Saturday, March 22, 2008

Meritocracy vs. Solidarity

This is quite a topic. To begin with, compare and contrast the following five quotes.

(1) Bryan Caplan quotes Harford on peer sanctions/ostracism for "acting white":
[A]s long as African Americans remain disadvantaged and clustered together in ghettos, a black student who studies hard is acquiring the ability to escape from poverty, crime, and deprivation - and from those around him. That may not be popular. People don't like to see their friends developing escape plans; even the option to escape makes us nervous.

[There are] analogues of "acting white" in communities as diverse as the British working class (that certainly matches my experience at school), Italian immigrants in Boston's West End, the Maori of New Zealand, and... Japan's lowest caste.

(2) Caplan adds:
This all sounds great, until you realize that there are plenty of cultures that don't work this way! Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe were part of the working class when they arrived. But almost all of the social pressure in Jewish culture was to do well in school and make a better life, not remain in the working class. The same goes for earlier waves of Asian immigration. Japanese-American gardeners of the sixties encouraged the next generation to do well in school and move up; that's why I've haven't heard anyone talk about a "Japanese gardener" for twenty years, even though they were ubiquitous when I was a kid.

(3) Cf. Russell Arben Fox's communitarian perspective:
Read the church's "Black Value System" that Rev. Wright and TUCC uses, and see how he connects the disavowal of middleclassness to a disavowal of the meritocratic (and thus always at least potentially elitist and nonparticipatory and undemocratic) values which hold sway in a capitalist state like our, a state determined above all to discover the most talented individuals out there, and enable (and encourage) them to professionally and socially make lifestyle choices so as to seal themselves off from the rest of their community.

(4) From the linked PDF:
The highest level of achievement for any Black person must be a contribution of substance to the strength and continuity of the Black Community.

(5) Cf. H.E. Baber's The Multicultural Mystique:
White privilege is the privilege of self-invention. Immigrants and members of ethnic minorities do not have that luxury. Even when they are not locked out of the mainstream by discrimination and economic disadvantage, multiculturalist notions of authenticity, role obligation and group loyalty dog them.

Communitarianism creeps me out. It's so oppressive to discourage people from developing their own talents or pursuing their own dreams; to bind them forever to whatever local "community" they happened to be born into -- however parochial, intolerant, and limiting.

I'm so incredibly grateful to be where I am now, to have the opportunity to dedicate my life to the discipline of philosophy; I can't even begin to imagine being nearly so happy doing anything else. The academic philosophical community is the first to which I've felt that I truly belong. But if I had been born a Maori, if my skin were a darker shade, then suddenly I would have been obliged to remain with my ethnic community instead? *shudder*

That's not to defend any kind of egoism, of course. I certainly think we ought to care about more than just our own self-interest, and strive to make the world a better place. But there are any number of ways to do that, some of which may be better or worse suited to our individual talents and temperaments. The world is a big place, and we needn't limit our attention to the little corner of it that we're born into. Utilitarian benevolence sits better with liberalism than communitarianism, it seems to me.

Moreover, I'm not even a pure individualist. I think that self-chosen communities can matter a great deal, and their collective achievements may even outweigh the individual interests of their members. But this only holds insofar as the members endorse it; unchosen communities are not automatically trumps.

So, count me in favour of meritocracy and the upward-mobility (though not the crass materialism) of "middleclassness". Count me in favour of "elitism", understood as the claim that some ways of life are better than others, tempered by the cosmopolitan insistence that the best forms of life not be closed to anyone merely due to the circumstances of their birth. (Sadly, this demand is yet to be met. Much more still needs to be done to enable humanity. But entrenching class divisions in the name of "solidarity" is not the place to start. We should want as many people as possible to join the creative classes -- to vacate the working class and its culture, not hold people there and reinforce it.) Count me in favour of liberalism.


  1. "Communitarianism creeps me out."

    Yes, definitely. But:

    "We should want as many people as possible to join the creative classes -- to vacate the working class and its culture, not hold people there and reinforce it."

    This is a rather odd claim. Do we want to end people going to sporting matches, drinking in pubs with friends etc? Working class culture is not simply another way of saying poverty. And while interest in certain activities (watching sports rather than going to the theatre) may in part be due to socialisation, in large part it is because people simply have different tastes. We shouldn't be trying to force people to be middle class any more than we should be forcing people to be working class. Instead we should be enabling them to choose, among other things by relieving poverty.

    Which is not to mention the practical impossibility of eliminating non-'creative' jobs. You always need someone doing the hard labour...

  2. Hard labour is what machines are for, not people.

    "We shouldn't be trying to force people to be middle class any more than we should be forcing people to be working class. Instead we should be enabling them to choose, among other things by relieving poverty."

    Oh yes, I absolutely agree. (I simply assume that some tastes are better than others, and that more people would freely choose to develop good taste if given the opportunity. If not, that's lamentable, but their prerogative.)

  3. I sympathise with the idea that being 'arbitrarily' (for lack of better word here) a part of a community does not mean we are committed to said group by default.

    Being a gay philosophy student, I do not have to confine my philosophical commitment within the subject of sexual equality, or problems of subjectivity. Or indeed, being gay does not have to imply that I am necessarily concerned with sexual equality at all. Or being a Chinese-Indonesian does not mean that I have to commit to the values of my cultural community by going abroad to read commerce, and eventually return home to raise the stature of my family business -- not that there is anything wrong with it, I just think it's quite banal.

