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. (more…)