mercoledì 18 marzo 2015

Merit and meritocracy. Philosophic and political considerations

Merit”, to define it, is the element that makes a person worthy of respect, consideration and reward. It flows as a spontaneous feeling in the human soul when our intellect detects in another human being the execution of admirable and complex action, or the conception of an idea of intellectual, moral and psychological high value. Therefore, a “person worthy of merit” is the one that, for its own particular conduct, for talented inclinations or for socially valuable qualities spreads around him an aura of gratitude, esteem, efficiency, capacity and respect.
In addition, “meritocracy” refers to a particular form of government and management of public affairs in which the official positions are distributed according to merit and not because of other considerations such as birth or richness. Those who are in favor of a meritocratic society believe that meritocracy is fair and helpful as it would guarantee an end to discrimination based on arbitrary standards such as sex, race, social and economic relations, and so on. Instead, those who oppose it accuse the meritocratic society to turn into a despotic society because of the monopoly of power that an elite class would ensure for itself at the top of the State, deciding to perpetuate its social status and privileges and thus marginalizing the weight of the governed.
Old Calvinist temple in Lyon
Historically speaking, the Western and European societies of the modern age that used to be particularly meritocratic were those supported by a Protestant religion, especially those that were Calvinist or closely related to Calvinist theology. In them, the distinguishing individualism would become an incentive to excel over other members of the community thanks to the morality and sanctification attributed to work and to honest workers. The sociologist Max Weber in his surveyThe Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” (Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus, 1905) acutely interrelated Protestant ethic, work, capitalist production and ultimately merit and success, considering them all as interlocked. In fact, it is not negligible the impact of religion on the establishment of a society based on moral and spiritual qualities of its members: a Protestant society (especially if Calvinist or Methodist) will come to consider in an eschatological-theological point of view work as a factor of justification and salvation and idleness as a potential tool for eternal damnation.
John Locke, the father of modern liberalism, argued in his "Second Treatise of Government" that work, or rather merit in working, was the factor that legitimated private property.
Likewise, Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence of the United States (1776), echoing Locke’s ideas, helped to forge the nascent American society on the principles of meritocracy.  He considered a typical cliché of Enlightenment that considered republican and representative societies as naturally more inclined to accept the virtues of industriousness; on the contrary, the monarchical and aristocratic societies – that the Enlightenment supposed to be unjust – exemplified a fertile ground for the spread of laziness and ineptitude, like in the case of the inheritance of crucial public offices.
Indeed, a very sharp ideological and political splintering exists between the Ancien Régime and the post-revolutionary society: the former founded its existence and legitimacy on hereditary and blood ties, whilst the latter supported the particular capacities of individuals regardless of considerations not linked to these very capacities.
Prussian Pour le Mérite Order medal

Frederick II the Great, King of Prussia, an enlightened ruler, both a philosopher and a reformer, was the creator of a military “Order for Merit”, that was to be conferred to the troops that deserved an acknowledgment for their brilliant martial conduct on the battlefield. Later, this Prussian model inspired Napoleon Bonaparte, the utmost meritocratic leader, when he instituted the Legion of Honor, another military Order of Merit, which admitted (and still admits) people belonging to any social class that distinguished themselves both in civil or military matters. The organization of the Napoleonic Grande Armée embodied the example of a war machine born to promote merit and talent. Both the higher ranks of the officer corps and the simple conscript soldiers in the army’s ranks could achieve high honors if recognized as worthy. The great Corsican general himself admitted in a famous sentence that each soldier of his army could potentially bear in his backpack a marshal's baton.
Moreover, fascist societies like Hitler’s Germany or Mussolini’s Italy represented one of the most ambitious attempts to transform a State into a completely meritocratic society. This project was visible in almost every aspect of public life (and often private) that the fascist governments wished to take care of, from competitive sports to the exaltation of the brave soldier and the fertility of women. Even Marxism, contrary to what some may think, did not oppose to meritocracy, basing its ideology on the idea of having to deliver to each one what was its own. For example, if a doctor had a son who was good at cultivating the land, it was right that he became a farmer; at the same time, if a farmer had a son with inclinations for medicine and healing, it was right that he studied to become a doctor. This Marxist version of meritocracy can already be detected in Plato’s idea of natural justice, according to which justice consisted in the fact that everyone should do what nature made him able to do and did not do the other: this principle is likewise traceable in the Parable of the talents of the Gospel.
Allegory of the plutocratic capitalistic system

Meritocracy bases itself on three principles of government:

1) The allocation of labor and public offices is distributed by merit, and not by age, experience, loyalty or birth.

2) Work, effort and sacrifice are conceived as a source of honor (as stated in the Latin motto: "Per aspera ad astra").

3) Rewarding hard work and punishing disappointing performances are key factors and motivating elements of the system.

Undoubtedly, meritocratic societies represent an incentive to compete and an encouragement to confrontation: accordingly, some wanted to consider this kind of society as very close to the collective implications of the doctrine of social Darwinism.
Furthermore, it is interesting to point out the differences between a meritocratic society and a plutocratic. In the first, all citizens start at the same conditions of equality and only later distinguish themselves due to their personal qualities, whereas in the second, the power and social prestige relies on the economic capacity of citizens, not on their inner quality.
To conclude, we would like to raise a question: if merit directly depends on personal qualities like intelligence, application, flexibility, initiative, self-sacrifice, etc., how can we qualify in absolute terms which individuals deserve to be considered worthy of merit? In other words, how can we measure intelligence? Are all intelligences equal? If the answer cannot be easily answered then probably the concept of merit is not as categorically absolute as we may believe, and thus its social relevance should be resized.


Plato, The Republic.

J. Locke, Two Treatises of Government.

M. Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

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