education philosopher

A Spirited Defense of Meritocracy

Posted in Philosophy by KevinCK on September 15, 2009

Increasingly, it seems, the word “meritocracy” is used as a pejorative. “Meritocracy” is generally thrown into sentences to connote the socially obnoxious belief in elites, unequal opportunity, and hard-nosed live-and-let-die social darwinism. As my title suggests, I am a meritocrat. Below is a defense of why I believe meritocracy to be the most just social setup. meritocracy, I argue, is just because it is the only system that sets a consistent set of rules for all and all alike.

Before explicitly defending meritocracy, we must do two things: (a) define “meritocracy” and (b) think about the opposite of meritocracy is. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, meritocracy means ” A system in which advancement is based on individual ability or achievement.” Thus, the negation of meritocracy is “a system in which advancement is not based on individual ability or achievement” (or “…should not always be…”).

Meritocracy is based on two premises: (a) people are not equal in aptitude, ability, work ethic, etc., and (b) roles/jobs are best allocated based on matching individuals to the tasks expected in them. The first premise is empirical; despite many attempts to deny or change the fact, inequality in attributes seems quite an intractable part of the human condition. (And even those who lament this seem cannot deny that it is certainly so in areas like athletics, artistic talents, etc.)

Premise (b) is ideological rather than empirical; it is a statement about what should be the case rather than what is the case. It is a statement of how things are best ordered and allocated. As such, premise (b) generally is what most people take issue with when speaking against meritocracy. While some do take issue with premise (a), generally finding a social explanation for inequality in order to make the case that the existence of not endemic to the human condition after all – premise (b) is the one must take serious issue with.

So, some may have more endowments(mental, artistic, physical)  than others. Why, the debaters ask, should this by the primary decider in allocating jobs, roles, and social deserts? Doing things the meritocratic way offers no real chance for people to transcend their classes and social stations. The poor may not be able to afford the same education as the rich, which leads to a perpetuation of the same social disparity we started with – the divide between the less educated (and resourced) poor and more educated (and resourced)  rich.

Even as a meritocrat, I find this unfortunate. I also recognize that one’s attributes and endowments are often (in part) a product of one’s surroundings and “cultural capital.” How can one really believe in equal opportunity when it is so obvious that some people’s opportunity is skimpier than others?

As a meritocrat, I can be moved by this but also recognize that, as true as this is, abandoning meritocracy is tantamount to abandoning the idea that jobs should only be filled by people qualified to do them, and that if one is not meet the expected standards of job x, then one should not be in that job. Jobs are filled by employers in the way that will reap the most benefit to the employer and company, not by a commitment to a larger social justice. If we abandon this, then we must accept that standards for such things as practicing law, practicing medicine, and any other job we can think of, should be movable in a downward direction based on such job-irrelevant factors as one’s family background.

In a word, abandoning meritocracy does mean abandoning procedural equality and the notion that rules are rules because they admit of no exceptions. ONce enough exceptions are made – as opposers of meritocracy would have – rules cease to be rules at all.

Here I want to note that meritocracy and elitismare two very different things. While a meritocrat will recognize, and not condemn, the fact that there exists and elite, the meritocrat will condem any idea that elites be formed by any other method than selecting individuals by their merit for the task. A meritocrat will celebrate, as much as any egalitarian, the poor woman who becomes a CEO because of her proven abilities, or the idea that a rich and “well-born” person’s ability to lose every resource by his poor work ethic and work quality. Thus, a meritocrat may believe in the justice of elitism, but only if that elitism is based on merit (rather than heredity, cronyism, or any n0n-effort-based factor).

Nor is a meritocrat one who believes that we should, or could, select who the talented, gifted, and most able are in advance. There is a fear amongst many enemies of meritocracy that advocating meritocracy means advocating a type of fatalism that would resign those who don’t perform well early to the dust heap. In America, our caution against eugenics, racial stereotyping, etc, is very much alive (for good reason). Saying that merit should determine social roles does not mean that one believes merit to be a static concept, or that once a person’s social role is established, that it cannot be continually re-established. On the contrary, the meritocrat believes that because merit is the deciding factor, if one’s merit inclines, one’s social role should incline. If one’s merit declines, then one’s social role should decline. Like the example of the poor woman and “well born” man above, the meritocrat celebrates social fluidity as much as anyone, just as long as the criterion is a person’s merit for the role, rather than a merit-irrelevant factor.

