by Sonia Maria Pavel
Imagine two societies. In the first, children are separated at birth from their biological parents and raised collectively by specialised educators. These educators, carefully selected for the task, closely observe the children in order to discern their talents, abilities, and dispositions. Based on how well they perform at various tasks and the ease with which they acquire knowledge, the children are then categorised and assigned what is believed to be their proper place in society. Those who are particularly musically gifted are given the instruments, instructors, and all the conditions they need to become musicians. The ones who are thought to show a great love of truth and distinct reasoning abilities are raised to become the leaders of that society. The desires and wishes of each individual child are irrelevant to this allocation. Nevertheless, most are content with this arrangement because they are taught and come to believe that they are all brothers and sisters who must serve their community by fulfilling their natural, preordained role. The society is just as long everyone contributes to it by minding their business and not interfering in that of others.
In the second society, children are raised in private, nuclear families. The unchosen circumstances of their birth, including who their parents are, where they were born, and their class, race, and gender status shape their life paths, often to a significant extent. From the beginning, their chances of becoming a musician, a politician, an academic, or a service worker are shaped by various factors beyond their control and irrelevant from the perspective of their ability to fulfil such roles. If their parents are highly educated and wealthy, they are much more likely to receive an education that will allow them to occupy a well-compensated and highly respected position. By contrast, if their parents live in a poor, perhaps racially segregated area, the educational and professional paths in fact available to them will be severely limited. Many people are content with this arrangement because they are taught that the competition is fair—opportunities are by law equally open to all those individuals willing and able to seize them, regardless of who they are and to whom they were born. According to the dominant ideology, accidents of birth can be corrected through hard work, which will allow everyone to ‘rise’ as far as their talents take them.
Which of these is a meritocracy? Surely, the first society seems to be governed by merit—each task and role is fulfilled by the person best suited for it. Show yourself to have a keen eye for the visual arts and all the resources to become a great painter or sculptor will be placed at your disposal. Nobody will have a better chance than you at becoming one—it does not matter that they really want to try their luck at painting (perhaps much more than you), that their biological parents were artists, or that they could have afforded tuition at the best art school. That person will only become a painter if the teachers discern that same talent in them. Otherwise, they will be assigned a different task, through which they can best contribute to society. No drop of talent will be wasted.
The second society, which much more closely resembles our own, also seems to be meritocratic, but in a different respect. Regardless of any natural disposition or proclivity, there is no legal barrier to you becoming a visual artist. If you start painting and you are appreciated by other artists or critics, or have success selling your art, then you are free to be a painter. Nobody can tell you that you have no business creating visual art because your talents lie elsewhere and are being wasted. Nor can anyone accuse you of squandering society’s resources in becoming a visual artist when so many others are or would have been much better at this task—the choice to compete with you to make their living in the same fashion was open to them.
In my view, both of these social arrangements can be called meritocracies because the concept of ‘meritocracy’ is far more open-ended than its proponents and critics have so far recognised. Rather than having a standalone meaning, meritocracy is always reliant upon other values and ideals for what a good human life and a good society look like, which can vary dramatically.
To begin with, we should distinguish between the principle of merit and a social, economic, and political arrangement we call a meritocracy. Merit is a principle according to which rewards, positions, and goods are allocated to particular persons on the basis of desert—as a result of certain qualities, feats, or achievements. Both the rewards and the rewarded traits vary in accordance with context—the team who wins the Premier League is awarded a few dozen million pounds and a prestigious trophy, while the winner of my friends’ Fantasy PL Mini-League gets a kit of their choice. But not every context in which judgments of merit are made and rewards allocated on their basis is a meritocracy. A mother might give a treat to the child who is most well-behaved at the doctor, but that does not make the family a meritocracy. For this reason, we should reserve the label ‘meritocracy’ only for those social and political communities and institutions in which goods are primarily or exclusively distributed on the basis of merit.
