Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 5: Meritocracy versus equality

primeThe ultimate basis of Optimus Prime’s authority is egalitarian rather than meritocratic, and if it’s good enough for giant alien robots it’s good enough for me

In a post at the LSE blog (adapted from one of his books), Danny Dorling criticizes gaping inequality as a threat to the moral sentiments (feelings of sympathy and kindness towards one’s fellows, for example, which reflect the obligations we owe to them) and the welfare state. Although Dorling makes several sharp observations about some of the negative consequences of extreme inequality, his complaint that extreme inequality fails to respect the value of persons misses the mark:

The 1 per cent, by definition, will always be those taking the largest slice, but not always such a great fat slice, leaving slithers [sic] for the rest. Question those who say that it can only be this way. Try to question them kindly rather than with incredulity. A society based on merit would be remarkably equitable compared with what we face today. No one is worth 3,000 times another person. The three-thousand fold inequalities within the 1 per cent are just as indefensible as those between them and the other 99 per cent.

As this passage makes clear, the basis of Dorling’s complaint is meritocratic, not egalitarian. On this view, it seems, each person has a cash value that varies according to individual merit, and people ought to be paid according to their cash value. Some people are more meritorious than others, and so should receive higher pay; a person who is twice as valuable as another should have their salary doubled, for example. But in our society, the richest people can earn thousands of times more money than the poorest. This cannot be justified by Dorling’s meritocratic criterion, because (plausibly) no one is worth thousands of times more than anyone else.

This is not a very satisfying line of reasoning, for three reasons. First, the inequalities that Dorling is prepared to accept seem likely to have the same deleterious effects on the moral sentiments and the welfare state as the inequalities he objects to. If I believe I am, at the fundamental level, worth twice as much as another individual, I am unlikely to regard them as sympathetically as someone just as valuable as or more valuable than me. The fact that they are fundamentally worth less than others means that they are less deserving of my sympathy than others. Likewise, if I believe that the economic system has been arranged on a meritocratic basis so that each person gets at least roughly what they are worth (again, in a fundamental sense), it is difficult to see why I should support the welfare state; it would seem as though each person already receives what they deserve, so social spending would involve taking from the deserving and giving to the undeserving. If concerns about the moral sentiments and the welfare state are part of the reason why Dorling objects to extreme inequality, then, they are also reasons to object to the milder meritocratic inequalities Dorling’s view supports.

The second problem with the meritocratic view is that it requires the state to make intrusive, degrading and presumptuous assessments of each individual’s worth. There is even more at stake here than the ability to sympathize with one’s fellows. Democratic, liberal states are defined by a commitment to essentially egalitarian norms within the political sphere, including the equal weighting of votes and a system of equal basic rights and liberties. But to maintain meritocratic inequalities in the economic sphere, the state would also have to commit to a set of essentially inegalitarian norms operating alongside the egalitarian norms of liberal democracy. This arrangement seems unstable to me; I think it is extremely unlikely that the state can sustain a full commitment to both of these fundamentally incompatible sets of basic norms at the same time. After all, if some people are viewed as being worth less than others in a fundamental sense, it is not clear why there should be a commitment to egalitarian norms in any sphere. I also find it hard to believe that state’s determination of each person’s fundamental value could be effectively insulated from political influence. Even if it were possible for the state to accurately determine each person’s merit, there would be a powerful incentive for political factions to skew these determinations in favour of their own interests.

Finally, it is implausible that the fundamental value of a person is a cash value. Money itself is only instrumentally valuable. For something to be instrumentally valuable, it must be useful for some intrinsically or non-instrumentally valuable purpose. So what is the intrinsically valuable purpose for which money is useful? It is natural to think the answer is that having money is necessary for us to thrive. But if the fundamental value of ourselves is itself a monetary value, then the value of persons cannot provide the necessary grounding for the instrumental value of money. In the absence of any other plausible candidate for the source of money’s instrumental value, we must conclude that persons possess intrinsic value from which the instrumental value of money can be derived.

If the value of persons is intrinsic, does it follow that it must also be equal? Perhaps not. But what could account for inequality in the intrinsic value of persons? Instrumental considerations (such as a person’s usefulness for some purpose) and judgments of character are extrinsic factors — by definition, they cannot enhance or diminish one’s intrinsic value. Because we have already ruled out the dependence of morality on God’s commands, divine decrees cannot explain inequality in intrinsic value either. This leaves the possibility that variation in the value of persons could be a brute fact — a fact with no further basis, reason or explanation.

