Considered the most recognized philosophy professor in the world, in his most recent book “ The tyranny of merit. What has become of the common good? ”He questions the morality of the meritocratic system. Fragment.
The rhetoric of promotion
In our day, we view success as the Puritans viewed salvation: not as a product of luck or grace, but as something we earn with our own effort and effort. That is the crux of meritocratic ethics. There is in her an exaltation of freedom — the ability to control my destiny by dint of hard work — and of worthiness. If I am responsible for having made a generous personal store of earthly goods — income and health, power and prestige — I must well deserve them. Success is a sign of virtue. My wealth is something that I have deservedly earned.
This way of thinking is empowering. Encourage people to consider themselves responsible for their fate rather than victims of forces beyond their control. But it also has a dark reverse. The more we see ourselves as self-made and self-sufficient beings, the less likely we are to worry about the fate of those less fortunate than ourselves. If my success is my doing, your failure must be your fault. (We recommend: Mauricio García Villegas and his reading of the work of Michael J. Sandel).
This logic makes meritocracy corrosive to the community, the latter being understood as that which is shared in common. When the notion of personal responsibility for one’s own destiny is too forceful, it becomes difficult to imagine ourselves in the shoes of other people. Over the past four decades, meritocratic assumptions have deepened their roots in the public life of democratic societies.
As inequality grew to considerable extremes, public culture has strengthened the impression that we are responsible for our destiny and that we deserve what we have. It seems that the winners of globalization needed to convince themselves — and everyone else — that those at the top of society and those at the bottom had gone where they belonged. Or, at the very least, that one and the other would end up being where they belonged if, once and for all, we removed the unjust barriers to freedom of opportunity for everyone. (You may be interested: Michael Sandel won the 2018 Prince of Asturias Award for Social Sciences).
In fact, the political debate between the traditional center-right and center-left parties in recent decades has mainly revolved around how to interpret and implement equal opportunities, how to ensure that people can promote as much as their efforts and skills take them. To do it.
Effort and merit
The first time I realized how much the meritocratic spirit was increasing was listening to my students. I have been teaching political philosophy at Harvard for many years (since 1980), and sometimes I am asked how the opinions of students have changed throughout all this time. Usually I am not quite sure how to answer. In class discussions on the subjects I teach —justice, market and morality, the ethics of new technologies—, students have always expressed a great diversity of moral and political points of view. I have not detected any significant trends, except one in particular: since the 1990s, an increasing number of my students seem drawn to the conviction that their success is their merit, a product of their effort, something they have earned. . Among my students, this meritocratic faith has intensified.
At first, I assumed it was because they had come of age under Ronald Reagan and soaked up the individualistic philosophy of the time, but most of them were not conservative in ideology. Meritocratic insights are common to all sensitivities on the political spectrum. They emerge with special intensity in debates about positive discrimination in access to university. Whether they are for or against the “affirmative action” policies, most students are convinced that they went to great lengths to qualify for Harvard and therefore deserved their place.
Any suggestion that their admission was perhaps due to luck or other factors beyond their personal control elicits strong rejection. This increase in the meritocratic spirit among the students of the more selective university centers is quite easy to understand. Over the past half century, access to elite universities has become an increasingly intimidating litmus test. Not so long ago, in the mid-1970s, Stanford admitted nearly one-third of the applicants who applied as alumni there.
In the early 1980s, Harvard and Stanford were admitting roughly one in five applicants for a position, and in 2019 they were only admitting less than one in twenty. As this competition for access intensifies, the adolescent years of those who aspire (they directly, or their parents for them) to enter leading universities have become the battlefield of a feverish desire for success, in a highly scheduled regime , pressing and stressful of advanced level classes, private consultants specialized in admissions, tutors to help with the SAT, sports and various extracurricular activities, internships and humanitarian stays in distant countries aimed at impressing the admissions committees of the universities … and all this supervised by anguished “hyperparents” obsessed with getting the best for their offspring.
It is difficult for someone to overcome this tough test of stress and desire for success without believing that the achievements thus materialized are the result of that hard effort on their part. In itself, this is not something that makes students selfish or unsupportive – after all, many spend large amounts of time performing public services and other solidarity works – but what that experience does is turn them into staunch meritocrats; like their Puritan ancestors, they too believe they deserve the success their work has brought them.
The meritocratic sensitivity that I have detected among university students is not just an American phenomenon. In 2012 I gave a lecture at Xiamen University, on the southeast coast of China. The subject of that talk was the moral limits of markets. In the minds of the public present, the news of a Chinese teenager who had sold a kidney to buy an iPhone and an iPad was very fresh, 1 so I asked the students what they thought about this case.
In the debate that followed, many of them took the libertarian liberal point of view: if the adolescent had freely agreed to sell his kidney, without pressure or coercion, he had the right to do so. Others disagreed, considering it unfair that rich people could extend their lives by buying kidneys from poor people. A student seated at the back of the room offered a reply to this second argument: the rich are so on their own merit, having earned the wealth they have, and therefore deserve to live longer.
At the time, such a stark application of the meritocratic mindset certainly took me by surprise. In retrospect, I realize that this view is morally akin to the prosperity theology belief that good health and wealth are signs of divine favor. Of course, the Chinese student who expressed that point of view was probably not imbued with puritanical or providential traditions, but he and his classmates had grown up at the same time that China was transformed into a market society.
The idea that those who prosper financially deserve the money they earn is deeply ingrained in the moral intuitions of the students with whom I have met in my various visits over the past decade to various Chinese universities. Despite cultural differences, these Chinese students, like my Harvard students, are people who have emerged victorious from a hypercompetitive process of access to their universities, framed in turn in a hypercompetitive market society.
Not surprisingly, then, they are reluctant to think that we owe anything to anyone for our success and are attracted to the idea that we earn — and therefore deserve — whatever rewards the system rewards our efforts and abilities.
* Published with permission from Penguin Random House Editorial Group.