Where does this leave our current debates and controversies about merit and meritocracy? Some social and political thinkers argue that most contemporary societies are not, nor have they ever historically been, meritocracies. The implication of this view is that ‘true’ or ‘real’ meritocracy would have certain political, economic, and institutional features that are absent from our existing and past arrangements. Other thinkers have articulated trenchant critiques of merit and meritocracy, discussing the “tyranny” of merit and meritocracy, the “meritocracy trap”, the “meritocracy myth” and even the “haunting spectre of meritocracy”. The latter argue that our meritocratic arrangements are deeply unjust, harmful for both ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, and that ideologies of merit often function to obscure these realities and justify our social, economic, and political institutions. Elite higher education institutions in the US and UK have been the targets of both types of criticisms. While some have called out the spurious nature of elite universities’ claim that admission is exclusively or even primarily merit-based (see the legacy admissions, class and race bias, bribery, and corruption scandals of the past few years), others have focused on the negative effects that the intense competition pre- and post-college admissions have on students’ mental health and general wellbeing, as well as on society writ-large.
Though both types of criticisms are well-founded, I think that they misidentify merit (or the lack thereof) as the culprits. Because of its open-ended nature, merit as a principle necessarily attaches to other values, ideals, and commitments. For example, universities with a liberal arts focus often evaluate the ‘well-roundedness’ of candidates, including their involvement in arts, sports, activism, etc., as a central merit, while research-focused universities pay much more attention to specialised academic merits such as grades and test scores. Thus, what the resulting meritocratic arrangements look like depends on an institution or society’s conception of individuals and their relationship to the collective, how individuals are expected to relate to each other and the larger group, and the purposes of the collective endeavours and coordination efforts. In other words, merit attaches to a social theory, a set of moral, social, and political norms, as well as an ideal of justice and the good life.
Take the first society described above. The principle of merit serves a vision of social life that prioritises the collective good over and above the good of its individual citizens. In order to achieve justice, each person must fulfil the role they are most suited for, regardless of their personal desires, ambitions, and preferences. The influence of factors that are arbitrary and irrelevant from the perspective of justice—such as class, race, or gender—is therefore neutralised to the greatest extent possible. If I can best make a contribution as a cobbler, I will be given all the resources to become one. At the same time, I am prevented by society from being a ‘busybody’ by attempting to become an opera singer. Regardless of my personal fancies and ambitions, I must submit to the judgment of our communal teachers about my talents and abilities. This arrangement of society will of course strike modern sensibilities as extreme in its lack of concern for individual freedom and its assumptions about natural or innate talent. The point of the example is not to defend this social arrangement as an actionable alternative type of meritocracy, but rather to point out that meritocracies exist on a spectrum, varying from this pole to the more familiar one inherent in the second society described.
In the second example I offered, society is supposed to resemble the free market model of ‘careers open to talents’. Merit is subordinated to the pursuit of private profit within capitalism, as opposed to a vision of the collective good. Judgments about the value of an elementary school teacher’s contribution to society, as compared to a hedge fund manager, are determined by market forces. The social theory is one of extreme individualism and society is not seen as anything more than an aggregate of people, each of them pursuing their interests. Unlike the first example, there is no sense of a collective vision of justice that individuals must contribute to. Even though all opportunities are formally open for anyone willing to compete for, they are in fact limited and circumscribed by structural injustices and inequalities.
These two different examples of social arrangements that can plausibly be called meritocracies show us that the concept should not be understood as describing a single unitary system, but rather as a spectrum of social, economic, and political arrangements that take very different forms depending on the values placed at their core. Like many contemporary critics, I recognise the profound injustices and limitations that characterise our contemporary forms of meritocracy. However, unlike them, I do not think the ideal of meritocracy itself is to blame. Nor is the solution to try to make the current system ‘more meritocratic’. By criticising merit itself we are focusing on an empty abstraction, rather than the deeper political commitments that we should be collectively deliberating upon and changing. Somewhere between the two societies I portrayed at the poles of this spectrum, we might find a more just meritocracy.
 This description is roughly based on Plato’s Ideal City (The Republic, trans. by Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1991).
