Ethics,  Politics

On Merit

You do something great, I clap. The child is naughty, he gets no ice cream. The athlete wins the race, she gets a medal. All of these actions and reactions seem built into the universe. It’s just the way it is.

According to Clifton Mark, this is false – this is not the way the world works. Oh, and believing it leads to evil.

Mark defines meritocracy as the idea that “the rewards of life – money, power, jobs, university admission – should be distributed according to skill and effort.” Most people, he says, think of meritocracy as a fact about the world. It is just the way the world works. However, Mark argues that “the belief that merit rather than luck determines success or failure in the world is demonstrably false.”

Mark offers one argument for his claim that meritocracy is not the way the world works and three more to support the claim that it leads to all sorts of evil. Of course, it could be the case that it is the way the world works and that it leads to bad things. The negative consequences of a snake bite don’t make it false that snakes bite.

In support of the first claim, that the universe is not meritocratic at its core, Mark argues that success is more a result of luck than skill or effort:

“Talent and the capacity for determined effort, sometimes called ‘grit’, depend a great deal on one’s genetic endowments and upbringing…fortuitous circumstances that figure into every success story…There are certainly programmers nearly as skillful as Gates who nonetheless failed to become the richest person on Earth. In competitive contexts, many have merit, but few succeed. What separates the two is luck.”

The idea is that you didn’t deserve the success you achieved because of your own skills and hard work. It was the result of many factors most of which you had no control over.

The meritocrat can reply in a number of ways.

First, It is not clear whether Mark has merit or desert in mind. As Louis Pojman suggests, desert is a species of merit, but the two are not the same thing. Thus, someone may merit some response without deserving anything. For example, when looking for a town cryer, one would look for someone with a naturally loud voice. The people with loud voices would merit consideration to be the town cryer. However, the town cryer is said to deserve his accolade as best town cryer if he has exceeded all other town cryers in terms of the quality of his actions. The natural strength and body-build of a person merits consideration to join the athletics program. She might go on to represent the USA in the Olympic Games based on both her unearned merit and her effort. If she wins at the games, her performance deserves a medal and our applause. In sum, characteristics are said to merit, whereas actions are said to deserve.  If so, we can grant that there are many unearned characteristics meriting certain responses.

However, it does not follow from the town cryer’s lack of control over the volume of his voice that he does not deserve the award for being best town cryer when he uses what he has. Nor does it follow from the athlete’s lack of control over her body type that she should be deprived of a medal or that everyone should receive the same medal. Thus, Mark’s objection fails.

But what about Bill Gates? Is the difference between him and a hardworking programmer who is just as skilled as Bill merely luck? Bill Gates gets a vast sum of money for approximately the same effort as a lowly programmer. Doesn’t this tell us that meritocracy is a myth? Actually, it appears to tell us the opposite. Karl Marx thought that hard work deserved rewards and that the determining factor for payment was hard work. Accordingly, he suggested that the state should equalize Bill Gates and the programmer’s pay. However, the grounds for doing so is desert. Thus, to conclude that the two should be paid equally is to concede the point to the meritocrat.

The point about Bill Gates and the programmer is not a point about merit or desert per se; it is a point about proportionality. If Mark is suggesting that it is wrong that Bill Gates gets more money that the programmer, then he assumes meritocracy. If not, then Mark gives no reason to think there is anything wrong with Bill Gates getting more than the programmer. On the former interpretation, my response is that Marx was just plain wrong about proportionality. Though the two may work equally hard, there is no necessary connection between hard work and the price one is payed for it. A homeschool mom is paid far less than a professor, yet I can tell you who works the hardest. There is also no necessary moral connection – it is not an injustice that a homeschool mom is not paid as much as a professor. If you think there is an injustice, you are invited to right the wrong with a check! Thus, the fact that Bill Gates earns more than other programmers is not necessarily connected with the value of his work. Price is not identical to value.

The three further arguments Mark offers are about the bad consequences of holding meritocratic beliefs. 

