Meritocracy has a dark side: Harvard professor Michael Sandel discusses his new book
The Tyranny of Merit references the pandemic but has radical ideas about solidarity, society and inherent skill too.Updated: Nov 20, 2020, 21:06 IST
Michael Sandel, a professor of political philosophy at Harvard University, has a new book out. Unlike the other popular philosopher Slavoj Žižek, who also released a book during the pandemic about the pandemic, called Pandemic! (or Yuval Noah Harari’s acclaimed opinion piece in the Financial Times in March, on the epidemic being a test of citizenship) Sandel’s book, The Tyranny of Merit, isn’t really about the coronavirus at all.
However, like his other writings and lectures — head to YouTube and listen to his lecture series on justice — it applies as much to what has happened during the pandemic, as it does to what happened in the decades before.
Sandel, a professor to generations of students (including, most famously, the writers of The Simpsons, who modelled a character on him) certainly knows how to tell us the story of ourselves. In The Tyranny of Merit, he talks to us — he assumes an American audience, but it applies in part to the Indian milieu too; the anti-caste movement’s strident critique of merit is a testament to that — about how we’ve come to live in such deeply polarized times.
He starts with the pandemic. “Morally, the pandemic reminded us of our vulnerability, of our mutual dependence: we’re all in this together. But the solidarity it evoked was a solidarity of fear, a fear of contagion that demanded ‘social distancing’... The moral paradox of solidarity through separation highlighted a hollowness in the assurance that ‘We’re all in this together’,” he writes.
The virus also made it clear how some people could survive with ease — based on what they earned, where they lived, what work they did (which in India is still often linked to caste) — and how some were brought to their knees. Excerpts from an interview:
Much has been said about the rise of populism and nationalist sentiment around the world, India included. What got you thinking of these issues in terms of the idea of merit?
What prompted me to think about this book was the rise of authoritarian populism around the world and the events of 2016, which saw the Brexit poll in Great Britain and the election of Donald Trump in the United States, and this seemed to be part of a popular backlash against the elites often connected to a strident nationalism.
How does merit come into play? It’s paradoxical, because generally we think of merit as a good thing. If I need surgery, I want to find a well-qualified surgeon to perform it. What does merit have to do with deep partisan, polarised divisions that we see in our societies today?
Much of what animates the populist backlash is resentment against the elites; the feeling among many ordinary citizens that the well-educated, well-credentialed, are looking down on them and there is something to this grievance that is worth taking seriously. In recent decades, the divide between winners and losers has been deepening and driving us apart. This has partly to do with the widening inequalities that we have seen over four decades of globalisation. But it’s not only the economic inequality. Chances are not equal and people do not have equal opportunity.
Meritocracy has a dark side, because the more opportunity is truly equal, the more those who succeed believe they earned it by their own doing, and the more those who struggle are inclined to be demoralised and even humiliated, believing they’ve had every chance, they’ve not risen, so it must be their fault.
In India, the opposition to reservation has been central to the backlash against the anti-caste movement. There is a perceived injustice, because opportunities are so few to begin with. In a developing country like India, do you think that the argument against merit could be a relative one?
The idea that there is some naturally given notion of merit that is violated by reservations presupposes that each person has an individual right to be considered for job opportunities or places in universities solely on the basis of his or her academic scores, test grades and so on. But, is there such a right? Only if you believe that admission to university, say, or being hired for a certain position, is a reward for superior merit and virtue… Such meritocratic hubris can lead us to forget our indebtedness to family, to teachers, to our upbringing, to community, to country, to the times in which we live.
You talk about how there was no solidarity of being “in this together” during the pandemic. Could you speak to that?
Those of us who have the luxury of working from home and holding meetings on Zoom can’t help but recognise how deeply we depend on workers we often overlook. I’m thinking not only of doctors and nurses but also delivery workers, warehouse workers, grocery store clerks, truckers, drivers, home healthcare providers. These are not the best paid or the most honoured in society, but in the pandemic, we call them essential workers because we recognise their contribution to our ability to carry on during the pandemic, even as they face far greater risks. So, this could be a moment, though it highlights the inequality, for a broader public debate on how to bring their pay and their recognition into better alignment with the importance of the work they do… We often assume that the money people make is a measure of their contribution to the common good, but this is a mistake.
We’ve outsourced our moral judgment to the market. We should reclaim that moral judgment for us as democratic citizens to work out together. That’s one possible opening that the pandemic has opened for the common good.