    I do, however, have a worry for your "elitism" bit. Let's say that there is custom X of a particular culture A, and let's say custom X involves eating a certain type of food that limits the lifespan of the people of culture A so that they can only live until 60. On the other hand, there is custom Y of culture B, and let's say that custom Y involves eating a certain type of food, but this food will allow the consumer to live longer, let's say until 80. Does this mean custom X is better than custom Y?

    I think you need to be a little nuanced here about what counts as a better way of life. You seem to be on to something in saying that a better of way of life is the one that is "more conducive to human flourishing, 'meaningfulness', and other important values", but the problem remains on knowing which value is the better of the lot, to what extent is a person flourishing, and to what extent is a person's life meaningful.

    To say that "the way to pursue this inquiry is through rational thought, and reasoned discussions with those who believe differently from us" is presupposing that there is a standard by which we can asses flourishing, and values. What if people of culture A -- to get back to the case I've given above -- enjoy custom X and thinks that, in spite of its "detrimental" effect on life expectancy, custom X is what makes their lives -- as members of culture A -- valuable? One can claim that custom Y is better because it promotes longer life expectancy, but this claim seems to be contingent upon a particular conception of what constitutes a valuable lifespan. I think it's a little to constrictive to assume that one can assess customs, or way of life, through some sort of a universal standard.

    If I may further indulge, you wrote "Hard labour is what machines are for, not people." But what if, say a farmer in rural Southeast Asia, prefer to use the traditional method of plowing rather than the more modern way of using a tractor. What if he finds some romanticism in it and thinks that it's what he enjoys doing, and it is precisely what makes the activity enjoyable? Is he being irrational? Of course, he might be inefficient. Obviously, he is exerting way more energy for far less result (I'm assuming that this is the disadvantage of employing a traditional method of plowing). But does this mean that the traditional farmer's life is worse when compared to the more modern farmer?

    This comment might be fitting for your other post about critical values. So, sorry if I misplaced the comment, and if I misunderstood your position. I hope I've been fair :)


  4. A little correction for my previous comment, on the third paragraph I asked, Does this mean custom X is better than custom Y?

    I meant the other way around: does this mean custom Y is better than custom X? Sorry about that :)

  5. Hi Yuventius, thanks for the thoughtful comment! The later parts of it do seem more a response to my 'critical values' post than the current one, so I'll just offer a very brief and schematic response here.

    I don't have any general recipe for adjudicating between conflicting values. I certainly don't think custom Y is guaranteed to be better than X, just based on the few abstract details you offer. It's at least possible for aesthetic and other values to outweigh longevity. (There's no point living a long time unless those years are used to live well.) So the truth would depend on how you fill out the details of the example.

    Further, I don't assume that I personally have any special grasp of the truth. So even if you filled out all the details, I'd probably still just shrug my shoulders and say that I'm not able to tell which is the greater value. Maybe if we could sit down with advocates from either side, and hear in full their reasons for preferring the options that they do, we would eventually reach a reasoned consensus. But I don't pretend to be in any position to do that just now.

    In short: I'm confident that there is some true answer to these questions, like any other. But I don't necessary know what it is. (Though if it turns out that there wouldn't be any rational consensus even at the ideal limit of inquiry, then I agree that would establish some kind of relativism.)

    But we should continue this conversation in the other thread.

  6. I think some of your language is poorly chosen, and seems to conflict, perhaps obscuring your point. I don't see "meritocracy" as compatible with the ideal that the best forms of life should be open to everyone.

    Perhaps it is just me, but I associate meritocracy with conservatives or Libertarians who whine about how the poor don't deserve social services.

    I quite strongly support social services (as I know you do). I think that a person, in virtue of being a person, merits a good life. But that is not the way "meritocracy" is usually used. It means quite the opposite - that you only deserve a good life if you work hard for it. But this excludes large portions of humanity - the physically and mentally disabled, the mentally ill, the "mentally deficient" (for lack of a better term).

  7. Mathew - As I understand it, 'meritocracy' is a view about social mobility (i.e. reward the talented). It says nothing at all about what the base level or starting point should be. That's an independent issue.

    Here I was following Russell Arben Fox's quoted use of the term: "the meritocratic... state determined above all to discover the most talented individuals out there, and enable (and encourage) them to professionally and socially make lifestyle choices so as to seal themselves off from the rest of their community."

    Of course, if the term means something different in your idiolect, feel free to substitute as appropriate...

  8. It's the "reward the talented" that I wonder about. What happens if you're not talented? Should you just abandon any hope of a better life?

    It seems rewarding the talented implies a value hierarchy, where some people are worth more than others. I don't like that.

  9. I'm trying to visualize a meritocracy that doesn't disadvantage those who have lesser abilities, for example the "mentally deficient" or for that matter physically disabled or sick.

    It's hard to imagine. Maybe if you had a massive sickness benefit and 100% death duties and made gifting illegal.

    Also I don't think you I or Libiterians really believe in "the best forms of life should be open to everyone" in the strong terms required to allow mentally deficient people to do all the things a genius could do (unless the costs of doing so became almost trivial).

    To me the most important part of meritocracy is distribution of power, we ideally distribute power to the most able to wield it, to do anything else would be to shrink the communal pie.

  10. "we ideally distribute power to the most able to wield it"

    Without extended definition and analysis, this assertion sounds nothing short of frightening.


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