Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Can One Appeal to Merit?

I attended a workshop over the last month with one of the professors here where we discussed her forthcoming book which articulates a non-ideal philosophical argument for racial integration, specifically affirmative action. Throughout the seminar I was confused as to why she did not address the question of merit head on--if one works hard and excels (those are two different items) isn't one entitled to a position at an Ivy or elite firm (or at least more entitled than someone without that merit)? How do the values of integration (democratic norms along with social justice ones) address the claims of merit?

Turns out she doesn't really think such an appeal exists, at least to a strong version of the claim. Sure, she concedes, you are going to have a hard time remaining an elite school if you open up enrollment to a lottery, but merit, in itself does not really constitute a claim. Merit will excel on its own, but it is not a ethical value by itself; an instrumental not a deontic value (that might be stating it a bit too strongly--she did intimate that at a large firm passing up someone more qualified for a cousin of yours might be an ill). So if you don't believe that merit is an appropriate claim, anti-affirmative action arguments really fall down.

Just prima facie, there seems to be some appeal to justice wrapped up in merit, something like Aristotle's equals to equals where one's capacity ought to equal the challenge of the position, but I am not sure. Furthermore, it would be hard to argue that every promotion ensures a correspondence between merit and responsibility. Anyhow, it was kind of a mind blowing moment.

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