 On the ‘rhetoric of rising’, see Michael Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?, Chapter 3 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020).
 See, for example, Stephen McNamee and Robert K. Miller, The Meritocracy Myth (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004).
 Michael Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020); Daniel Markovits, The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite (Penguin: 2019); Lani Guinier, The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America (Boston: Beacon Press, 2015); Kai Yu, The Implementation of Inclusive Education in Beijing: Exorcizing the Haunting Specter of Meritocracy (Lexington Books: 2014).
 For a critical analysis of this feature of contemporary meritocracy, see Michael Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? (2020), especially Chapter 5: Success Ethics.
by Udit Bhatia
Udit Bhatia: Your first book looked at conceptualisations of the market in the work of Smith and Hegel. How did you move from this onto moral responsibility and division of labour in complex organisations?
Lisa Herzog: While I worked on Smith and Hegel, the Global Financial Crisis happened. I read a lot about it—all this stuff about synthetic financial products, risk models, conflicts of interests, “Chinese walls”, insane bonuses—and the repercussions in the broader economy. When thinking about it, two things emerged for me. First, what had gone morally wrong in this crisis had to do with markets, no question – but it also had to do with things going wrong within organisations, in this case, financial organisations. And second, my assumptions—including what I had learned in my studies of economics—about organisations were probably about as wrong and one-sided as the assumptions I had held about markets before I delved into the history of ideas to sort out some of these assumptions and arguments about them. I also realised that philosophy had not very much to say about organisations, despite the fact that they shape the daily life of millions of people. So, I decided that I wanted to understand what it means to be an ethical agent when you’re a “cog in the wheel” of a complex organisation—and whether there could be something like “ethics for cogs in wheels” (that was my informal working title).
UB: Reclaiming the System gives us a rich account of organisations as spaces where individuals—cogs in the wheels, as you describe them—can act as responsible agents and it explores organisational conditions that can facilitate this. One response, which you challenge in the book, is that we should focus on structural questions about the way markets are organised rather than the internal aspects of business firms. Could say a bit more about the relationship between the two approaches?
LH: Both are crucially important to keep an economic system morally on track. Without them, it can easily spiral out of control and become the kind of moral monster that we see in many countries, with so many injustices and the exploitation of humans and of nature. Both are coupled—in the sense that how one level is regulated impacts what happens on the other—though not in a strictly deterministic way. Even if we had excellent market regulation, this would not exclude the possibility of internal problems within business firms (and the same goes for other organisations and their respective regulatory frameworks). On the other hand, even if regulation is deficient and there are dysfunctional pressures on organisations, that does not mean that they have no wiggle-room whatsoever. For example, business firms may find market niches in which they can sell ethically-sourced products with a premium, and the practices they develop there might one day be mainstreamed. That doesn’t mean that the legal framework should not be improved, but it means that we shouldn’t overlook the moral responsibility that businesses can nonetheless have.
UB: You point out that suitable legal regulation could protect responsible businesses from dying out for the wrong sort of reasons in a market dominated by an orientation towards profit. Are there grounds for optimism here? Do you have any examples in mind where regulation of this kind has been initiated or implemented? Has the left, in particular, been successful in successfully advancing this cause in a systematic fashion?
LH: Well… I live in Europe, and while I’m not super-optimistic, I see at least certain steps in the right direction (though all too often they seem to get thwarted by lobbyism). Often, you need international agreements, because one country—especially a small one—going it alone is not the most effective strategy (though it might be important in the sense of sending a signal to others). One example of regulation in the past, where such international collaboration has worked reasonably well, was the effort to ban hydrofluorocarbons, which had caused the hole in the ozone layer. What we need today, very urgently, is regulation with regard to CO2 emissions, which is much harder because our whole material economy depends to a great extent on CO2-based technologies. There is also a third factor that one shouldn’t underestimate: the role of customers, especially relatively well-off customers in the Global North. If they paid more attention to the climate footprint of products, that could make quite a difference for businesses that try to reduce CO2 emissions. But I think in the end we need regulation as well, to correct the perverse incentives businesses face at the moment.
