Beliefs, desires, and “entitlement.”

Random thought of the day: frequently, when someone desires X and experiences distress when X is not forthcoming, others criticize that someone for thinking him/herself “entitled” to X. This is a phenomenon that can be seen all across the political spectrum and across many domains of human experience. Three very frequent places in which it shows up are in education, dating, and economics/poverty. Everyone who laments a poor grade, being unable to snare a desired mate, or being poor has to listen to some scold tell him/her about how s/he shouldn’t be so “entitled.”

This is such a basic error of reasoning that even a bizarre society such as ours ought to be able to drive it out. If I desire a cup of coffee, it doesn’t mean I think I’m entitled to a damned coffee. Beliefs and desires are different things. Entitlement beliefs are at least minimally normative — to believe I’m entitled to X is to believe that I ought to be given X. There are many desires we have that we don’t endorse. If someone cuts me off on the street, I may desire to punch him in the nose, but I certainly do not think that I ought to be allowed to do so.

I wonder to what extent this obnoxious mistake is a consequence of our consumer culture where, in daily life, desiring X and believing one is entitled to X go very closely together — in our culture, if I want a cup of coffee, it is ordinary for me to go and buy a cup of coffee, and customarily, I will not be refused. If I show up at the local coffeeshop, cash in hand, and ask for a cup of coffee and am refused, I will be offended, angry, outraged — I’ll have the response suitable to someone who has been denied something to which he is entitled. Even though, you know, I’m not actually entitled to it. (Some of Marx’s stuff on commodities and money may be relevant here.) This blurring of desire and entitlement in our lives as consumers might just be bleeding over into the way we understand the concepts.

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3 Responses to “Beliefs, desires, and “entitlement.””

  1. Richard Says:

    It is odd, though perhaps not for the reason you identify (one might be said to feel entitled even without endorsing the corresponding beliefs; normative claims may be implicit in our emotions).

    More importantly, it seems to me, is that you can even endorse the desire, and judge that X would indeed be a good thing for you to have, without thereby feeling “entitled” to it. I’m not entirely sure what it is to feel “entitled” to something, but I assume it implies some kind of expectation that others will co-operate in securing X for you, and that you have legitimate grounds for complaint — as opposed to mere expressions of disappointment — if you don’t get X. Like a ‘rights’ violation, or something. (I guess that to feel entitled to X is to feel like you have a right to it. But it should be clear that mere unhappiness at the absence of X doesn’t imply any such thing.)

    Perhaps the problem is that people misconstrue expressions of disappointment as some stronger kind of complaint?

  2. Paul Gowder Says:

    Richard… that post that you linked is quite interesting — though I’m not sure that it suggests that normative claims are implicit in our emotions, so much as that there’s bidirectional influence.

    I think your second paragraph is exactly right. I’d like a yacht, and it’s OK for me to want the yacht, but I surely don’t experience myself as entitled to it.

  3. Sili Says:

    I can’t say that I’ve run into that complaint much. It seems obvious that there’s a pretty strong difference between desire and entitlement (indeed one may be entitled to something one doesn’t actually want).

    But reading Savage Love, I recognise the problem. I just hope that I do not succumb to it, myself.

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