Tag Archives: Aristotle

Defining Merit

I read David Brooks’ columns in the New York Times pretty regularly. As I have noted previously, sometimes I agree with him and sometimes I don’t.

By far my most typical response to Brooks, however, is “yes, but…” That was my reaction to observations he shared a couple of weeks ago, at the height of the college graduation season. Here’s how he began:

Once upon a time, white male Protestants ruled the roost. You got into a fancy school if your father had gone to the fancy school. You got a job at a white-shoe law firm or climbed the corporate ladder if you golfed at the right club.

Then we smashed all that. We replaced a system based on birth with a fairer system based on talent. We opened up the universities and the workplace to Jews, women and minorities. University attendance surged, creating the most educated generation in history. We created a new boomer ethos, which was egalitarian (bluejeans everywhere!), socially conscious (recycling!) and deeply committed to ending bigotry.

You’d think all this would have made the U.S. the best governed nation in history. Instead, inequality rose. Faith in institutions plummeted. Social trust declined. The federal government became dysfunctional and society bitterly divided.

No argument with the first paragraph. It describes the world I grew up in.  (I attended a women’s college where the “joke” was that the school had accidentally admitted an extra Jew over its “quota” of 50, and three trustees had committed suicide as a result.)

The second paragraph, however, describes an aspiration rather than a reality. Yes, many of the barriers were removed; elite schools no longer imposed quotas for Jews, Asians and others, and more people went to college. But bluejeans do not an “egalitarian ethic” make–and among graduates of less-elite institutions, both recycling and a “deep commitment to ending bigotry” can still be pretty hard to find.

The third paragraph displays an inverted version of one the oldest logical fallacies: after this, therefore because of this. Here, Brooks says we had an unfair system, we made it (somewhat) fairer, and the measures we employed didn’t solve our social ills. Ergo, meritocracy doesn’t work.

Brooks says that the problem is with the “ideology” of meritocracy, which he believes encourages “ruinous beliefs,” including an exaggerated regard for intelligence (“Many of the great failures of the last 50 years, from Vietnam to Watergate to the financial crisis, were caused by extremely intelligent people who didn’t care about the civic consequences of their actions”); a misplaced faith in autonomy (leading to a society “high in narcissism and low in social connection”); a misplaced notion of the self (“a conception of self that is about achievement, not character”); and a misplaced “idolization” of diversity (“Diversity for its own sake, without a common telos, is infinitely centrifugal, and leads to social fragmentation”).

The essential point is this: Those dimwitted, stuck up blue bloods in the old establishment had something we meritocrats lack — a civic consciousness, a sense that we live life embedded in community and nation, that we owe a debt to community and nation and that the essence of the admirable life is community before self.

Actually, I don’t remember those “stuck up blue bloods” having much civic consciousness, but perhaps I encountered the wrong ones…

Brooks’ “essential point,” like Aristotle’s golden mean, locates virtue in the midpoint between  extremes. To the extent that “midpoint” is another word for reasoned moderation, that insight has proved valid through most of human history.

But our problem isn’t meritocracy; it is how we define our terms.

Merit is not defined by intellect alone, although I would argue that a respect for intellectual achievement is meritorious. Diligence, honor, compassion and other markers of character are  essential to any definition of merit. Nor is intellect merely a matter of IQ–genuine intellectual achievement requires an open mind and intellectual curiosity, not just capacity.

Autonomy does not require disconnection from community or preoccupation with self. Properly understood, it simply requires each of us to engage in self-government, to create and be true to our own telos. The most autonomous people I know are deeply involved with their communities.

Similar critiques can be made of the other terminology Brooks employs.

The problem isn’t that we reward people on the basis of merit; the problem is we don’t agree on what constitutes either merit or an appropriate reward.