As for the left, it had sort of forgotten this basic principle—the “primacy of politics”, as it has been called in the social-democratic tradition—during the height of the “neoliberal” era, when free markets were seen as a kind of panacea for social problems. So, there is a lot of rebuilding that needs to happen.
UB: The kind of market regulations necessary for facilitating responsible business would presumably require considerable collective action at a global scale. But with the rise of populism and rising hostility towards ideas of global justice, do you worry about the future regulation of global markets?
LH: The short answer is, I do. But I’m nonetheless cautiously optimistic that multilateral action remains possible, and with a Biden administration in the US much more than with a Trump administration. We see an asymmetry here in the sense that vested interests—e.g., the major international corporations in a specific industry—will have an easy time coordinating their lobbying efforts, because their shared interests are at stake. The question is: where is the counterbalance in terms of the representation of the public interest, and the interests of the weakest individuals and communities, and maybe even of non-human life on earth? To be sure, this is also a question of how active NGOs and civil society organisations are—and here, we can all make a difference. And we can also do so by voting for parties that are willing to engage in international agreements to rein in global markets.
There is also a connection to the rise of right-wing populism here, I think. If individuals feel that the traditional left parties do not protect them from the ups and downs of global markets, if they don’t have a voice at work and no safety net, it becomes all the more attractive to look for strong “leaders” who claim to offer better protection. This is maybe not even so much about people on the lowest rungs of the social ladder, but about people in lower and lower-middle class positions who feel the threat of economic precarity.
UB: Your work points out the epistemic problems involved in the ethical management of firms. Knowledge available to parts of the machine remains unavailable to others in a system of divided labour. But one might worry that the epistemic problem facing firms runs deeper than that. Even if firms were better at synthesising dispersed knowledge, ideological frames through which social and economic problems are approached may pose barriers for responsible agency. How promising a strategy do you find the restructuring of firms’ organisational structures in addressing this challenge?
LH: This is certainly an additional challenge—if all employees believe in a narrative that is all about profits, and not at all about moral responsibility, then it’s not enough to better address internal knowledge problems. But on that front, I think we are at an interesting moment and there is reason for hope: more and more people become aware that we cannot go on with the economic ideology that has reigned for the last few decades, without any attention to the wellbeing of human beings, the environment, or the planet. What these individuals struggle with is how to carry these responsibilities into their working lives, and that’s where organisational structures matter.
UB: The book points to the importance of organisational culture in addition to the formal rules that govern organisations. You note that the former shouldn’t be seen as merely an epiphenomenon of the latter. This, no doubt, makes organisational culture hard to amend in ways that help reorient businesses’ values. How do we deal with this elusiveness of organisational character? Then there’s also the worry about how much organisational culture can change from within when it remains embedded in a capitalist economy centred overwhelmingly on profit motives.
LH: This is a topic I want to do more research on, together with social scientists. I find the ways in which the formal (structures) and informal (culture) sides of organisations interact quite fascinating, and I am convinced that culture makes a huge different for moral outcomes. Just think about the way in which different university departments—though similarly structured, all facing more or less the same (partly dysfunctional) incentives—can have such different cultures, for example with regard to the inclusion of minority voices. Individual personalities certainly play an important role for that (and to the extent to which this is the case, the practical implication might simply be: make sure that you don’t hire narcissists or jerks, because one bad apple can infect the whole barrel). But I am pretty sure that there are also some factors that go beyond that, such as communicative structures and patterns of participation. My hypothesis is that a fair distribution of benefits and burdens, and a supportive, participatory culture are also contributing factors to a good organisational culture. If this is true, then one can make an indirect argument for fairness and participation in the workplace: namely, that this is our best bet for creating the kind of culture that are needed to keep organisations morally on track.
