Miseries of Meritocracy


We all want to achieve a certain level of merit in what we do. This is contingent upon what we ‘want’ and what we think is ‘good’. Often our sense of what is good is also dependent on our want. Let me define want here as the specific goal pertinent to our activity. Thus, what we call merit is the most efficient mode of realizing our want, or reaching our goal. Without a notion of goal, of the end to be reached, we cannot specify the best way of achieving it and consequently we can’t determine merit.

When we think of merit in connection with a group of people, matters get complicated. When we apply it to an organization, say, a company, merit here is less easily defined in clear terms. Issues such as long term gain and short term gain, the gain of the shareholders and that of the consumers, gain of the employees and that of the owners / directors, (and so on) complicate the matter. If we go further and consider a society, a nation, then it is anybody’s guess how easy it is to determine what merit is.

But, it is easily agreed that determining merit is not easy. What perhaps may not so easily be agreed to is questioning certain received marks of merit. If I say, an IIM grad is not meritorious, or one needn’t bother about the exam results to admit students for MBBS, or if I say people are taken for a royal ride with all these stats on performances. We refuse to see that much of the methods we today unquestioningly accept as providing us the means of knowing the merit of a person, organization, company, country, have been arrived at after severe compromises and many are simply prejudicial.

As a parameter of policy formation merit plays its greatest mischief. In every society, the codified and the non-codified notions of merit usually reflect the interests, values and the attitudes of the dominant communities. These are heavily loaded against the marginals. Policies too therefore perpetuate the logic of the dominant group’s view of merit and force everyone to align with it. Ethically this is untenable, as this is nothing but force in velvet gloves. Meritocracy, in any field, with rare exception, becomes an exalted dictatorship, insensitive to contingent conditions of being. Invariably we create an aristocracy of merit and fool ourselves as partial to best policies.

It is not an easy task to find the right alternatives to the established ways of judging merit. It is not useful to pretend that we can dispense with the idea of merit. One can only assert that our thinking in that direction should begin on ethical grounds rather than on expediency. Some thoughts on merit and justice by Amartya Sen:

I shall argue that meritocracy, and more generally the practice of rewarding merit, is essentially underdefined, and we cannot be sure about its content–and thus about the claims regarding its “justice”–until some further specifications are made (concerning, in particular, the objectives to be pursued, in terms of which merit is to be, ultimately, judged). The merit of actions–and (derivatively) that of persons performing actions–cannot be judged independent of the way we understand the nature of a good (or an acceptable) society. There is, thus, something of justitium or “standstill” in our understanding of merit, which involves at least a temporary “stay” (if not quite a “court vacation”). Indeed, examining the nature of this “standstill,” which is ethically and politically illuminating, may be a better way of understanding the place of meritocracy in modern society than seeing it as a part of some categorical justitia that demands our compliance.

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