30 April 2021

Does egalitarianism damage merit?

Does egalitarianism damage merit?  Topic by Sara

Essay by Lawrence


This is a very serious topic in philosophy and especially in political philosophy. It is serious because not much has been done since the days of Locke. Sure, today we have higher standards of living and members of minority groups can reach the presidency of the US. But this is certainly not enough.


The idea of egalitarianism is based on equality which extends to the idea of equality of opportunities. This means that people should be treated the same as equal without discrimination or privilege of status. Merit is the idea of being the best candidate for a job or a position. Indeed both concepts, involve the idea of fairness and equal treatment. However, there must be a reason why we don’t already live in a utopia despite the progress that has been achieved as human beings since the times of Locke.


The problem with our topic question is that meritocracy is based on selecting the best person thus having to identify someone unique from all the other people. Whereas egalitarianism tells us that a priori everyone is equal and the same. Thus egalitarianism is a metaphysical* problem, basically a language problem by virtue of the meaning of the meaning of equal or equality. But merit is an empirical* problem we cannot define a priori who deserves to get the position until we investigate what the position requires the person to do and then investigate those candidates who presented themselves for the job.


However, there is no doubt that society will be best served with a solid foundation of egalitarianism first and then meritocracy given egalitarianism. The reason for this is that by excluding groups of people the pool of deserving people is much smaller than if all the possible candidates could present themselves.  A reduction in egalitarianism means a reduction in possible candidates for meritocracy.  


Today egalitarianism and meritocracy are usually discussed in terms of wealth and jobs/careers which is unfortunate since this is the reason why we are still discussing this subject in the twentieth century. Egalitarianism cannot mean just wealth distribution amongst all members of society. Firstly, if for the sake of the argument we were to equally divide the wealth of society amongst all individuals it means that any inequitable wealth would be enjoyed by everyone today at the expense of those who were exploited in the past. Secondly, no amount of individual gain from sharing collective wealth would suffice to create a world that can help us in education, healthcare and so on. Putting all that wealth to provide research and actual services would be more cost effective for society that just giving a cheque for a few Euros. Incidentally this shouldn’t be mixed up with say social security and unemployment benefit.  


The original idea of unemployment benefit was to provide a stop gap when people found a new job after being made redundant in their old job. Today it is evident that some governments and some companies are in a dance to make unemployment benefits (or whatever they are called today) the standard income in exchange for companies keeping more of their profits. Usually this takes form of some coercion by companies in the form of more profits or else we go somewhere else.


The other reason why dividing all the wealth and spreading it equally to everyone is that the result would be super inflation and within a short period of time we’ll end up with a few practically having all the money and the rest have nothing. See for example John Rawls philosophy on fairness.


As I have already pointed out, egalitarianism is a metaphysical idea and by definition it can only help us with concepts and ideas. Earlier I also mentioned that egalitarianism should also mean equality of opportunity but this should not mean that everyone should have the same opportunity, as in we should all submit our CV for the same job. By opportunity we must mean that everyone should have equal access to the means that make people equal amongst their peers. Children in need should have access to special needs education; poor people should not be priced out from institutions of learning; and so on.


But the problem, for example, is not access to universities, but the idea some people have of privilege because of social status, discrimination and the idea that some people feel they are entitled to whatever they want. Education (I use education as an example, it could be healthcare etc) should not come at a monetary price whether it is for a first degree or a doctorate degree: education is education and it ought to be free.


But if we never had the opportunity to reach a level of opportunity, we are certainly not going to benefit from a meritocratic society. If we are trying to find the person who merits being a university professor, there is no merit if hundreds of thousands of people were denied a tertiary education degree for whatever reason:  money, health, special needs and so on. And there is no merit if all candidates for the Chair excluded members from minority groups, people who qualified from normal institutions and so on.


Incidentally, if you are interested in the machinations of the merits of publishing in scientific journals you can read this entertaining story: Einstein Versus the Physical Review – in Physics Today at https://physicstoday.scitation.org/doi/full/10.1063/1.2117822 . This story is also known as: the paper by Einstein that was rejected.


I am not convinced that egalitarianism is damaging to meritocracy partly because egalitarianism is a metaphysical issue and, therefore, a problem of morality and political philosophy: that is we need to change our mind set about our relationships with others. And meritocracy is an empirical problem and should, therefore, be more inclusive rather that excluding.


In a way egalitarianism and meritocracy are complementary forces: without giving opportunities to everyone, we cannot be sure that we are selecting the most meritorious persons. Even more, egalitarianism and meritocracy are not qualifications, but rather a process. Egalitarianism implies finding what is lacking in a person and then helping that person to proceed in a normal life. By the same process those who are born with extraordinary intelligence should be helped to develop their talent.


What we know for sure is that discrimination and exploitation are not compatible with egalitarianism and meritocracy and as we can see from history how an absence of these forces can lead to turmoil and maybe even revolution.



* Since I have not really researched this topic in depth I do not necessarily claim originality of this idea.  


Best Lawrence                           

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