And on your last point: I zoom out, at the end of the book, to discuss the need for better regulative frameworks to reign in capitalist markets, and the need for giving workers more voice. Ultimately, we need to gain democratic control over the economic system, on so many different levels. But that’s a longer process, it won’t happen overnight, unfortunately. While we are—hopefully—on that path, questions about the responsibility for an organisational culture don’t go away.
UB: Would we need to think differently about spaces for agency available in new forms of business in the gig economy? Do you worry that platforms like Uber, for instance, may undermine some of the social interaction and solidarity between workers that might support collective action?
LH: Yes, this is a challenge—not only the one-sided narratives about autonomy and individuality that these platforms like to maintain, but also the fact that you hardly meet your “colleagues” (formally, they’re all independent contractors, not co-employees). Think about the history of the labour movement: people shared intense, often physically demanding, working experiences; they spent long hours together, and often also lived in the same neighbourhoods. That can create a level of trust and solidarity that is probably very difficult to create among those who work for the same online platform, but hardly ever meet physically. As I’m writing this (in February 2021), many of us have a lot of experience with the “home office” because of the pandemic—and you realise how much is missing if all the informal contacts and interactions that happen at workplaces are cut down to a few minutes in a digital room before or after an official digital meeting. There is something about physical closeness that the digital realm simply cannot replicate, and it matters for the ability of workers to organise. Right now, there is a lot of debate about the extent to which we’ll continue working in home office, and whether there should be a legal right to that. But maybe we also need some kind of right to spaces where those working for the same company (in whatever legal form) can physically meet and share their experiences.
UB: I’d like to now move to some questions about methodology. Reclaiming the System draws on your ethnographic work, connecting this to normative questions you raise in the book. Could you tell us a bit more about the relationship between the empirical and the philosophical aspects of your work?
LH: I started doing this ethnographic work—mostly interviews, then also some longer observational periods in one organisation—because I felt that I did not have a good grasp of what was actually going on, morally speaking, “on the ground”, i.e., within the kinds of organisations I was interested in. The interviews provided me with fascinating material, and a lot of food for thought—but it took me a while to figure out how to turn these insights into something that would “count” as philosophy, and how to connect them to existing discourses. I first thought that I might conceptualise the interview material as an expression of a kind of practical moral expertise—but colleagues quickly pointed out that this might be problematic, because the interviewees’ views might be distorted by having to act under very non-ideal circumstances. I ended up using the material as heuristic for typical moral challenges in organisations, choosing episodes from the interviews that stood for something more general, something about organisational structures as such. There were those moments when I realised that someone working in public administration, for example, was telling me something about procurement rules that was quite similar to something an interviewee from a chemical company had told me about safety rules—so I started realising that there was something about the nature of organisational rules here that I could analyse in more general terms.
UB: In a paper with Bernardo Zacka, you’ve suggested that an ethnographic sensibility can help political theorists revise the questions they use to approach a certain field. Did something like this happen during your research for the book?
LH: Oh definitely! What was most eye-opening to me was the way in which knowledge and ignorance, and speaking up and remaining silent, were at the core of many moral issues in organisations. Questions about who knows what, when, and why, shape the contours of many moral problems—and they co-determine which issues are seen as moral issues at all! I did not have this on my initial list of questions, but it became a whole chapter in the end. And in my current book project I try to draw out the role of knowledge for democracy on a broader scale, beyond the realm of organisations.
UB: What advice would you have for political theorists considering or engaged in ethnographic work?
LH: If you show genuine curiosity and openness, and also humility in the sense that you don’t assume that you know everything from the start, people often open up very quickly, and it is possible to have very deep conversations. So, don’t weigh the pro’s and con’s forever, just give it a try and see how it goes! Take the opportunity when unexpected occasions arise, e.g., when a friend knows someone who works in a certain field, or when you meet someone on a train (when we’re not in a pandemic, at least). And don’t give up if it doesn’t seem to pay off immediately. It can take a while to find the right people, who can then connect you to more interview partners. It can be a very rewarding experience—I’ve certainly learned a lot, both intellectually and also in terms of moral role models.