The frayed knot between morality and social activism has never been so thoroughly worn as by the evolution of the word “earn.” If other market-driven terms are zombies, then this one is like the unfaithful servants of Odysseus, punished with a corpse tied to its back. It pollutes our conscience most, ennervates our outrage, and dazzles us most often with a false sense that gilt is glory. I loathe the word “earn,” because I cannot mean it. I abhor it because I can neither intend nor rehabilitate it, and the places where it goes wrong are so varied that I think the word was always a sin.
Ðæs wæs gud cynninga! The bard who said so used litotes, and English and German speakers were known for it. Litotes's understatement is not the sarcasm of children or the poor mouthing of southern college football coaches. Instead, it creates a gap in the auditor's mind. If I list all of Roosevelt's accomplishments and say, “That was a good president,” the listener objects that I have set too low a value on the deeds. She then must supply her own value, and the litotes engages her, like a burlesque dancer using layered lingerie, to supply with imagination what frustration provokes.
Earning is supposed to be a function of justice, isn't it? In one context, we use it like “deserve.” We say that the scholar earned his degree, the villain his downfall, the meek heroine her prince. In each case, we are declaring the outcome fit and just. However, we use the same word for money and contracts. This is the meaning that shows up in fool phrases like “earn your keep” or “earn your daily bread.” The implication of the first is that its object is kept, and the second implies that some people out there are eating improperly. We further use “earn” simply as a way of saying “suffered for.” I am going to have a beer tonight, because I've earned it, I might say, but what I mean is that my suffering justifies a drunk. Finally, we use it as “met a contract.” In this last way, for example, the consultants earn their pay, even though they tell us nothing and give us less. We cannot begrudge them their payment, because we agreed upon it in advance.
The quadruple conflation would be reason enough to study the word “earn” and demand that a person use something more precise, but what is insidious is that mixing the meanings has brought us to an immoral and immobile state. We who have concern for justice, who have empathy, who worry about fairness, find our throats robbed of their voice, our hands of their gestures, as the grimly smug rich man says, “Hey! I earned my money! Why should my money go to some lazy Welfare queen who won't get off her bon-bon eating ass and earn a living?”
That bastard lie depends on confusion. It takes one meaning of 'earn' (contract) and claims it must be another (fairness), while the Other who suffers and breaks the cliche (earn one's bread) is guilty of another (not deserving 'earn'). These two lies are raised to the power of a third: "my money." We can argue the provenance of money, and I would recall Christ's words that the money's owner's name is on it (U.S. Federal Reserve), but that's not the lie. The lie is that "my money" encodes the belief that the money is the speaker's before and after any contract, that it is fully his, like a foot, a testicle, or a daughter's uterus. What do we say to a creed of malice and ignorance like that?
Persons who translate labor into money, money into value, goods into money, and justice into contracts are operating with an axiomatic handicap. Their assumptions are immoral, or at least amoral.
Morality depends upon a scale or register of values above the human and natural. Whether one calls this religious in the sense of revelation or simply transcendental deduction, the moral is atemporal and trans-social for the adherent. Where ethics answers with “It depends,” morality argues “It never does.” To do this, to perform the magic of reaching beyond a moment, a person, a group, a moral set has to have obligations and references that are outside of the individual's scope in every sense. Ethics tells a person, “Look around: you must consider your actions in light of others.” Morals tells a person, “You must consider your actions in light of others and values whose virtues may be beyond your needs or vision.” Both demand getting beyond the self, and the moral demands getting beyond the powers that be, too.
The sort of person who uses “earn” in every day discourse likes to “earn what” she “has.” She will tell you that she worked for everything she has. When she says this to you, she is conferring justice on its acquisition. The “earn” may be true empirically, in that she was paid a contracted amount and she did not steal more, but she has moved the earning of a salary to the justice of the salary and then taken the salary to the possessions and glazed them all with the same sticky wet juice of satisfaction.
The “earn” person is passing sentence. “Earn” in this context is purely a value judgment, and it is always employed as a law that is higher than fairness. Even though “earn” is supposed to equal “justice,” the people who speak the word most often will insist in one breath that “Life ain't fair, go cry to Mama,” and, in the other, “You've got to earn everything you get.” In other words, “earn” replaces “fair.” In their ethical scheme, the value judgment of “earn” is paramount. They will not complain at the unfairness of CEO pay versus worker pay, but they will complain that the poor person “hasn't earned” a free breakfast. Further, they will demand policy changes to address this last point, while they accept the first condition as the way of the world. In other words, unfairness is just, and not earning is unjust.
What seems clear to me is that “earn” is a self based system. It is immoral because, as a value judgment, it is self-applied. It has no value in consensus. As a conveyor of “justice,” it has lost its only ability to carry that meaning, and yet people continue to twist that concept into their usage so as to pronounce themselves, and only ever themselves, worthy of their present circumstances and others unworthy.
In toil, the man who is fifty-five years old, arthritic, and working on a framing crew in South Florida without health insurance is working much, much harder than I am. In toil, I am working much, much harder than a stock analyst. In toil, the thirty year old stock analyst is working harder than a teen pop sensation. However, the last is paid the most, the first the least (maybe; I might make less). I have suffered the rich man's contumely day after day, and the analyst has not. The groundskeeper has had that same contumely and imagined others. What have we laborers earned more of?
The word “earn” means nothing that its speakers intend, I think. Worse, when we speak it or allow it to be spoken, we enter into a world where we are implying a compelling justice beyond fairness, and yet tainting it with money and suffering. On that basis, we allow ourselves to be lied to and neutralized by the rich, who can always point to their stacks of gold and say, “You go ahead and make money the old fashioned way. Look: I still earned it.”