13.10.2006 kl. 16:46

On the Notion of Meritocracy

In the past few years there has been an explosion of research amongst social scientists into whether developed societies in the West are becoming more meritocratic. A given society is said to be more or less meritocratic based on how well it meets the criterion of meritocracy – namely whether the allocation of positions of power, influence and social status is based on demonstrated merit rather than wealth, family connections or entrenched class privileges. Thus, a society is meritocratic to the extent which social position P is correlated with merit factor M among the individuals of which said society is composed. In analysing this particular avenue of research, the key word we should focus on is obviously the notion of merit. Merit is intertwined with the notion of desert. If we maintain that a given person receives a certain position by way of merit, it is more or less logically equivalent to maintaining that the person in question deserves the aforementioned position, or, at the very least, has a deserving claim on it. However, desert (and hence merit) is a moral concept, and as such, its meaning is likely to differ depending on individual notions of what is entailed by the terms in question. That which is meritorious to one person may not be meritorious to another, and vice versa.

Let us look at a simple model espoused by some social scientists. Merit, they suggest, may be defined as a combination of natural talent and personal achievement or effort. Thus, a person with great personal potential who makes use of said potential by hard work can righly be called meritorious. But we immediately run into trouble, for this particular definition of merit is easily open to criticism – Rawls, for example, argues that natural talents are undeserved. Thus, we might criticize this model on the basis that desert is derived from a non-deserving attribute. It is easy to maintain that natural talent should not, strictly speaking, have a place in evaluating merit – a person of mediocre talents who makes a great effort to achieve might very well be regarded as more deserving than a person of great talent who makes only a modest effort. And this is only one of the many objections we may raise. We thus see that it is far from easy to establish a concensus concerning the meaning of merit. In light of the fact that no commonly accepted normative interpretation exists, the question posed by social scientists:

“Is society S becoming increasingly meritocratic?”

which we may faithfully rephrase as

“Are positions in society S increasingly allocated on the basis of merit

is equivalent to a question of the sort:

“Are people in society S becoming better human beings?”

Both questions contain moral attributes with a variety of hotly disputed and mutually incompatible normative interpretations. The subjective nature of any moral attribute is going to leave any question containing such a term stillborn unless we have a fixed interpretation. Merit clearly has no such interpretation.

Social scientists have tied merit to a number of social indicators such as educational achievement. They measure the correlation between educational achievement and eventual social position, and make sweeping claims about post-industrial societies becoming meritocratic, while their results justify nothing of the sort. A correlation between social indicators such as educational achievement and social position tells us nothing about merit. The jump from these objective indicators to a subjective moral term is logically invalid, unless we choose to redefine the moral term as an objective term equivalent to the indicators in question. In that case, the meaning of the moral term is wholly arbitrary, and does not accord with general usage. The social scientist has, in fact, appropriated a word from the common vocabulary and twisted it to fit his own purposes. Does this matter? Decidedly yes, for although it makes no rigorous difference, it does make a psychological difference. The arbitrary takeover of moral terms by social scientists makes it possible for propagandists and rhetoricians to claim a ‘scientific’ or ‘scholarly’ legitimacy which would otherwise not have been available to them. The moral terms can be defined, redefined and defined yet again in terms of social indicators, to legitimize the desired ends of the moment. This is sophistry of the worst kind, and makes social science the laughing stock of the sciences.