The Series Philosopher

Philosophising about the 'S'-word: Watch… and learn

S01E11: Are the most privileged people also the most undeserving?

1x11 The Intern

THE CRAZY ONES: 1×11 The Intern – Sydney Roberts (Sarah Michelle Gellar), tries to convince her co-workers and friends Zach (James Wolk) and Andrew (Amish Linklater), that coming from a wealthy family makes it even harder to prove one’s worth.


Does being born in a wealthy family, having connections and clout, living surrounded by books, or actors, or artists or whatever, make you any less worthy of your successes in life?

CBS recently cancelled a pretty good show starring Robin Williams and called The Crazy Ones. In the show, Williams plays the role of the eccentric Simon Roberts, co-founder of a famous advertising agency in Chicago Lewis, Roberts + Roberts. According to the CBS-owned TV Guide, when Sarah Michelle Gellar (Ringer) learned that Williams was making a television comedy, she contacted her friend Sarah de Sa Rego, the wife of Williams’ best friend, in order to lobby for a co-starring role. Does she have less merit for landing the role of Sydney Roberts, Williams’ daughter and business partner in the show?

In the eleventh episode entitled “The Intern”, a new intern (played by Ashley Tisdale) is expected to join the creative team of Sydney Roberts, Zach Cropper (James Wolk, Shameless, Mad Men) and Andrew Keanelly (Amish Linklater, The Newsroom). It sickens Zach and Andrew to see that the new intern got the job by just being the daughter of one of the agency’s biggest clients. Sydney, who was made partner of her father’s company, endeavours to defend the honour of the intern:

ANDREW: “Kelsi Lasker.” I wonder how she got the job. Oh, wait. Isn’t Lasker Lunch Meats one of our biggest clients?

SYDNEY: Just because someone is the daughter of an important person does not mean that they are not worthy.

SIMON: She gets that confidence from me.

SYDNEY: Look, she’s got a 3.9 GPA.

ZACH: Yes! From the…”Lasker School of Business.” Very impressive.

ANDREW: She graduated Phi Beta Cold Cut.

SYDNEY: Fine. Make all the jokes that you want, but wealth and power do not automatically equal success. Okay, sure she comes from an influential family, but because of that, she has faced doubters like you two every step of the way.

ZACH: Is she championing the cause of the over-privileged?

ANDREW: Well, that’s a stance a lot of people are afraid to take.

SYDNEY: You guys have no idea what it’s like. People writing off your accomplishments as luck. Lack of obstacles, making it almost impossible to prove yourself.

ANDREW: Oh. So hard.

SYDNEY: Fine. I’m done standing here while you besmirch her character.

Merit is often developed in philosophy under the notion of desert, which is tied to justice and morality. It is commonly accepted that receiving what one deserves is fair and right, and that it is wrong when a person receives less or more than they deserve. To mention the concept of desert, there should be a subject (the one who deserves), an object to be deserved and a desert basis (the thing in virtue of which one deserves something).  In The Concept of Desert (1971), John Kleinig suggests a fourth component which is the source of the object of desert: “X deserves A of Y in virtue of B”. For instance : “Sydney Roberts deserved her position of partner from her father in virtue of her hard work in the company.”  But did she and her many possible contestants for the job really start off on equal footing?

The political philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002; author of the classic A Theory of Justice, 1971) contests the notion of desert, claiming that it is not germane for a person to claim credit or merit for what the social, economic or physical privileges that they obtained from ‘natural lottery’, enabled them to do. He writes in the sub-chapter “The Tendency to Equality”:

“The natural distribution is neither just nor unjust; nor is it unjust that persons are born into society at some particular position. These are simply natural facts. What is just and unjust is the way that institutions deal with these facts. Aristocratic and caste societies are unjust because they make these contingencies the ascriptive basis for belonging to more or less enclosed and privileged social classes. The basic structure of these societies incorporates the arbitrariness found in nature. But there is no necessity for men to resign themselves to these contingencies. The social system is not an unchangeable order beyond human control but a pattern of human action. In justice as fairness men agree to avail themselves of the accidents of nature and social circumstance only when doing so is for the common benefit. The two principles are a fair way of meeting the arbitrariness of fortune; and while no doubt imperfect in other ways, the institutions which satisfy these principles are just.”

