur by giving those who may not have earned it a reward or other form of recognition? No, but it does, in fact, occur because of our social-media conscious society which reflects a shift in cultural values.
All too many act in a way to achieve their fifteen minutes of fame whether it is a You Tube posting or other form of social media exhibitionism. We want what we want and no one should get in our way less they violate our rights. Unfortunately, the pursuit of wealth and fame take over and shove hard work and responsibility into the background. This is a narcissistic approach to life and one that leads to the entitlement mentality. I believe it is dangerous and threatens the values we have long aspired to such as to act with integrity and develop a strong work ethic.
Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage. Professor Mintz is on the faculty of the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He blogs at: http://www.ethicssage.com.