Merit and Social Equality
This research project analyzes the moral status of rewarding merit. It researches the moral limits of merit-based reward systems, the desirability of deontological constraints to rewarding merit as well as the feasibility of a non-competitive merit norm. Centrally, it aims to answer the following questions: Are systems rewarding merit compatible with social equality, the norm to be able ‘to relate to one another as equals’? Which, if any, moral objections to the merit norm are applicable?
The merit norm poses an analytical challenge given its notorious indeterminacy, derivative character, and the common equation of success with merit. As a matter of fact, criteria for rewarding merit tend to be based on the dominantly but contingently asserted values in a given social group about what is to count as ‘valuable’ or ‘productive’ contribution. This possibly fosters objectionable social hierarchies – social relations between believed inferiors and superiors – based on individuals’ ability to make a meritorious contribution. The norm of social equality and merit norm thus appear incompatible; but their relationship is undertheorized in the literature. Addressing this gap, this research project carves out the merit norm’s normative requirements and reviews the moral status of merit-based reward systems by engaging with the prevalent justifications available for it, which either are based on the function to incentivize actions of social value or follow from requirements of desert. By theorizing about norms of merit in tandem with social equality this project puts forth an account detailing the mechanism through which merit criteria are validated in reward systems to result in objectionable judgements about individuals’ alleged worthiness. It argues for a pluralism of merit norms and the necessity for individuals to be able to escape the realm of merit-based reward systems.