2

To talk about meritocracy to me sounds a bit meaningless.

If we have a system S and a person P within system S who is capable of actions A and those actions lead to rewards R, then we may define system S to be a meritocracy if for every person P, if person P actually performs action A, then person P actually receives reward R.

But note that we cannot define the actions and the rewards without referring to what the system actually is. Therefore, meritocracies become dependent on the underlying system, and have no independent meaning.

Here's what I mean. We live in a world (call it system S1) where a person P who, say, is good at playing football, can make a lot of money. Okay, so define the actions as A = {good at playing football} and the rewards R = {make lots of money}.

Great. But this is only true in our particular system, our particular world. We could easily imagine a hypothetical world (call it system S2) where people don't give a crap about football. Nobody watches it, no clubs exist, nobody cares. In this world, the same person P with the same actions would never be able to make "lots of money".

Hence, P "merits" lots of money in system S1, but not in system S2. Yet it is the exact same person with the exact same capabilities and actions!

So clearly the notion of a meritocracy has no independent meaning, it's all dependent on what system we are in. So why do people talk about meritocracy as if it does have independent meaning?

  • Hum, people talk about meritocracy as something that adds value to our society? Be it by stimulating the market (sports as they don’t contribute with anything else other than $) or producing something useful (goods or science). If it generates money (according to the laws of market or our society) or enhances quality of life, there’s a reward, it it doesn’t, then no reward, hence our meritocracy. Is the question only about the difference between the meritocratic systems of distinct societies? – William Apr 22 '18 at 23:01
  • In principle, you are right... but we live into our particular world and not in an hypothetical one. Meritocracy is linked with competition and individualism, that are typical of western capitalist society. Egualitarian societies (modern ones, I'll not consider primitive society) have been existed for a long time in the past century, with limited "success". But also in a seemingly egualitarian society (like e.g. Soviet Union and Confucian tradictional China) on what ground was managed the procees of bureaucrats selection ? On merit ... – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Apr 23 '18 at 13:04
  • For sure, what count as "merit" is relative not so much to the "world" (too vague) but to the specific society and, into the society, to the particular "business" (finance, soccer) we are considering. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Apr 23 '18 at 13:06
  • It is a bit obvious that meritocracy depends on what is considered merit, and that in turn depends on prevailing culture. But then so does which music is popular, and even physical measurements depend on conventions about units. If that does not prevent us from talking about them why should it prevent us from talking about meritocracy? – Conifold Apr 23 '18 at 20:45
1

I think we can usefully put Rawls to work here and use his distinction between a concept and a conception (Theory of Justice).

▻ CONCEPT OF MERITOCRACY

The concept of meritocracy does have a pretty uniform, independent meaning. This meaning is captured by Norman Daniels :

I take a meritocracy to be a society whose basic institutions are governed by a partial theory of distributive justice consisting of principles of the following types:

(1) A principle of job placement that awards jobs to individuals on the basis of merit;

(2) A principle specifying the conditions of opportunity under which the job placement principle is applied;

(3) A principle specifying reward schedules for jobs.

(Norman Daniels, 'Merit and Meritocracy', Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 7, No. 3 (Spring, 1978), pp. 207-8.)

▻ CONCEPTIONS OF MERITOCRACY

If there is a reasonably uniform concept of meritocracy, however, and here your point comes in powerfuly, there is a broad variety of conceptions of meritocracy. Views about what counts as job placement according to merit; of what the conditions for opportunity should precisely be; and of what rewards are to be assigned to merit - all these are matters to social context or of system context to follow your own language.

▻ THE OBJECTIVE INDETERMINACY OF MERIT

Not only is there a broad variety of conceptions of merit, there is no objective decision procedure for deciding between them. Take merit schematically as :

S merits X in virtue of M, where S is a person, X a mode of treatment or an outcome, and M some feature possesses. (Richard Fallon, 'To Each According to His Ability, From None According to His Race: The Concept of Merit in the Law of Antidiscrimination', 60 Boston University Law Review 815 (1982), 822, note 1.)

To see the undecidable indeterminacy of merit, consider two cases :

In the first example, 'S merits X in virtue of M', might become: S deserves this particular job, indeed has an indefeasible right to it, when she satisfies better than anyone else the employer's criteria for selection of candidates for the job which involve qualities which are thought to be of general value in the society and are strictly job related, in the sense that they indicate how well someone will be able to perform the core elements of the job, conceived as the production of 100 widgets per hour.

In the second example 'S merits X in virtue of M' might become: S should be considered for this particular job, and is qualified to be awarded it, provided she satisfies the features determined by society as relevant for carrying out the purposes of the job, broadly conceived to include the ability to work together with others, using criteria for selection which indicate general ability to carry out that purpose, whether contingently or not, and whether those features are thought to be of general value in the society or not. (Christopher McCrudden, 'Merit Principles', Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Winter, 1998), pp. 547-8.)

What objective way is there of deciding between these cases on the basis of merit ? No such way, I suggest : and this is within a single social system, to say nothing of deciding in the case of diverse social systems.

▻ REFERENCES

Norman Daniels, 'Merit and Meritocracy', Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 7, No. 3 (Spring, 1978), pp. 206-223.

Christopher McCrudden, 'Merit Principles', Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Winter, 1998), pp. 543-79.

Richard Fallon, 'To Each According to His Ability, From None According to His Race: The Concept of Merit in the Law of Antidiscrimination', 60 Boston University Law Review 815 (1982).

Michael Young, Rise of the Meritocracy (London: Thames and Hudson, 1958). (Young was the original theorist of meritocracy but the book is a satire that was widely taken to be a defence.)

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.