He adds further:

“One may object that those better situated deserve the greater advantages they could acquire for themselves under other schemes of cooperation whether or not these advantages are gained in ways that benefit others. Now it is true that given a just system of cooperation as a framework of public rules, and the expectations set up by it, those who, with the prospect of improving their condition, have done what the system announces it will reward are entitled to have their expectations met. In this sense the more fortunate have title to their better situation; their claims are legitimate expectations established by social institutions and the community is obligated to fulfill them. But this sense of desert is that of entitlement. It presupposes the existence of an ongoing cooperative scheme and is irrelevant to the question whether this scheme itself is to be designed in accordance with the difference principle or some other criterion (§48). Thus it is incorrect that individuals with greater natural endowments and the superior character that has made their development possible have a right to a cooperative scheme that enables them to obtain even further benefits in ways that do not contribute to the advantages of others. We do not deserve our place in the distribution of native endowments, any more than we deserve our initial starting place in society. That we deserve the superior character that enables us to make the effort to cultivate our abilities is also problematic; for such character depends in good part upon fortunate family and social circumstances in early life for which we can claim no credit. The notion of desert does not apply here. To be sure, the more advantaged have a right to their natural assets, as does everyone else; this right is covered by the first principle under the basic liberty protecting the integrity of the person.”

The 2014 Football World Cup in Brazil is now over, and on seeing those teams from all over the world competing for the same trophy (Cameroon, Greece, Bosnia, Australia, Germany, Spain, Chile, to say the least…), I thought: “Those are like international applicants, eligible for a place in Harvard University: X comes from Manhattan and descends from a long line of Harvard alumni, Y comes from a decent middle-class family in the French countryhood, and Z comes from a poor neighborhood in Accra (Ghana), with illiterate parents and limited cultural capital. When Z fails at the oral exams after being declared eligible, is it really a failure? Isn’t it already a victory to have had the chance to compete with the privileged up to the finals? When Y passes, is it comparable to when X does? Who deserves most their place in the University?”

This questioning of mine is a questioning about meritocracy and positive discriminations. The British sociologist Michael Young (1915-2002) who coined the term ‘meritocracy’ in the satire The Rise of Meritocracy (1958), decries the idea of a society where only talented people win (well, think about Usain Bolt, or Mozart, in a rapidity or music contest) and people without talent lose. Young’s book was the very first shot in the war against the 11-plus, a British school examination after which children would either have the privilege to go to academic grammar schools (reserved to a gifted elite) or fall back on ordinary secondary schools.  Young thus contributed to the widespread abolition of the national system of Grammar Schools  between 1965 and 1976 and in most counties the abolition of a universal school filtering 11-plus examination. But talent is not the only thing that makes the difference, as student X getting into Harvard was not necessarily more talented than Z failing.

The French philosopher and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) pointed out throughout his career the many inequalities schoolchildren start off with. He was himself from a very modest background and became one of the greatest human scientists in France. In most of his works (State Nobility: Elite Schools in the Field of Power ; Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture), he used the notions of field and habitus to describe the systems in which each individual evolves and that determine the way they think, the way they perceive and judge, and the place they get in their society. The field is a system of individual dispositions (identical habitus) that are characterized by the volume and the structure of the capital held by the individual. That capital can be economic (money, apartments, work…), cultural (knowledge, qualifications that was acquired at school or in the family), social (friends, network, connections) or even symbolic (reputation for instance). Those capitals are unequally distributed from the beginning and the unequality barely evolves with time, as according to Bourdieu, people’s habitus contribute to social reproduction.

In conclusion, Sydney Roberts was most likely to follow her father’s footsteps, so was Kelsi Lasker, in virtue of her social capital.

2 comments on “S01E11: Are the most privileged people also the most undeserving?

  1. Pingback: S02E21: “Look, just because we’re good-looking doesn’t make us villains.” | The Series Philosopher

  2. Pingback: S02E06: Do you deserve your salary? | The Series Philosopher

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The Series Philosopher is a woman in her late 20s. Not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world.

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