Symposium “Distributive Justice” - University of Zurich

Should benefits and burdens be distributed according to merit?

Merit is often upheld as a valuable standard to distribute burdens and benefits in society. But should it be?

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Merit is generally considered as a worthy criterion for distributing resources, such as wealth, income, or social status. Our societies should strive to realize the ideal of meritocracy – of a society in which every individual is entitled to what they have (their benefits and burdens) because they deserve it. Such a society would guarantee all its members equal opportunities to access positions in the social hierarchy and ensure that “rewards and remuneration gained by individuals are proportional to their individual desert” (Arneson 2015).

But is the distribution of resources promoted in meritocratic systems just? In this blog post, we argue that meritocracy should not be considered an ideal of justice. More specifically, we claim that (1) the criterion of individual merit is impossible to achieve in our complex economies and that (2) it justifies unjust inequalities.

 

Individual merit vs. system of joint production

At the core of meritocracy is the idea that individuals are responsible for their voluntary decisions and actions, and that they should bear the costs of these decisions and actions. If they result in disadvantages, individuals are the only ones to blame; if they result in advantages, individuals are entitled to them – rewarded for taking the right path. Thus, meritocracy focuses on an individualistic view of distributive justice.

However, this individualistic idea relies on a flawed conception of how our economy works. It ignores that, especially in complex societies, the economy better corresponds to as “a system of cooperative, joint production,” as political philosopher Elizabeth Anderson (1999, 321) argues in her article “What is the Point of Equality.”

Indeed, Anderson insists that it is literally impossible for an individual to create anything by themselves: “each worker’s capacity to labour depends on a vast array of inputs produced by other people” (Anderson 1999, 321). Specifically, “the productivity of a worker in a specific role depends not only on her own efforts, but on other people performing their roles in the division of labour” (Anderson 1999, 322).

For instance, a billionaire business owner cannot be wealthy independently from the work of their employees, who themselves depend on the bus drivers to get to work, who themselves depend on kindergarten teachers who take care of their children – and so on. Anderson adds that “those occupying more productive roles owe much of their productivity to the fact that those occupying less productive roles have freed them from the need to spend their time on low-skill tasks” (Anderson 1999, 326). The fact that the workers carry out the roles they do, for instance packaging the company’s products, enables the business owner to fulfil their own role because they are free from such activities.

Acknowledging that “every product of the economy” has been “jointly produced by everyone working together” (Anderson 1999, 321) pushes us to fundamentally question the notion that we can attribute merit to individuals and, with it, the claim that successful individuals are entitled to their advantages. In our example, the business owner’s wealth depends inextricably on the effort and contribution of the workers who perform more menial jobs; thus, expressing the prevailing meritocratic view as “you deserve what you earn” is inaccurate because, as an individual, one cannot deserve something that is fundamentally dependent upon the effort of multiple others.

 

Justifying unjust inequalities

When this flawed ideal of individualistic meritocracy is adopted in society, it can support large inequalities in both monetary terms and status that are unjust.

On the one hand, the meritocratic lens would indeed suggest that, in our example, the business owner deserves to indulge in a salary of billions because of their achievements – and their workers similarly deserve their minimum wage and, possibly, poor working conditions. But why should the business owner be entitled to a lion’s share of wages, whilst the worker, on whom they are fundamentally dependent for their own wealth, receives next to nothing?

If we accept Anderson’s claim that “the principles that govern the division of labour and the assignment of particular benefits to the performance of roles in the division of labour must be acceptable to everyone” (Anderson 1999, 322), a good answer to this question would need to be found. It would seem, intuitively, that everyone would not find the discrepancies in wage we see between the business owner and worker acceptable, especially in the way that they exist at two extreme ends of an economic scale.

On the other hand, by linking individual economic success to the normatively loaded notion of individual merit, meritocracy facilitates the translation of wage discrepancies into status inequalities. In the case of the business owner and the worker: in a society where money carries power, the business owner has a much greater capacity to, for example, fund an election campaign and thus influence the outcome, than the worker who carries only their individual vote. Such status inequalities tend to reinforce oppressive structures to which, according to Anderson (1999, 313), those who believe in equality should be opposed. Anderson claims that “the degree of acceptable income equality would depend in part on how easy it was to convert income into status inequality – differences in the social bases of self-respect, influence over elections, and the like” (Anderson 1999, 326).

 

Looking for another ideal

In conclusion, meritocracy should not be our guiding ideal for distributing benefits and burdens: it is based on a flawed understanding of the economy as “a system of self-sufficient Robinson Crusoes” (Anderson 1999, 321); and it legitimises unjust inequalities of wealth and even status. Business owners should not feel entitled to grotesque amounts of wealth; low-pay workers should not be considered to deserve the pittance they are paid. Thus, we have good reason to look beyond merit as a principle of justice.

 


References

Arneson, Richard. 2015. “Equality of Opportunity.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta. Accessed February 3, 2021. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/equal-opportunity/#EquOppMer.

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