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  • Yishai Barth

Critical Meritocracy in a World of Crisis

A mountain with rainbows shooting off of it light rays of light
Photo credit: AI-generated image.

Recently, the Gates Community deepened its commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equality through the creation of the Equality, Diversity, Inclusion, and Accessibility Officer on the Scholars’ Council. This is both laudable and necessary. However, my work as a sociologist studying merit and the cultivation of ability leads me to question whether “equality” is the best frame to use in thinking about creating a better world. We should not, I believe, dedicate resources to the pursuit of equality when what we need is justice. Therefore, I believe that a reconception of how we as Gates Scholars understand and seek to enact justice and fairness is deeply necessary.

While this may seem like a small quibble with internal Gates Council policies, I think it is a valuable jumping off point for wider philosophical questions around meritocracy and how to cultivate and reward the skills needed to solve the world’s most pressing crises.

To be clear, although I was not involved in the decision-making process that led to the inclusion of the word “equality” in the position’s title, I fundamentally agree with the creation of the Office and therefore ran for the position (though I did not get it). However, I believe the word “equality” is being applied with insufficient scrutiny. There is an underlying assumption that any meritocracy necessarily produces winners and losers and that selective organisations, therefore, should feel a degree of shame for contributing to a meritocratic system that mints an academic elite. This assumption, I think, is faulty. The existential strains of climate and political crises demand that we cultivate elite capacities in order to build a better world. Genuine meritocracies are a powerful tool to accomplish that goal. Further—in the context of a world in crisis—genuine meritocracies, I believe, are just and right.

Not all meritocracies produce winners and losers. Scholars such as Michael Sandel, though, are right to point out that an array of factors—most notably access to wealth—often distort the societal scaffolding we commonly call meritocracies. Such so-called “meritocracies,” however, are not the kind of true meritocracy I am arguing for. What Sandel describes is a hollow meritocracy.

Hollow meritocracies produce pain, strife, and turmoil. This is because they deny individuals’ worth and humanity by evaluating only a limited set of capacities, skills, and traits—muddling the bright colours of the full spectrum of human ability. Additionally, hollow meritocracies are tainted by innumerable biases in the evaluation process. These include the creep of racial, gender, and other biases, as well as the more overarching bias of believing that there is any kind of purely objective method for measuring ability. The end result is an empty, privilege-perpetuation mechanism hiding behind the façade of the word “merit,” assigning the spoils of meritocracy without genuine identification of ability.

It is easy, then, to see the appeal of equality here—particularly as equality is conventionally conceived. Equality promises to soothe the sting of injustice, both real and imagined, by combatting the unjust marginalisation which emerges from hollow meritocracies. History teaches us, however, to be wary of easy, top-down solutions to complex systemic problems. The imposition of equality is in fact the imposition of sameness, of homogeneity. The use of the word “equality” signals the intention of enforcing an outcome. Equality results in flattening the peaks of achievement, not filling in the valleys of unequal access to opportunity.

I am not implying that equality demands a drive toward homogenisation. Rather there exists an etymological and semantic continuity between the use of the word equality in social justice discourses and the concept of equivalence in mathematics. In mathematics, to say that two things are equal—for instance, that X is equal to Y—is to say that those things are the same. Therefore, I contend that those seeking to advance the cause of justice in our world should aspire not to equality but to parity: parity of power that enables inclusion and justice. Many understand parity and equality to be synonyms. However, though their meanings are similar, the concepts are distinct in a number of ways. The word parity comes from the same root as the word “peer.” Peers are those who operate on equivalent foundations on an even playing field, but the relationship of parity, or what can be thought of as “peer-ity,” does not imply sameness. Encouraging and facilitating it does not entail homogenising diversity in any way.

We must instead, then, strive for a world in which parity of power promotes inclusion and justice. I realise this is easier said than done. Reaching that goal is, lamentably, a long and arduous path. As we tread that path, we must maintain a fierce belief in our collective capacity to justly cultivate the bright talents we need to light our way. We must also avoid obviating the injustices arising from the misdefinition of merit in our past and present. We therefore need an actual meritocracy, or what I will call “critical meritocracy.”

"...those seeking to advance the cause of justice in our world should aspire not to equality but to parity: parity of power that enables inclusion and justice. Many understand parity and equality to be synonyms. However, though their meanings are similar, the concepts are distinct in a number of ways."

Critical meritocracy allows for positions in a society to be assigned on the basis of ability, where abilities are broadly defined and properly identified according to communal standards that serve ethical values. Of course, no such critical meritocracy would be perfect. I recognise, particularly as a person with disabilities, that the question arises: how could harmful bias stemming from the evaluation of the worth of different kinds of abilities be addressed? This is a fair criticism. Any attempt to mitigate bias within critical meritocracy must consider power—the power to set the agenda of priorities, to determine which abilities are valuable, to decide how those abilities are assessed, to deploy certain abilities at a given time or place. As a social scientist, I am deeply interested in these questions and acknowledge that no solution I have yet come up with—or could ever come up with—would be total.

