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Wikipedia says,

Meritocracy (merit, from Latin mereō, and -cracy, from Ancient Greek κράτος kratos "strength, power") is a political philosophy which holds that certain things, such as economic goods or power, should be vested in individuals on the basis of talent, effort and achievement.

Talent, effort, and achievement. Well, all right then. Let us imagine a talented thief who exerts the ultimate effort to rob all of the world's individuals of all their economic goods and succeeds in this astonishing achievement.

Talent .... effort ... achievement. The thief satisfies all criteria, and therefore merits all such goods.

Or, at least that is what the definition of meritocracy would have us believe.

Hence I ask my first question: is meritocracy inherently unethical?


In order to remedy above defect of the definition, one might impose the following condition as an addendum:

The allocations of economic goods must not conflict with moral standards, regardless of how talented somebody is, how much effort they exert, or how much they are able to achieve.

However, once ethics become involved in the acquisition of goods, another problem emerges, namely that if we are to accept moral standards, whatever those standards may be, then we must also accept a particular instance of those moral standards, namely the one that says that meritocracy is wrong and ought not to be the way in which we allocate goods.

But then, the definition of meritocracy contradicts itself.

Hence, I ask my second question: if meritocracy is not inherently unethical, does it then become inherently paradoxical?

  • Although I can see this being closed as promoting a personal philosophy, the question is interesting. – Frank Hubeny May 20 '18 at 15:49
  • "pradoxical" ? It exists: we can like it or not but is art of the society, and not only the modern one: see Confucianism. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA May 20 '18 at 18:33
  • The problem with meritocracy is that a rich boy with less effort will usually have better achievements than a poor boy with more effort. So, in a system where there is a HUGE difference of initial conditions, it is inherently unethical. – Rodrigo May 21 '18 at 0:56
  • Meritocracy is only ever an element within a wider culture of distribution wondermark.com/c1135 – CriglCragl May 21 '18 at 15:50
  • The problem with the post's reasoning is the ambiguity of "talent, effort and achievement". Those can be used relatively or absolutely, meritocracy only applies to the latter use (mixing the two gives the well-known "good thief" paradox in ethics). To define absolute use we do need absolute standards, but they need not be moral (they can include some moral ones, of course), they can be utilitarian or legal. The latter version is closest to what (ideally) exists in practice, talent, effort and achievement at doing legal things. – Conifold May 22 '18 at 3:52
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Meritocracy is more pragmatic than imperative

Meritocracy generally belongs to the realm of political theory. As such, it is usually a pragmatic philosophy, not an moral one. That is, its adherents are usually operating on the basis of a totally different moral philosophy, which (in conjunction with empiricism or some such epistemological framework) they believe can best be achieved by giving political power to the talented. They do not believe that it is intrinsically right to give talented people political power.

Typically, someone who believes in a meritocracy wants, say, the greatest good for the greatest number. They then observe that when individuals who lack intelligence or training take power, they run their constituencies into the ground. Like all political philosophies, this need not be absolute: it admits the possibility that someone with considerable talents might, due to other pragmatic considerations, not the the best choice to achieve the ends of one's moral philosophy. For example, a highly skilled individual whose only desire is to embezzle public funds (not unlike your "thief" example).

When it comes to the distribution of wealth, the concern is often the same: that more talented individuals receiving higher profits leads to an economically optimal outcome, which, some people may believe, is a morally optimal outcome, or at least close to one. Again, this admits some other pragmatic considerations: a believer in meritocracy generally agrees that an assassin, for example, causes so much harm in their moral framework that it's better to imprison them than to pay them.

Thus, there's no paradox, and the question of whether meritocracy is unethical depends, at the very least, on whether you believe the argument that meritocracy achieves a given goal.


In the rare case that meritocracy is someone's moral philosophy, there's no contradiction. They simply believe that the thief in your example does deserve whatever they can acquire—and possibly more. I might consider that unethical, but they don't.

Nor is it contradictory to add conditions to this sort of philosophy. Someone could easily believe that "a person deserves to be rewarded more the more skilled they are" while also believing "unless they're a thief, wear white after Labor Day, choose bacon over neckties." This might strike you as an odd set of conditions, but it's perfectly consistent.

In particular, there is no reason that, as you say:

...if we are to accept moral standards, whatever those standards may be, then we must also accept a particular instance of those moral standards.

This seems to argue that accepting one form of morality entails accepting any form of morality; however, this is not immediately clear from either logic or personal experience.

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