Illustration by Sarah Berkinshaw

Symposium “Distributive Justice” - University of Zurich

The justice of education systems

Should we strive for a meritocratic education system? Discussing two adverse approaches to egalitarian justice, this blogpost suggests that a just education system should not only reward merit.


    Education strongly influences the status attainment of an individual and is linked to life chances such as economic success, health and stable relationships (Hout, 2012). There is a widespread belief that education systems should be “meritocratic”: schools should be structured to reward the best individuals. More specifically, grades and diplomas should reflect students’ efforts in terms of studying a lot, always attending classes, and doing their homework – with higher grades for deserving students and lower grades for undeserving ones. With such meritocratic schools, it would then be just to give more advantages to the students with the best grades, for instance on the job market, because these advantages would be deserved.

    Many have argued that this ideal does not correspond to the reality of school systems. They have insisted that it is a false belief that educational attainments are solely the result of a person’s own doings: factors such as parents’ income or educational background play a decisive role in pupils’ achievements in school (e.g., Breen and Jonsson, 2005). But, even if it is unattainable, should this meritocratic ideal still guide the design of school systems?

    In The Tyranny of Merit, Michael Sandel (2020) argues that it should not. He claims that meritocratic societies, and the educational institutions that constitute an important part of them, legitimize distinctions between winners and losers. This entails both strong feelings of resentment towards the “winners” of society among hard working people who do not have a university degree and lack financial appreciation and status, and wrongly placed feelings of entitlement on the part of the most advantaged (Sandel 2020, 116–118).

    In this post, we give further reasons to doubt that a strictly meritocratic way of distributing educational attainments and the life chances that are attached to it would be desirable by comparing two opposing conceptions of egalitarian justice: equality of resources by Ronald Dworkin (1981) and democratic equality by Elizabeth Anderson (1999).


    Equality of resources

    Dworkin’s (1981) equality of resources can be seen as supportive of striving for a meritocratic education system. The core claim of this theory of justice, in simple terms, is that inequalities are just when they are the result of “option luck” (Dworkin 1981, 293), namely, of autonomous individual choices – such as students’ decisions to work hard at school or to rather spend time playing video games. Deciding not to study hard is a “deliberate [gamble]” for which individuals should bear the costs on their own (Dworkin 1981, 293).

    Yet, this theory also highlights that inequalities are unjust when they are the result of “brute luck” (Dworkin 1981, 293) – of events or decisions that individuals did not choose. Individuals disadvantaged because of differences “traceable to genetic luck” (Dworkin 1981, 314), such as handicaps or lack of talents, do not deserve these disadvantages. Therefore, they should receive aid from society to compensate for their bad brute luck.

    In this view, a just school system should thus ideally reward individuals’ efforts – with the specification that pupils who only achieve low educational attainments as a result of bad brute luck (for instance, because their parents speak a foreign language and cannot help them with studying) should not be left to their sad fate. Such an ideal, meritocratic education system would ensure that everyone gets what they deserve.


    Two objections to the meritocratic ideal

    Another American political philosopher, Elizabeth Anderson (1999), gives us two reasons to question the just character of this ideal.

    First, such a meritocratic education system would entail that individuals who had bad grades because of their own decisions should be left with no safety net. Society would not need to provide them with any help as they deliberately chose not to study (Anderson 1999, 295). This situation, Anderson argues, is not compatible with an egalitarian and just society.

    Second, determining which individuals should get aid or not would require the state to determine which ones got bad grades as a result of bad brute luck and which ones were victims of bad option luck. The state would for instance need to estimate which individuals have a low IQ, which ones have poorly educated parents, and which ones decided not to put effort into studying. Anderson (1999, 305) argues that such inquiries entail treating individuals with disrespect. In addition, it stigmatizes those who receive aid and labels them as being inferior to others (Anderson 1999, 305).


    An alternative ideal: democratic equality

    What these two objections point to is that the distinction between brute luck and option luck is problematic. In Anderson’s (1999, 289) view, this distinction takes our attention away from what egalitarian justice requires – namely an ideal of democratic equality: the aim of justice should not be that everyone gets what they deserve, but that everyone stands equal to one another.

    This ideal is achieved by providing every individual with an effective access to “levels of functioning” (Anderson 1999, 318–319) throughout the course of their entire lives. Hence, resources should not be distributed to correct undeserved differences between individuals, but rather to ensure that individuals can function as human beings (requiring, e.g., food), as participants in a system of cooperative production (requiring, e.g., education) and as citizens of a democratic state (requiring, e.g., access to public spaces) (Anderson 1999, 317). The aims of abolishing socially created oppressive hierarchies and enabling individuals to stand as equals in society should guide these distributions (Anderson 1999, 313).

    What this alternative ideal of justice implies, for school systems, is not that students who work hard should not be rewarded for their effort; but the differences between students who work hard and students who do not should not lead to an oppressive hierarchy. Furthermore, it would not be unjust to give a person who has studied a lot a job that demands a great amount of knowledge (e.g., as a lawyer) and accordingly a person who has not studied a lot a job that mainly demands other skills than those acquired in school (e.g., as a carpenter) – as long as the lawyer and the carpenter stand as equals in society. Ensuring this would be partly the task of school systems, which should provide all individuals with actual opportunities to learn the skills necessary for democratic equality to be realized.


    What about incentives?

    Against widely shared beliefs, we have argued that meritocratic ideals such as the one of Dowrkin’s equality of resources should not solely guide the design of school systems. Following Anderson, this would risk leaving too many people behind and impose judgmental evaluations of individuals’ choices in ways that violate basic egalitarian requirements.

    Structuring school systems in line with an ideal of democratic equality, in contrast, would help getting rid of oppressive structures and enable individuals to stand as equals in relation to others. Would such schools entirely exclude merit-based processes? It seems to us that preserving consequences for the results of autonomously made bad decisions, and good decisions respectively, should still serve as incentives for students to learn. But, even if students who work hard will get better grades than students who do not, these inequalities should not translate into a distribution of life chances that would create a society in which individuals do not stand as equals.


    Anderson, Elizabeth S. 1999. “What Is the Point of Equality?” Ethics 109(2): 287-337.

    Breen, Richard and Jan O. Jonsson. 2005. “Inequality of Opportunity in Comparative Perspective: Recent Research on Educational Attainment and Social Mobility.” Annual Review of Sociology 31: 223-243.

    Dworkin, Ronald M. 1981. “What is Equality? Part 2: Equality of Resources.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 10 (4): 283-345.

    Hout, Michael. 2012. Social and economic returns to higher education in the United States. Annual Review of Sociology 38: 379-400.

    Sandel, Michael J. 2020. The tyranny of merit: What’s become of the common good? London: Allen Lane.