That said, life and liberty are the bedrock of all human flourishing. This bedrock is threatened by a wide array of intensifying crises. Extreme weather events super-charged by climate change threaten the lives and livelihoods of billions of people while resurgent illiberalism constrains the actions and voices of billions more.

Critical meritocracy is the most just approach to preserving this bedrock. It recognises differences in concentration and kind of ability, leveraging those abilities in pursuit of the common goals of dignity and prosperity. It is the best way to fight the injustices of hollow meritocracy, such as the distortions caused by access to wealth and privilege.

This means that critical meritocracy can be inclusive of organisational hierarchy. Some people have more leadership capacity than others; some are better carers; some are wondrously capable performers; and some, such as we who have been selected as Gates Scholars, are among the world’s best researchers, scientists, scholars, and thinkers. This is not a judgement of absolute worth or value of being. It does not mean that people who exhibit extraordinary capacity X are better than those whose core interests and talents push them to develop their capacity Y; it merely means that the first group is valued because they have a greater capacity for doing something that is contingently more valuable to more people in a particular context. It also means that those who possess certain capacities benefit from what I have termed “capacital privilege.”

"...we must maintain a fierce belief in our collective capacity to justly cultivate the bright talents we need to light our way. We must also avoid obviating the injustices arising from the misdefinition of merit in our past and present. We therefore need an actual meritocracy, or what I will call 'critical meritocracy.'"

Capacital privilege is advantage resulting from the attribution of varying concentrations and variations of capacities to individuals, combined with the relative value assigned to those capacities by society. It is tricky to deconstruct and do away with capacital privilege in the way social scientists deconstruct race, gender, or disability-based privilege. This is because capacital privilege differs fundamentally from racial, gender, or able-bodied privilege. Where deconstructing the latter breaks down biases that distort value, undermine justice, and prevent the effective deployment of human potential, deconstructing capacital privilege can squander that potential. This is because genuine capacital privilege—the kind developed in my hypothetical critical meritocracy—assigns status, money, and power based on capacities that are genuinely valuable.

This does not mean that capacital privilege cannot or should not be eventually deconstructed. It does, however, mean that given the crises of our moment, we must accept the reality of capacital privilege for now. We do not have the luxury to pretend that everyone is an equally gifted biophysicist, oceanographer, or policy wonk. To mow all the intellectual grass to the same height in a misguided aspiration to equality imperils the wellbeing of our world.

Put simply, some organisations do create an intellectual elite and an academic hierarchy. Doing so, I believe, is necessary. We must recognise that these hierarchies are not perfect and that some bias will always exist. But we must also reject ill-defined notions of shame stemming from capacital privilege and strive to create critical meritocracies that identify and cultivate those with desired skills to maximise human ability.

Some would argue that as long as a sense of meritocracy prevails some individuals will suffer. That some individuals will be denied opportunity or have their status unjustly undermined by factors beyond their control. That the standards of any meritocracy will be used to perpetuate unequal and unjust outcomes. I do not wish to dismiss these criticisms out of hand. Rather, if these criticisms are true, establishing critical meritocracies, I believe, will allow us to modulate the pernicious effects inherent in any meritocratic pursuit. Where hollow meritocracies create harm and destroy capacity, critical meritocracies create value by nurturing talent.

We must strive, then, not for equality but for justice. Enacting justice requires that we recognise reality accountably, an act that aligns not only with our professional goals as academics but also with the core values of the Gates Scholars to build a freer, fairer, and more inclusive world. We must not shy away from confronting injustice and bias, but we cannot afford to flatten the peaks of human achievement in pursuit of equality. There are no shortcuts to just outcomes, only the diligent work of capable individuals.

We cannot afford to indulge in lazy stereotypes nor to fall into the trap, as so often happens to those with disabilities, of conflating inability in one arena with incompetence in all. My own physical disabilities preclude me from jumping, but they have no effect on my imaginative leaps and cognitive abilities. If the point of our collective endeavour is not to seek and celebrate the ability in each of us, if it is not to nurture diverse strengths and capacities, what kind of justice are we seeking? What kind of inclusion and diversity can we hope to achieve?

Of course, ultimately, we should aspire to live in a world where hierarchies that entail any kind of domination are no longer necessary. But it will take great effort to reach a point of equilibrium where we are free to genuinely begin creating that world without annihilation from existential crises. This effort will have to come from organisations with the understanding, vision, and collective capacity to become genuine critical meritocracies. Only by fully leveraging the fruit of such critical meritocracies can we nullify the crises we face and plant the seeds of a more ideal world where our needs do not compel us to value the skills of some over others in any way. Our survival as a species may depend on it.


Yishai Barth [2020] is a second-year PhD student in the Department of Sociology. His research interests include the social construction of human ability, the sociology of meritocracy, medical sociology, and science and technology studies. He has also spent the majority of his life working in “disability” activism.

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