kaashif's blog

Programming, with some mathematics on the side

What does it mean for someone to "deserve" success?


I recently read a couple of blog posts about deserving success, and I found them very interesting, mostly because of what they tell me about the people writing them.

I have some thoughts on these posts but reading them back, I think they're nonsense. I'll post them anyway. Here are the posts:

The first two are written by an options trader and the last by an economist, both wealthy. Both seem to feel it's obvious that they don't "deserve" their success, but neither seem to actually attempt to define whatever it is they're talking about.

I don't think it's possible to define "deserve" in a way that matches our intuitions but also means those two people don't deserve their success at all.

I'll try to define "deserve" but it'll probably go really badly.

Did you deserve to be born?

Russ Roberts (the economist) seems to take it for granted that you can't deserve something if you had to be lucky to get it:

I work pretty hard at what I do. But do I deserve credit for perseverance or grit? Or are they just another part of my genetic inheritance? So hard to say.

So do I deserve the life I have?

Of course not. I am so lucky.

He also considers it part of his "luck" that he was born to loving parents in a rich country. Putting these two together, you had to be lucky to be born at all, and therefore can't deserve anything. I don't think that's what he actually believes though.

The Moontower guy says something even more extreme:

At a society level, appreciating the role of chance is ultimately about empathy. It's the recognition that you could have hatched from an egg anywhere in the world in any time in history. Our policies should not amplify the extremes of cosmic dice but instead balance them.

Other people were/will be born, but the chance that I "could have" been them is exactly zero for any reasonable definition of "I" and "them". The only way this makes sense is if he believes that before a fetus becomes conscious, there's a random selection process among some set of possible consciousnesses and one "wins".

That may be a useful device for thinking up rules for a society (see the veil of ignorance - the idea that you should construct rules for a society without knowledge of where you'd end up in that society), mainly because doing that ensures that everyone will accept the rules as "fair".

But it's just a thought experiment, there aren't actually (as far as we know) free-floating consciousnesses that end up randomly embedded in babies. It's bizarre to me to state that you could have been another person, because I couldn't have been! What does that actually mean? I don't think he'd be able to even explain that if pressed.

Both blog post authors say things that lead me to believe they can't think anyone deserves anything at all. I think the Moontower guy really does think he believes that, but he may hesitate to apply his principle to the bitter logical end.

People who "obviously" deserve things

I generally have an intuition about what the results should be and try to work out what my principles really are based on that. I'll try to answer some questions using (1) my intuition and (2) the "cosmic dice" idea where no-one deserves anything.

I'll use the answers to (1) to try to work out what I mean by "deserve".

I am constructing a strawman out of (2) and will intentionally make the answers ridiculous.

Do rich people deserve success?

  1. It depends on how they became rich. Stealing? No. The lottery? No. Producing something valuable to others? Yes. Trading stocks? Maybe, if they actually had reasons behind their trades and those reasons were correct.

  2. No, they were lucky to be born as a person with those abilities or in that circumstance. Next.

That's too vague and not distasteful enough on either side to be interesting.

Did the architect of the Holocaust, Reinhard Heydrich, deserve assassination?

  1. Yes, he did something terrible and deserved to die.

  2. No, he was unlucky enough to be born as a person predisposed to genocide, and didn't deserve assassination.

Note that this is different from saying that he shouldn't be assassinated, it's just saying that he doesn't deserve it. I don't know if that makes sense or not, or when I should start talking about "cosmic dice".

Do welfare recipients deserve the money?

  1. Maybe, depending on whether they really need it or not. A single mother who's just been walked out on with kids to feed? Yes. Someone gaming the system and living in subsidised housing when they don't need it? No.

  2. No, because, uh...I'm actually finding it pretty hard to decide what strawman to place here. "They don't deserve welfare" is basically synonymous with "don't give them welfare", and both authors clearly think we should support the poor. But you still have to get lucky enough to live in a country with a welfare state to get welfare, so presumably they don't think recipients deserve it, but that we should still do it.

Do poor people deserve to be poor?

  1. It depends. Lied to a lot of people and got sued for everything? You probably deserve poverty. Murdered people and now you can't get a job? I think that's deserved. Born into poverty and abuse? That seems undeserved.

  2. This one's easy since they explicitly state it - no, poor people don't deserve to be poor. Even ones that are there due to their own actions are really there due to the initial conditions of their lives, which were out of their control.

Cheaters don't deserve to win

People in the real world think others deserve things more or less depending on how much their actions affected the results, and crucially, whether they played by the rules.

Cheats never deserve anything. Even if they spent a lot of time and effort honing their cheating skills.

Here are some examples:

  • People who cheat at board games don't deserve to win. Opinions about this may vary depending on which rules are the rules we're going by. The cheater has broken the game rules, but not the law. But their win was entirely due to their actions, and there might've been little or no luck involved. They still cheated.

  • Bank robbers don't deserve the money they steal. This is despite going to all that trouble to plan and execute a heist, which is a lot of work. If they don't "get lucky" and just planned really well, don't they deserve the money? Well no, because they're breaking a lot of rules.

That helps us find more people who don't deserve things, but that doesn't separate me from a cosmic dice believer who thinks no-one deserves anything.

Getting some desert

Deserving things is a spectrum. The two authors claim they don't deserve their success, but that's not a useful way to think about the world and doesn't match anyone's intuition. I don't even think it matches their intuitions.

I think a lot of people (maybe the authors included) would agree with the following statements:

  • People who earn income by working deserve it more than those who inherited wealth.

  • The guilty deserve punishment more than the innocent.

This is all possible without making the absolute statement "murderers deserve punishment" or "successful traders deserve success", which the authors must disagree with.

Desert is a half open interval ranging from zero to 100%. We can all think of people who don't deserve things at all and people who deserve things more than others, but so much is an accident of birth it's impossible to think of anything that is absolutely 100% deserved.


I don't know if any of that made sense, but I'll still go on saying that I deserve X or that others deserve Y, as long as they played by the rules and didn't just gamble their way to success.

That's a definition of what it means to deserve, not a value judgement, by the way.