Ancient Honour and Modern Meritocracy

Michael Young, Kwame Anthony Appiah and Aristotle

Michael Young’s dystopian future – 2033 Britain – as imagined in his The Rise of Meritocracy (of 1958) is now. Not just because we’re only fifteen years away, but because ‘meritocracy’ already is the internalised recognition order of our age. We might not live in an actual ‘meritocracy’ (Young’s new coinage), but, as argued in last week’s Guardian Long Read by Kwame Anthony Appiah, a meritocratic ideal is what justifies entrenched inequalities in our societies, what keeps the 1% on top and the 99% docile. In Young’s dystopia, wealth, power and status (i.e. honour) are allocated according to a simple formula: ‘IQ + effort = merit’.

No more inherited wealth, no more birth-right – an aristocracy of the clever. Except, of course, that IQ and effort are to a certain extent also socially determined – they are the result of environment, stimuli, education – and those who happen to be on top ‘are going to try to gain unfair advantages for their offspring’. The meritocracy ends up being a society rigidly divided in two classes, the haves and the have-notes, with the added injury that the haves are convinced that they deserve their status – that they do not owe it to anybody or anything else – and the have-nots are resigned to their natural inferiority. Appiah’s discussion of Young’s life, and of his indictment of meritocracy, touches perceptively on many of the themes of his own reflections on honour and identity, and on many of the themes that are central to our project – to the way we understand the workings of ‘honour’ in ancient Greece.

In Appiah’s account, meritocracy is not so much a political system, but rather an ‘honour code’ (to cite the title of his 2010 book) – one of many possible ones. It is, that is, a normative order that is enforced socially but also, and more strikingly, internalised by social agents, and which lays behind one’s assessment of her own worth as well as of the worth of others – it is at its most basic an ideal of distributive justice which enlists the motivational mechanism of honour. And it is at work, first and foremost, in people’s heads.

It is the meritocratic ideal that justifies the CEO’s belief that he deserves millions and millions in salary, or the Vice-Chancellor’s conviction that it is entirely appropriate for him to earn six times as much as the top professor at his institution – if they didn’t deserve so much, they wouldn’t get so much! This also justifies their belief that they are in fact better than you. Likewise, it is the meritocratic ideal that convinces the single mother on benefits that she doesn’t really deserve any better – as we do live in a meritocracy (so we’re told), if she did deserve better, she’d fare better. Meritocracy, then, is less an efficient system for assessing skills and proficiency (as, perhaps, it should be) than a context-specific (social-hierarchy-specific, in fact) honour code that justifies the world as it is, while at the same time pretending to be a harmless and ‘natural’ criterion of value.

The scholar of Greek ethics and Greek society can’t help but being reminded of Aristotle’s discussion of the causes of stasis (civil strife) at the beginning of Book 5 of the Politics. There, Aristotle unpacks the motivations for ‘revolutionary actions’, as they unfold within the revolutionary’s psyche, as a battle of ideals of distributive justice. The oligarch believes that, because he has a larger share of material goods, he should also have a larger share of everything else: power and honour. He therefore actively works towards bringing about a political system (a politeia) that enacts this particular ideal of distributive justice, in which naturally he is on top. Likewise, the democrat believes that because he is a free man, he should have the same share of power, honour and wealth as any other free man, and acts accordingly to bring about a politeia aligned with this ideal. Both see the particular ideals of distributive justice as ‘naturally’ right and judge their own worth and the worth of others on their basis. And, if they were to win the day, those ideals would also serve as the normative justification of the new social and political order. They are thus pursuing both a political revolution and a ‘moral revolution’, to use Appiah’s terminology: a change of the ‘honour code’ that underlies not only social arrangements, but individuals’ perception of their own and others’ worth.

Like the ideals of distributive justice that, according to Aristotle, underlie the demands of ancient democrats and oligarchs, the ideal of meritocracy is the honour code of our current elite – the 1%, as it were – which works because it is internalised by everyone else, and because membership of that elite is increasingly the only form of membership that really matters, for those that are in but equally for those that are out. Honour is all about group membership, after all (and see Kleanthis Mantzouranis’ blog post for a discussion of Sandy Welsh’s book and of why this is so). But here is something else that Appiah brings to the discussion: it is not about the actual group we belong to, really, but rather about the group we internalise – the group we imagine. It is about the group identity we choose to assume and to attribute to others.

In his latest book, Appiah quotes approvingly American sociologist Alvin W. Gouldner’s contention that ‘corresponding to different social identities are differing sets of expectations, differing configurations of rights and obligations’. Different social identities entail different honour codes (or, with Aristotle, different ideals of distributive justice), and the dynamics of honour and shame are the mechanisms through which such honour codes are enforced. Social identities are the ties that bind us – the bonds that make cooperation possible – and they bind us through mechanisms that the Greeks strikingly described with the language of timē. Yet there’s nothing inevitable about any particular social identity, and the honour code that comes with it – to quote Appiah one more time (the title of his latest book), they are ‘the lies that bind us’.

Meritocracy is the powerful weapon of an elite of wealth and privilege. It is indeed a lie that binds us. True, we can’t do without such lies, but we should perhaps abandon this one, reject the aspirational ideal of this elite’s social identity, and think of a better lie: one that underpins a more humane honour code, a less exclusionary conception of distributive justice.

Mirko Canevaro

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