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.

The four horsemen of the modern world

There are four existential threats to our species.

The best known and most talked about, although still stubbornly disputed, is global warming. It is probably too late to head it off, even if we really knew how. It would help if people could agree it was a threat to life and not see the very idea as a threat to their profits, but there we are. We have absolutely no idea what the consequences will be but they are unlikely to be wholesome.

The second, of which I confess I have only just become aware, is that we are already in the middle of a mass extinction of animal life on the planet, comparable in scale and perhaps effect to the extinction of the dinosaurs. This has nothing to do with global warming as such, although our sheer numbers affect both, for it is simply an effect of the pressure which human life exerts on the rest of the biosphere. Animal species for example are being lost at an alarming rate as they are pushed to the margins of survival. The figure which stands out for me is that we humans and our domestic animals now account for over 95% of animals by mass on the planet. There is no “wild”. See for example this article.┬áCan we continue to flourish without it? Probably, for a while but maybe not indefinitely.

The third is the threat of our own cleverness. Sooner or later and even though it has long been the stuff of science fiction our creations will get the better of us. We are not clever enough to foresee all the consequences of all our actions. We will create a bio-catastrophe through genetic engineering or a machine we cannot control or software than deems us redundant or some other technological oversight – provided of course we don’t just blow ourselves up.

The fourth has always been with us and come close to succeeding in wiping us out on several occasions – nature itself. We think we are in control, but a major volcanic event, for example, could bring us to our knees. Or a change in climate causing drought or famine. Or a naturally occurring disease might arise which we could not defeat in time – it is less than a hundred years since flu claimed more lives than a World War, for example. A compilation, in other words, of the old horsemen.

In my lifetime the human population of the earth has roughly trebled. There are a lot of us and it would take something extraordinary to get all of us. Fewer humans would paradoxically relieve some of the pressures from some of these four causes, perhaps even making the survival of the species more likely. But it would not be a pretty process. Imagine going back in short order even to the global population level of the middle of the twentieth century, or in other words wiping out two thirds – two out of three! – of the people on the planet.

It would be daft to claim that a stronger sense of values will make all these threats go away. A species which thought about what really mattered rather than, or even as well as, how to make a quick profit might have a better chance, though. And they might both live better and behave with more dignity when disaster arrived.

Equality and neoliberalism

We, or at least I, tend to think of social equality as an aspiration of the left in politics, although I have argued in my recent book that it misdirects many efforts and that material sufficiency (lack of poverty across many dimensions) is a better social goal. However, the idea of equality also feeds the right wing of politics, especially the extreme, neoliberal kind.

How can this be when neoliberalism produces and endorses such massive inequality in society, actively championing “private affluence and public squalor”? (How apt incidentally Galbraith’s phrase from the sixties seems today!) It is because equality excuses inaction. If we are all equal, the poor must somehow be to blame for their own plight for if some succeed, why not all? Those who get rich have done so by merit, surely, so why should they help the less meritorious? Why should there be institutions of government to redress imbalances if everyone is equal but some more hard working than others?

Like many ideological positions this one has a grain of truth which makes it hard to dislodge. Many people do of course succeed because they work very hard. That is why the fruits of hard work should be as little disturbed as possible. But the fact is, however unpalatable to left or right, we are not all equal in all respects. Some are talented, some naturally diligent, some favoured by birth circumstances, while others are discriminated against, or broken in their early years, or just lack any talent to succeed at least in the world they know. “Merit” is largely a matter of chance for which if we are favoured we should be grateful rather than thinking it is all our own doing.

That is why we need ways of balancing the effects of chance. Gratitude and compassion demand them. That is also why material (as opposed to moral) equality should not be assumed or striven for, because whatever the intention it feeds nasty parts of the political right.

The Pope and coal

The Pope may (or may not, a draft document was leaked) be about to suggest that global warming has a moral dimension. The fossil fuel industry in the U.S., the coal industry in particular, is outraged and right wing presidential hopefuls are scrambling to condemn this “interference” in secular affairs. The Pope has been told to “stick to his job” – whatever that means.

Is this not passing strange? Has morality no bearing on everyday life? Then what is its point and purpose? Or is the idea rather that business is exempt from morality? By all means argue that the Pope is wrong on a point of morality, although I can see that is tricky for politicians who are also Catholics. By all means argue that he has his facts wrong, if indeed it turns out he has (we don’t know at this point). But to argue that a religious and moral leader can have nothing to say about what is and isn’t a moral problem or then about where he thinks the weight of moral argument comes down is surely just absurd.

It does not leave the impression that these presidential candidates know the difference between a moral issue and a funding opportunity. It does not inspire confidence.

“The road to character” – David Brooks

Just finished reading David Brooks’s latest book. Three cheers (or if you prefer, five stars) for both the crystal writing and the theme. His book and mine share a concern about the loss of focus on what broadly I call values and he calls character in modern culture, not only as to substance but even as to the ability to discuss matters of “morality” because the anchors of meaning have been lost (a point Alisdair Macintyre was making forty years ago, mind).

You could be fascinated by this book even without interest in its crucial theme just for the biographical sketches of the subjects Brooks chooses. I particularly liked Samuel Johnson (and I suspect Brooks did too) though in my case partly because I knew woefully little of his life. Holiday reading sorted!

This biographical/anecdotal method has its drawbacks, however, though it is the default method for tackling serious subjects for popular consumption since Malcolm Gladwell’s first impact. The strands of Brooks’s main theme are sometimes obscured, even contradicted, because inevitably no two of his subjects embody exactly the same traits or follow the same path. Also, it is inevitable that he can choose only relatively famous, well documented lives, which means both that the examples he chooses are not necessarily typical and even that some of the traits he admires may be artefacts, more to do with the individuals’ success and fame than their character or values – or in Brooks’s terms, more Adam 1 than Adam 2.

There is throughout the book a justifiable disdain for simplistic ethical theorising, a theme that life and the world are too complex for simple maxims. True enough, but in the end we all need some touchstone by which to make our most difficult and even our everyday choices. Brooks acknowledges this in the final chapter by stating a series of lessons he feels emerge from his biographies. I can’t help feeling – but of course I would say this, wouldn’t I?! – that by condemning theory the hard philosophical work has been shirked a bit. You could for example seek to model your life on George Marshall or Samuel Johnson or one of the others, much as religious believers often seek to imitate their founder. But the life you chose would never quite fit the conditions you faced and you would have to rely on a simplified version of the exemplar’s life anyway, which might mislead. And that ignores the philosophical heart of the matter – why choose that particular life?

But all that said, this is a fine book which because of Brooks’s justifiably high reputation will do more than I ever could to bring an important – crucial – theme back into public debate. Three cheers.