Mark’s first argument is that belief in meritocracy leads to selfish behavior, particularly it makes people “less self-critical and even more prone to acting in discriminatory ways.” Thus, “meritocracy is not only wrong; it’s bad.” He cites evidence from research into the ‘ultimatum game’ in which “one player (the proposer) is given a sum of money and told to propose a division between him and another player (the responder), who may accept the offer or reject it. If the responder rejects the offer, neither player gets anything.” Most frequently, the proposer offers half or nearly half of the total sum. In some research, people who first played a game of skill in which they were told they won were much less generous when they played the ultimatum game. “Just having the idea of skill in mind makes people more tolerant of unequal outcomes.” In other research a person playing the game with gratitude in mind were far more generous when they played the ultimatum game.

What Mark seems to suggest is that people who win a game are more likely to think they deserve something for winning whereas people in a state of gratitude are more likely to be generous. But doesn’t the reaction to gratitude appear to support meritocracy? What makes the person generous is the idea that he should pay something back. Actions taken out of gratitude are taken because whatever actions caused the gratitude merit some positive reaction. If the people who kept more in the ultimatum game because they thought they deserved it ought not to think they deserve anything, then those who are grateful ought not to think they should pay anything back. Mark’s argument entails not only that people should not believe they deserve anything, but also that they should stop believing anyone else does either. This point is more general. For example, people who think punishment is wrong must also believe reward is wrong. Where one goes, the other must follow.

Mark’s second argument is that beliefs in meritocracy leads to discriminatory outcomes. He cites research that shows that when a company explicitly holds to meritocratic principles, they rewarded men more than women despite “identical performance evaluations.” In contrast, the research shows that “This preference disappeared where meritocracy was not explicitly adopted as a value.”

The obvious problem here is that to think that those with ‘identical performance evaluations’ ought to get the same rewards is to think that meritocracy is true and good. If the evaluations are identical, then the company that did not reward appropriately are merely doing it wrong. But there is a difference between believing in meritocracy and applying it well. Mark appears to praise the latter company who, though they do not espouse meritocratic principles explicitly, are better in their application of them. But to praise one company over the other is to think that one deserves praise and the other does not. But that is to be a meritocrat!

Finally, Mark argues that meritocracy leads to multiple false self-impressions:

“the most self-congratulatory of distribution principles. Its ideological alchemy transmutes property into praise, material inequality into personal superiority. It licenses the rich and powerful to view themselves as productive geniuses…Graduating from high school, artistic success or simply having money can all be seen as evidence of talent and effort. By the same token, worldly failures becomes signs of personal defects, providing a reason why those at the bottom of the social hierarchy deserve to remain there.” 

Perhaps Mark believes that if one believes in a meritocracy, one will automatically become proud. Is this true? Does one belief entail the other? It doesn’t seem to follow in any way. If the universe is meritocratic, then it is right that those who commit crime go to jail and those who work hard and in the right manner do well. This fact alone doesn’t entail the subjective feeling of being somehow more intrinsically valuable than anyone else. Indeed, a successful person may well be humble (this may be one of the reasons other people felt that he deserves to be where he is). In contrast, a criminal may be the most arrogant person on the planet (again, this may be one of the reasons he finds himself in jail).

It seems that Mark thinks that rewards are evidence of good work. But aren’t they? Is the person who last night was awarded employee of the month supposed to wake up the next day and say, “this is all a fiction.”? Only if that person is convinced that rewards don’t follow effort. But then she’d have to believe that there is no such thing as merit. To believe that she’d have to be convinced by Mark’s argument that the universe is not meritocratic. But Mark’s argument does not succeed. Thus, the employee can be glad for her award. It is a sign that she has worked well.

I have written previously on the importance of the notion of desert. It is an important feature of the way the world is. One might wonder how it is grounded – is it merely an intuition that runs deep? Louis Pojman, from whose essay on merit I drew much of this post, argues for merit from intuition. The problem with intuitionism is that it suggests things like principles of merit are self-evident. I’m not convinced they are. However, principles of merit do have prima facie plausibility, so the burden of proof  lands on the skeptic. My grounds for belief in merit are found in the Bible. If you would like to read what I think, you are invited to explore my post on the Christian doctrine of the atonement in which I argue that God prescribes a system of merit and desert for human behavior. I also explain that we all deserve punishment for our sin, that Christ takes our punishment on our behalf, and that through faith in him we are saved. All this is not because we deserve anything but because of the kindness and grace of our God.

“I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” (Gal 2:20)

Louis Pojman “Merit: Why Do We Value It?” Journal of Social Philosophy, Vol. 30 No. 1, Spring 1999, 83–102.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.