Merit, or fortune?

I am of a generation who, born into a world in which privilege was hereditary, instinctively thought that society should be ordered on “merit” rather than accident of birth. I remember being shocked when I first went to university to hear an eminent teacher maintain that meritocracy was a terrible idea. But he was right, of course.

The idea of merit or “deserving” is murky at best. For the most part merit, be it academic achievement (which is of course what we young students wanted it to mean), entrepreneurial skill, athletic ability, creativity or anything else is as much an accident of birth as wealth or title. Even hard work, application, dedication to the task and so on are surely impossible without some natural aptitude for such effort.

But if you take merit out of the equation – and still assume that hereditary entitlement is not a great way to organise society – what is left? Raw wealth, however acquired? Celebrity? Those, in effect, are what we have increasingly, perhaps overwhelmingly, tended towards and they have always and will always have an influence. But perhaps their current dominance is an indication that “ordering” is a bad idea anyway. The more hierarchical society becomes, the less just. Ordering is necessary only for certain functions – someone has to take decisions or nothing will get done, for example. But the underlying principle should be moral equality.

Moral equality does not imply an attempt at material equality, any more than it implies that no one may exercise their talents of whatever kind, although it may imply an attempt to restrain the degree of material inequality we can tolerate. It is an assumption that differences are just differences, not indications of underlying or evident merit. The wealthy are not deserving because they are wealthy, as the deep influence of Calvin may have taught us, they are just wealthy. They are fortunate, not superior.

We could not eliminate the effects of good and bad fortune from any society even if we wanted to, nor should we try. But it matters greatly whether we frame our differences in terms of fortune or merit. One leads to compassion and if not justice then less injustice. The other leads to hardening of the heart, arrogance and ultimately suffering and instability.

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