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. 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. 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

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.


You can derive a reasonable, completely libertarian/meritocratic model of politics, but it requires recognizing that meritocracy always works under a layer of indirection. Life is not about property, it is always about influence. Property is a side-effect.

An absolute meritocracy that directly allocated economic proceeds clearly consigns all newborn babies to death. They have no talent yet, they cannot allocate their own effort and they have no concept of achievement. So, not only is it immoral, it is entirely impossible to run a society that way. Your society could not effectively reproduce.

In reality, the baby will survive because its parents have merit. So this definition is wrong. What meritocracies actually allocate is then obviously never goods, it is power over who receives them. Even though that distinction seems laughably minor, it changes all the rules entirely. The thief can be deprived of goods because no matter how competent he is individually, he is not the only competent individual. If he stole everything from everyone, those competent at violence would just bully him into giving it back, or kill him.

The power to limit him can be granted by others who pool their competence (primarily competence at violence) to create a legal system. A legal system is, almost by definition, the agreement by those in a society most competent at violence not to use it, as long as order is maintained otherwise. (The State holds a monopoly on violence that can be taken away only by war -- which can be defined as violence that transcends (not bypasses or eludes, but transcends) the control of any State.) And if that system cannot effectively limit him, which such systems often realistically cannot, then he will still prosper, as he probably does in every ordinary society.

So the injection of morality is not what gets us to that point. Morality remains irrelevant. The wish to have order causes others to extend their power in that direction. In a pluralistic, meritocratic society like a capitalist economy, we consent to some rules that govern power-sharing. We do not do so on the basis of a shared morality, even if we claim that is the case. We do so for our own comfort and we do it in a degree determined by our own ability to manipulate the system.

Out of such a compromise, one may secondarily derive a moral imperative. But that is just to make the actions of the powerless more predictable. Revolutions are a huge waste of resources.

  • "the baby will survive because its parents have merit" Romulus & Remus?
    – CriglCragl
    May 20 at 23:22
  • @CriglCragl. Not necessarily their biological parents. To feed two human children, that must have been a wolf with some serious competence. May 20 at 23:44

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