On meritocracy as a theory of distributive justice

by Joseph Shieber

There is something very intuitive about the idea that people should get what they deserve – so intuitive, in fact, that the claim “people should get what they deserve” sounds almost like a tautology.

The intuitive plausibility of that idea, however, should not fool us into thinking that we can use the notion of desert to develop a workable framework for distributing resources justly. At least, that’s how it appears to me after reading Richard Marshall’s thought-provoking interview with Thomas Mulligan. Mulligan seems to me to have offered one of the strongest defenses of desert-based justice; his book, Justice and the Meritocratic State, is available open access.

In the interview, here’s how Mulligan glosses his theory of desert-based justice, which he terms “meritocracy”:

Meritocracy is a theory of distributive justice. It holds that justice is a matter of giving people what they deserve, and that this happens when there is equal opportunity and people are judged on their merits.

As that initial definition indicates, Mulligan’s framework is noteworthy in that it involves not only merit, but also equality of opportunity.

This is because, as Mulligan argues, a meritorious action only deserves reward if that action was achieved under conditions of equal opportunity:

being meritorious is a necessary, not a sufficient, condition for desert. Equal opportunity must have prevailed as well. Meritocracy’s two principles—equal opportunity and merit-based distribution—work in tandem. They need each other to produce a compelling account of justice. The typical metaphor for meritocracy, which is a pretty good one, is a footrace: In a just race, the fastest runner gets the medal (meritocracy’s second principle). 

Even so, if that runner had a head start then he does not deserve the medal. For there was no equal opportunity (meritocracy’s first principle). He was meritorious, but not deserving. But if there was an equal starting line, and the medal was awarded to the fastest runner (and not on the basis of race, or appearance, or whatever), then justice was done. The meritocratic argument for equal opportunity is transcendental: (1) People ought to get what they deserve; (2) this is only possible if there is equal opportunity; therefore (3) we ought to establish equal opportunity.

One of the strengths of Mulligan’s discussion is that he recognizes that acknowledging meritorious achievements is insufficient; a just system must insure that those achievements occurred against a backdrop of equal opportunity.

Furthermore, to Mulligan’s credit, he recognizes that a meritocratic framework for distributive justice cannot ignore psychological facts about human beings, high levels of financial inequality, and other obstacles to implementing meritocracy. In his book, he notes that, “The onus is on me to show that meritocracy is feasible, that its policy demands make sense, that it will not be exploited, and that it is sufficiently detailed.” (JatMS, p. 33)

Unfortunately, I do not see how Mulligan can possibly achieve these goals – particularly the feasibility and non-exploitation goals.

It will help me to be clear about the ways in which Mulligan’s vision of a meritocratic theory of justice can fail either to be feasible or to be safe from exploitation. Although Mulligan focuses on the “level playing field” as the necessary condition linking merit to justice, it seems to me that this underdescribes the necessary conditions for linking merit and distributive justice.

In fact, it seems to me that there are at least four conditions for a meritocratic system of justice – only the first of which is captured by Mulligan’s “level playing field.” The only way for meritocracy to work is if

  1. The “playing field” is level;
  2. Either there isn’t an oversupply of talent or the methods for determining merit aren’t winner-take-all;
  3. The social determinants of merit line up with objective criteria of merit; and
  4. Methods for determining merit are robustly sensitive to desert.

I’ll tackle these worries in reverse order, focusing most on criteria (4) and (1).

On Criterion 4: Methods for determining merit are not robustly sensitive to desert

There is good reason to question whether the methods for determining merit are in fact robustly sensitive to desert. Famously, John Rawls rejects merit-based distributions of goods for just such a reason. Mulligan addresses Rawls’s concerns in a way that is very instructive, though ultimately unconvincing.

Here’s what Mulligan says in the interview with Richard Marshall:

Rawls’ radical rejection of desert is unsound. (His argument is variously interpreted: that desert should not play a role in distributive justice, or that no one deserves anything at all, or that the very concept of desert is confused.) His claim, in a nutshell, is that everything that putatively makes us deserving—our intelligence, or efforts, or whatever—are just matters of luck. They originate, Rawls says, in “fortunate family or social circumstances”. If you’re intelligent, that’s either because (1) it’s in your natural makeup, or (2) you were raised in an environment which cultivated it. Either way, you’re lucky to be intelligent, and you can’t deserve on the basis of luck. Rawls is correct that luck undermines desert. If Ann is more talented than Nancy because Ann had rich parents who provided her fancy lessons, Ann’s claim to deserve on the basis of her talent is indeed lessened. But Ann’s natural traits are not matters of luck at all. Quite the opposite: They are metaphysically necessary. In any possible world in which Ann exists, she has those traits. A person is constituted by her natural traits, and they can ground desert-claims. (This is a Kripkean argument about the essentiality of origin.) In a meritocracy, which has robust equal opportunity, differences in economic outcomes result only from differences in (1) natural traits and (2) choices. As a result, outcomes are fully deserved.

