Thursday, 2 December 2010
Deserve and Never
This morning, again, the word deserve emerges from a sentence, waving its arms like a particularly deserving member of the deserving poor. The sentence is about weekend hospital care - apparently more people die in hospitals for lack of attention if they happen to be taken in at the weekend - and what the man says is: We must make sure that the patients get the care that they deserve.
As Dr Johnson once put it: Clear your mind of cant, sir! Even more to the point, another authority (one W. Shaxpere) addresses the question thus: Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping? Good question. I wouldn't - and am I not the most blameless of men? Any football fan moaning The fans should get what they deserve deserves all he gets.
The trouble with deserving is that it is a matter of opinion (students get different marks for their work, people vote competitors on or off in meatmarket TV shows). I wouldn't even say that patients should get the care to which they are entitled. Entitlement suggests that caring for people in hospitals relates to some quality of the patient. I would simply say: Patients should receive the care that hospitals are obliged to give them, and shift responsibility back where it belongs, to the health service.
Desert, entitlement and even right seem to privilege the receiving individual over the institution that is obliged to act in a particular way. It only seems of course because the institution can sit back and wait for such rights to be asserted. This form of arranging a contract isolates the individual. If I pay for something in a shop it is not my deserving or entitlement or right to get change that suggests I should demand it. It is an obligation on the shop to provide it. Of course the shop is not obliged to carry my bags to the door or to pay for my bus fare, not even if I am old and feeble and indigent. That may be an act of human kindness and acts of kindness are not to be contracted. Somewhere in between the act of kindness and the obligation is the ethos, and ethos is collective. Ethos is what I would go for because ethos is mutual.
I am a customer and I want my rights! is one of the most depressing sentences in the English language.
So out with deserve! The word cant, however, deserves to be regularly resurrected.
It is much the same with never, as in We must make sure that this sort of thing never occurs again. A train has crashed, a fire starts, there is an earthquake, someone makes a mistake. This must never happen again. The trouble with never is that it is a futile rhetorical gesture, a promissory note on which no-one can ever (seriously now, ever) collect. It makes you sound determined and caring while the truth is that you are being glib and sententious.
Just before I die I will make sure my death never happens again.