Despite the incensed response to Obama’s “you didn’t build that” comment, it seems most reasonable to accept that the President was referring not to small business owners ‘building’ their own businesses, but to ‘the roads and bridges’, and presumably to infrastructure in general.

Individual responsibility is a touchy subject, especially for Americans. But the balance between work, reward, and welfare is controversial for people everywhere. Nobody likes to feel that other people are being unfairly rewarded, or that they themselves are getting less than they deserve. Most people don’t like to pay tax, and the thought of people receiving money for nothing can be galling.

But a sense of entitlement is ugly whether it comes from welfare recipients or from the ‘self-made’. We quickly become defensive and demanding at the slightest hint that our income and standard of living is being questioned. It’s natural to push back, since the alternative would be to admit: “that’s right, I don’t deserve this.”

But what do we deserve? A sense of entitlement and desert is ugly because it is ultimately a claim about our personal worth, and a high assessment of personal worth is basically pride. It’s one thing to say that hard work ought to be proportionately rewarded, it’s a completely different thing to angrily declare that you’re a self-made man who doesn’t owe anything to anybody. It is likewise good and reasonable to state that society ought to assist the less fortunate, but it’s another thing entirely to assert that society owes you a living.

In a Christian context the essence of pride lies in separating ourselves from our creator. Human beings are creatures, and we cannot accept this fact without embracing humility. From the point of view of humility, pride is a foolish, bizarre attempt to glorify ourselves as though we could somehow take credit for our own existence. An account of the fall of Lucifer written by the 4th century monk and theologian John Cassian provides an excellent analogy for the human problem of pride:

“For as [Lucifer] was endowed with divine splendour, and shone forth among the other higher powers by the bounty of his Maker, he believed that he had acquired the splendour of that wisdom and the beauty of those powers, with which he was graced by the gift of the Creator, by the might of his own nature, and not by the beneficence of His generosity. And on this account he was puffed up as if he stood in no need of divine assistance in order to continue in this state of purity, and esteemed himself to be like God, as if, like God, he had no need of any one, and trusting in the power of his own will, fancied that through it he could richly supply himself with everything which was necessary for the consummation of virtue or for the perpetuation of perfect bliss. This thought alone was the cause of his first fall.”

Whatever the source of our wealth may be, there is no way to attribute it to our own power except through the delusion of pride. Who is responsible for his own intellect? Who can claim credit for the family he was born into, the opportunities that came his way, even his own desire to seize those opportunities? The only thing a person can claim credit for is his exercise of will, and even that is coloured and conditioned by his culture, education, family history and inexplicable personal preferences. In short, if you try to find a single part of yourself for which you can claim personal credit, you will find that it all reduces to influences and circumstances beyond your choice or control.

Don’t get me wrong: hard work, wisdom, intelligence, all these qualities should be rewarded. But at the same time we must accept, if we are honest, that unless you can take credit for being the person you are, it is an ugly mistake to attach the thought of self-sufficiency to your achievements.

Instead of reacting with pride and self-interest, a better guide is to consider what is good for human beings according to their nature. There are numerous ways to gain insight into our nature, but an important rule of thumb is to compare our current system not to some imaginary utopia, but to a more primitive alternative.

The essence of work, for example, is to keep ourselves alive with sufficient food, water, shelter, clothing, in other words, to meet our basic needs. Anything on top of that is a bonus. If we were all abandoned in the wilderness tomorrow, this is the most basic requirement we would have to meet, and it would consume most of our efforts.

Though most of us are distant from the direct physical struggle to survive, we do at least perform some kind of work in exchange for the money required to purchase these basic necessities. In this context welfare dependence is a legitimate problem because gaining the necessities of life without having done the necessary work to obtain them conflicts with our nature. It is good for us to do work; we find fulfilment in being able to provide for ourselves and for others. Quite apart from the economic challenges of a welfare system, it is not good for people to be unable to meet their own basic needs.

At the same time, for those of us who are easily able to meet our own needs, it makes sense to help those who cannot. This ethical principle is substantiated in the Golden Rule, and derives from the deeper recognition of human equality – that we are impelled by reason to act consistently towards ourselves and others. To leave another person to starve would be an indictment on one’s entire attitude toward human life, including that of one’s own friends and family.

The problem with the modern welfare system is partly one of scale, and partly one of systems in general. The problem of scale means that welfare is disconnected from the local community. A national or state-based system by its very scale will keep welfare a relatively anonymous, distant relationship between citizen and government.

The problem of systems means that there will always be loopholes, exploitation and injustice. To turn a natural ethical imperative into a government organisation will inevitably provide a clumsy response to the problem. But once again we have to admit that the realistic alternative is not a utopia.

If we can, with a little humility, admit that our success in life is tenuous and ultimately derived from factors beyond our control such as the kind of people we are, then it ought to be a relief to realise that we are not being ripped off, short-changed, or diabolically subverted by some kind of Communist plot. At the same time, while everyone wants the economy to improve, it is good to remember that meeting our basic needs is the primary purpose of work, and that anything beyond that is a bonus.

Zac Alstin works at the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute in Adelaide, South Australia.

Zac Alstin is a writer, editor and stay-at-home dad to three marvellous children, in Adelaide, South Australia. His hobbies include martial arts, making things at home, and contemplating the underlying...