In other words, Mulligan suggests that Rawls provides a luck-based argument against desert. In response, Mulligan offers his “Kripkean” argument: on Kripke’s view, a person has to have had their parents (and their genetic makeup) in any possible world in which that person exists at all. So, Mulligan continues, a person’s “natural traits” are necessary attributes. And, since those attributes are necessary, they’re not the result of luck.

There are two problems with Mulligan’s discussion of Rawls. 

The first problem with Mulligan’s discussion is that he mistakenly reduces a person’s “natural traits” to their genetic makeup. Given that, Mulligan then assumes that any intervening role of chance in the process that begins with the inputs of “natural traits” and results with the output of a successful achievement can be reduced to the role of differential socioeconomic status. To use his example, if Nancy’s parents were as rich as Ann, then if Ann is still more intelligent than Nancy, that difference between them can only be a result of “natural traits.”

This is wrong for two reasons. The first is that it is too simplistic a picture of how a person’s genetic inheritance impacts their traits. As Siddhartha Mukherjee points out, although genes absolutely matter for a person’s traits, the impact of genes alone isn’t determinative. (It’s “a combination of genes, plus environment, plus triggers, plus chance,” according to Mukherjee. Compare this.) If this is right, however, then even one’s so-called “natural traits” are in part the result of chance.

The second reason why Mulligan’s reduction of a person’s “natural traits” to their genetic makeup is wrong is that the picture that Mulligan paints is too simplistic with respect to the role of socioeconomic status on the development of talent. To take just one example, I would bet there are plenty of boys born to wealthy parents in Kansas, Wyoming, North Dakota, Mississippi, etc., who have the “natural traits” to be excellent ballet dancers, but who never develop balletic talents – not because of any decisions of their own, but due to the decisions of their parents to live in areas where nobody thinks of encouraging boys to develop those talents. Environment is more than family income.

The second – and, to me, more significant – problem with Mulligan’s discussion of Rawls, however, is that Mulligan misrepresents Rawls’s view in a way that undersells the force of Rawls’s rejection of desert-based distribution.

Here’s what Rawls himself writes in A Theory of Justice:

… undeserved inequalities call for redress; and since inequalities of birth and natural endowment are undeserved, these inequalities are to be somehow compensated for. (ToJ, p. 100)

The assertion that a man deserves the superior character that enables him to make the effort to cultivate his abilities is equally problematic; for his character depends in large part upon fortunate family and social circumstances for which he can claim no credit. The notion of desert seems not to apply in these cases. (ToJ, p. 104)

Note that Rawls’s point isn’t that inequalities of birth or natural endowment are due to luck, but rather that they are undeserved – that the person who benefits from those inequalities is owed no credit for the inequalities themselves, since they’re not the result of any of the person’s actions or choices. We don’t choose our parents; we don’t choose our genes.

In reading Rawls on this point, I am reminded of Philippa Foot’s comments on the oddness of “the suggestion that someone might be proud of the sky or the sea: he looks at them and what he feels is pride.” (“Moral Beliefs,” p. 86) Foot notes that “the characteristic object of pride is something seen (a) as in some way a man’s own, and (b) as some sort of achievement.” (Moral Beliefs, p. 87) Foot doesn’t deny that “people can see strange things as achievements, … and they can identify themselves with remote ancestors, and relations, and neighbors …,” but Foot suggests that such cases would involve “far-fetched and comic examples of pride.” (“Moral Beliefs,” p. 87)

If this reading of Rawls is correct, then Mulligan’s appeal to the “Kripkean” argument is a red herring. Even if we grant that a person’s genetic inheritance is theirs necessarily – and even if we leave aside Mulligan’s mistake in conflating genetic inheritance with “natural traits” – it is still not the case that a person deserves credit for their genetic inheritance. So Rawls is correct in stating that inequalities of birth or natural endowment are undeserved.

