Merit and desert are two terms that are always in opposition to one another. While merit measures value in terms of success or failures, desert presupposes that value is not only measured in terms of success or failure but also the intentions must be assessed. Desert asseses “whether or not one had good or bad intentions, whether or not one was responsible for the success or failure”.
While it is tempting to decide on issues with regards to their value in terms of the intentions of doing them as well as the success or failure of the object to meet our specific demands, I do believe that we merit is the best way of making a decision; we deserve what we earn.
Athlete who has been training for long hours everyday deserves to win a race because of his attempt to train, and not marely because he is tall or has some long strides. Merit presumes that a person deserves something provided that he has some qualities.
This is in contrast to desert which assumes a person to deserve something given that he attempts or does something. The criterion for deciding whether we deserve what we earn may be either through merit or desert, but one fact is that we generally deserve what we earn. The society itself is full of pointers to the fact that we get what we “saw”. To begin with, the laws governing our actions in the society show a justice. The concept of justice is found in most cultures and religious institutions.
An ancient Greek poet, Simonides, defined justice as “giving each person his due” an idea which is unequivocal in the ancient Greek laws which also defined justice as giving the people what they merited. This idea of justice is also evident in most religions. The concept of the final judgment done on the basis of ones goodness or badness cuts across all religions; in the Hindu scriptures the notion of reward got after reincarnation is portrayed as being proportional to the person’s deeds.
This same idea is also exemplified in the Quran and explicit in the Hebrew and Christian bibles. The bible for example states that what a person sows such shall he reap. In the current world affairs, we can look at the US election as one indicator of the criteria by which the society measures its values. We can decide to look at Obama as deserving the win from two perspective, from a meritorious point of view or from a desert based point of view.
If we look at it from a merit-based point of view, then we can say that Obama deserved the win because he planned well, mounted a successful campaign machinery and was successful in convincing the young people, many of whom voted for him. On the other hand, we can decide to say that Obama deserved to win because he represented a minority community which has been oppressed and so deserved to win the election on this ground.
Pojman, L. Merit: Why do we value it. Journal of Social Philosophy. New York. Vol 30:83-102.