Posted By fidesquaerens on June 5, 2013
Earlier I wrote about Rawls, particularly his idea that meritocracy (the idea a system should recognize and reward merit rather than things like inherited wealth and privilege) was essentially unjust. He’s not saying that we shouldn’t reward people for their skills, because doing so is one way to enable the best-qualified people to do well and also to attract the best-qualified people to a certain job in the first place. But we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking this is a just reward to people who have certain gifts. Rawls doesn’t make this point clear (to my knowledge), but he is coming very close to a teaching that’s at the heart of my brand of Christianity: stewardship rather than ownership.
Let me start with a joke you hear a lot in church circles:
One day a group of scientists got together and decided that man had come a long way and no longer needed God. So they picked one scientist to go and tell Him that they were done with Him.
The scientist walked up to God and said, “God, we’ve decided that we no longer need you. We’re to the point that we can clone people and do many miraculous things, so why don’t you just go on and get lost.”
God listened very patiently and kindly to the man and after the scientist was done talking, God said, “Very well, how about this, let’s say we have a man making contest.” To which the scientist replied, “OK, great!”
But God added, “Now, we’re going to do this just like I did back in the old days with Adam.”
The scientist said, “Sure, no problem” and bent down and grabbed himself a handful of dirt.
God just looked at him and said, “No, no, no. You go get your own dirt!”
(taken from GetYourOwnDirt.com – really, someone bought this domain just to host that joke)
I’m not crazy about this idea that if science could answer enough questions this would drive out the need for God; that whole approach to God seems off to me, whether you’re saying scientists have made enough progress or not. But I do like the point that all of us humans, scientists or otherwise, have inherited our starting point. And this is what I think Rawls is coming close to. We are born with certain genetic predispositions which are valued by our community (or not). We are born into a family with the means to train us and offer us opportunities (or not). We are born into a community that is committed to our development in every way (or not). All of this happens before I have any ability to affect the world I’m growing in. This is the “dirt” the scientist reaches for, assumes is his to use. But it’s misguided to think that the same dirt is available to everyone or, even if it is, that we have some kind of claim to everything coming out of our efforts as some kind of “just due.” It may be right we have access to some, even all, of that good. But it’s not because it’s ours.
Here’s where the Christian teaching I grew up with comes into play. Incidentally, I’ve also seen this approach in secular groups, particularly eco-activists, and students of mine from India who didn’t grow up with any particular philosophy. Basically, we should think of ourselves as stewards of a world that we have no claim to. It’s our job to use the earth effectively and preserve it, to use our talents and abilities to build community and care for those around us. But we don’t get any great claim to the results, because we’re working with dirt that was already there to begin with. We should be proud of what we’ve made and should use whatever we produce to sustain ourselves and we should leave “gleanings” that those who don’t have the opportunity or ability to use their own talents (either because they don’t have talents or lack opportunity). But we shouldn’t think of it as what’s owed us. It’s stewardship, not ownership.
Case in point: Manwe. (more…)