On Criterion 3: The social determinants of merit do not line up with objective criteria of merit

Take the “social determinants of merit” to be the indicators that society in fact uses to mark someone as meritorious. To say, then, that the social determinants of merit do not line up with objective criteria of merit is to say that many of those marked by society as meritorious are not, in fact, meritorious. This strikes me as very likely true. (For just one prominent example, read Dan Froomkin’s “The Washington Post opinion section is a sad, toxic wasteland”.) I won’t belabor the point here, though.

On Criterion 2: There is an oversupply of talent and (many of) the methods for determining merit are winner-take-all

Again, I won’t belabor this one. To take just one sort of example colored by my perspective as I enter my 20th year in a tenure-line position in higher education, it seems obvious to me that many very talented people have had to leave academia and find work not directly related to – and often very far removed from – their doctoral field. This is not only true in my own field, philosophy, or in the humanities more broadly, but also in many of the natural and social sciences as well.

On Criterion 1: The playing field isn’t level

It is to Mulligan’s great credit that he doesn’t ignore the fact that the playing field, at present, isn’t level. The core problem with Mulligan’s meritocratic theory of justice, however, is that Mulligan ignores the extent to which meritocratic systems have been – and will continue to be – exploited.

Here’s what Mulligan argues in his interview with Richard Marshall:

It is a true and lamentable fact that in the actual world a child’s socioeconomic prospects are strongly shaped by his parents’ wealth. But if we had robust equal opportunity that would not be the case. Parents would understand that any inheritance would give their child undeserved advantage, and, perforce, give other children undeserved disadvantage. Parents would refrain out of a sense of justice, and because, as described, inheritance would only undermine their child’s accomplishments, character, and life. Another meritocratic policy is a high top marginal income rate—say, a 90% tax on (the portion of) income over $4 million. The U.S. had such a rate from the 1940s into the 1960s (a time of, not coincidentally, extraordinary economic growth). The justification is that these incomes are (usually) economic rent. They do not reflect merit or contribution to the economy. Think of hedge fund managers who exploit inefficiencies in markets and corporate executives whose pay packages result from nepotism. These incomes are undeserved, and so their recipients have no moral claim to them. And, since they are rents, they can be taxed away without loss of economic efficiency.

I welcome Mulligan’s suggestions – both of higher inheritance taxes and of a high top marginal income tax rate. However, I don’t think that either of those suggestions will be sufficient to keep high-status elites from gaming the system for the benefit of their offspring. It strikes me as woefully naive to suppose that “a sense of justice” and a concern for the undermining of their “child’s accomplishments, character, and life” would be sufficient to keep parents from doing whatever they can to give their children “a leg up” – which is, of course, just a more polite way of saying “to skew the playing field.”

Note furthermore that not all of the high-status elite’s attempts to rig the game for their children require the obscene inequalities of wealth that currently exist. Unequal access to cultural capital, mutually beneficial support networks, influence peddling, and other forms of quid pro quo can also skew the playing field. As Daniel Bell put it in his 1972 essay, “On meritocracy and equality,” “There can never be a pure meritocracy because high-status parents will invariably seek to pass on their positions, either through the use of influence or simply by the cultural advantages their children inevitably possess.” (“On meritocracy and equality,” p. 42) Recent – and relatively recent – incidents like the uproar over “nepo babies” and the “varsity blues” scandal suggest that the criticism Bell echoed in 1972 is still with us. Indeed, a 2019 study in Great Britain showed that, in that country, the children of doctors were 24 times more likely to become doctors than the children of non-doctors, and the children of lawyers were 19 times more likely to become lawyers than the children of non-lawyers.

Where this leaves us

So there is little hope for meritocracy as a theory of distributive justice. The “playing field” isn’t level, there is an oversupply of talent and the methods for determining merit are often  winner-take-all, the social determinants of merit often don’t line up with objective criteria of merit; and the methods for determining merit aren’t robustly sensitive to desert.

Despite all of this, however, I do think that it is worthwhile to strive to make systems that are more responsive to merit. Mulligan’s suggestions for attempting to make the “playing field” more level are good ones, as I’ve already noted. We should search for ways better to address the oversupply of talent and to develop ways of determining and rewarding merit that aren’t winner-take-all. And although it will be very difficult, we should strive to influence society in ways that allow us collectively better to recognize those who actually merit our respect.

So if I think that we should do all of this, why don’t I think that we could embrace meritocracy as, at the very least, an ideal theory of distributive justice? The reason for this is that, even if we were able to accomplish these goals, I don’t think that in so doing we will be able to recognize those who are truly deserving. I simply find Rawls’s skepticism about desert too convincing.