But, again, doesn’t this consign the rich to stay rich and the poor to stay poor? Doesn’t meritocracy just confirm the status quo? If anything the meritocrat is the leastfatalistic view in that it recognizes that human effort can and often does transcend one’s social situation. It is the equalitarian, not the meritocrat, who holds – inadvertently – that social class determines everything. In discussion with equalitarians, I have perceived that it is they who are the pessimistic ones. “Be realistic,” they say. “We can’t really expect that those raised in the inner city can get ahead without tweaking the rules for them.” “We can’t really expect group y to be able to transcend their social class by effort.”

Meritocrats disagree. We can and it has happened too many times to count. And the minute we stop expecting merit to be the guiding force in allocation of social roles and jobs is the minute we (indirectly) tell people that their effort is meaningless and unnecessary: meaningless because we now believe that they cannot get ahead without an artificial boost and unneccessary because we will give various groups an extra push not given to groups we feel are ‘their betters.”

This type of equalitarianism  leads to interest group politics (what entitlements can my group get, and why can’t we get what they get?), a slashing of personal motivation (why try to meet the standard if I can get the standard lowered to where I am?), and a moving away from basing social roles on aptitude and eptitude.

Does meritocracy lead to perfect justice? No, but no system does. Under a meritocratic system, there will certainly exist cases where persons are kept out of jobs they might have been able for had they extra resources (or the standards were lowered a bit). Meritocracy, at times, can seem stuffy and unfeeling in its unwillingness to take into account personal factors of individuals that aren’t related to merit.

But if we are looking for the perfect just system of role allocation, I don’t think we’ll find it. Just as meritocracy may lead to some queer results at times, so can equalitiarianism. Equalitiarianism  leads to such queer results as different people having very disparate qualifications yet accessing the same job, solely because one belongs to a privileged group (replacing economic privilege with political privilege.

If we are looking for the perfectly just system, equalitarianism has even less claim than meritocracy which, at very least, applies rules equally rather than artificially privileging one group over another. At very least, meritocracy recognizes the sanctity of individuals to make their own way the best they can. At least meritocracy provides individuals with an optimistic motivation that deserts will be based on one’s achievements rather than arbitrary identity with a privileged group. At very least, meritocracy is procedurally fair.

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4 Responses

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  1. Anonymous said, on September 17, 2009 at 10:39 am

    Hi, just an off-topic FYI: I saw your comment on an Amazon review of “Why Don’t Students Like School”. Interesting blog you have here, BTW. But you mentioned your blog as being “edphilosopher at wordpress dot com”, and another commenter had difficulty getting here. The problem was that your “at” should’ve been another “dot”; the way you wrote it there would be representing the (nonexistent) email address edphilosopher@wordpress.com , rather than a website URL. It should be represented like this: “edphilosopher dot wordpress dot com” = edphilosopher.wordpress.com
    Hope that helps.

  2. KevinCK said, on September 17, 2009 at 5:07 pm

    Thank you much. I am glad you stopped by.

    Thanks for the tip about the amazon foux pas. You are right; I think I wrote that in a hurry without thinking about it. It is ashame that amazon doesn’t allow posting direct links, but I understand why they do it.

    I will change that mistake straight away.

    Again, thank you.

  3. Voucer cherry said, on November 12, 2012 at 1:14 pm

    Wow, awesome weblog structure! How long have you been blogging for? you made running a blog glance easy. The total glance of your website is excellent, let alone the content!

  4. […] The text used for the reading practice (original blog post here) will also be the basis for the discussion next Monday, on the question “Does meritocracy lead to equality”? For further reference, this other article takes a more balanced approach in examining Singapore’s meritocratic system, while a more direct defence of meritocracy is in this article here. […]


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