Democracy, Merit, and Presumptive Virtue

Democracy, Merit, and Presumptive Virtue

Modern democracy has long drawn much of its moral energy from the idea of a career open to talents, an idea that depends on a shared conception of merit. I take it that merit is always in one sense a fiction: we could not project its social meaning from the nature of what is good or worthy, since it depends on a whole system of adaptations, a common history of acts admired and sometimes produced, but not too easy to produce. Different societies enforce different versions of the idea; but we should not exaggerate this variety. A morality strongly invested with a belief in personal responsibility, and seeking to justify work or action toward a common end, will incorporate some version of merit. Unselfish pride in a job well done and done not just for oneself, is perhaps the most obvious feeling by which we can trace the force of the idea. The same pride forbids one’s showing or selling work that does not meet an inward standard of worth, and we recognize that such a standard is itself the internalization of a common understanding. Merit as mere entitlement, a sort of badge or test score displayed in public that permits me to get something for myself, represents a debasement in two ways. It separates the meaning of merit from its evidence in works that benefit more than one person. And it shifts the range of application from conduct requiring and eliciting approval to a behavior whose value has been indexed before we enter the scene. I will be talking about merit in an older sense.

...

Lima