Allowing that there could be brute moral facts, however, would be inconsistent with much of the account of morality and moral knowledge provided in this series. Moral facts cannot be directly observed, and brute facts cannot be directly inferred. Brute moral facts, then, would be inaccessible to both reason and observation. Without confidence in any of our moral beliefs, we would have no grounds to believe in morality at all, and if there are brute moral facts, we could not have confidence in any of our moral beliefs. And if we have no grounds to believe in morality at all, then we certainly have no reason to believe that there are brute moral facts. It follows that belief in brute moral facts cannot be justified, and therefore inequality in the intrinsic value of persons cannot be a brute fact.

Having established the intrinsic value of persons and ruled out all possible bases of inequality in this value, we must conclude that all persons possess equal intrinsic value. So what does this imply about economic inequality, the issue that kicked off this discussion? If income and wealth have no bearing on the value of a person, does that mean extreme inequality of income and wealth is consistent with each person possessing equal value? Not at all. In fact, compared to meritocracy, this egalitarian perspective provides a much stronger, more rationally coherent foundation for generalized sentiments of sympathy and kindness and their institutionalization in the welfare state. It also gives us reason to close the social distance created by material inequalities, and to ensure that those inequalities are restricted to levels that benefit everyone. Overall, egalitarianism gives a much more satisfying explanation of why extreme economic inequality is objectionable — it brings us closer to reflective equilibrium than the meritocratic view. The next part of this series will explore the egalitarian perspective in more detail, clarifying its connections with both the meta-ethical foundations established so far and the realm of progressive social and economic policy.

All posts in this series

1. Meta-ethics and progressive politics
2. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 2: Partners in crime
3. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 3: Moral knowledge and reflective equilibrium
4. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 4: Social struggle and moral knowledge
5. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 5: Meritocracy versus equality
6. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 6: Equality, contractualism and capabilities

8 thoughts on “Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 5: Meritocracy versus equality

  1. This argument sort of proceeds by eliminating other possibilities. In itself, though, it seems to me it ends up leaving us with simply no way of evaluating people’s worth, sort of “If people are inherently unequal there is no way to know or measure it”. But I think there are more positive bases for an account of equality.
    For instance, every person is equally a protagonist–they have their own individual point of view, experience existence with the potential for joy, suffering and so forth, are capable of making decisions, in general are all equally at the centre of their own story. Short of solipsism, I see no way of singling out any one story as more central to existence at large than any other.

    On the other hand, it might be argued sort of in favour of meritocracy that it is not in fact a fundamental value judgment, but an instrumental one. That is, a meritocrat could concede that there is no true distinction in worth between people, but claim that because some people are more useful to society overall, and because money acts as an incentive to be socially useful, it is worth compensating people much more to do these socially useful things. Thus we should pretend that there are differences in worth between people, even if there aren’t. This sidesteps a lot of questions around just what merit would even fundamentally consist of.
    But there are still a number of problems with this argument. One is that research suggests money is not actually a good motivator, and particularly not a motivator to do socially useful things–and that, to the contrary, once people have enough money to be secure, being socially useful is actually a motivator in itself. Another problem is whether our society actually makes much connection between remuneration and the doing of socially useful things. It seems increasingly clear that if anything, in our current society remuneration flows most to certain subsets of socially DESTRUCTIVE behaviour. The current flagship of this point would be the president of the United States, but he’s merely an emblem of a widespread issue which I would consider endemic to capitalism in general and quite likely to all strongly unequal societies–for instance, feudal aristocracies often were also rewarded for socially destructive behaviour, such as petty warfare for plunder or taxing the peasantry into near starvation.


    • Very briefly, because I’m just on my way out – I agree that there are more positive bases for an account of equality. But these are all bound to be more controversial than a purely negative argument. Because my aim in this series is mainly to establish some very general claims (e.g. there are moral truths, all people are equal), I try to avoid making unnecessarily controversial claims.

      BTW your own account seems to be negative too: the fact that each person is the centre of their own story, has experiences, exercises agency etc. is a plausible basis of *equality* only because we can rule out anything that would give priority to any particular story.


  2. Pingback: Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 4: Social struggle and moral knowledge | Popcorn Machine

  3. Pingback: Meta-ethics and progressive politics | Popcorn Machine

  4. Pingback: Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 3: Moral knowledge and reflective equilibrium | Popcorn Machine

  5. Pingback: Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 2: Partners in crime | Popcorn Machine

  6. Pingback: Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 6: Equality, contractualism and capabilities | Popcorn Machine

  7. Pingback: An unconvincing case against redistribution, part 2 | Popcorn Machine

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