In his widely influential book, A Theory of Justice, John Rawls lays down two essential principles of justice which are to act as a foundation and precursor to a just society, ensuring equal liberty and fair opportunities for all, both the most advantaged and the least advantaged persons. This is a contractarian theory that crucially critiques the utilitarian conceptions of justice as he declares in the Preface, “this theory seems to offer an alternative systematic account of justice that is superior, or so I argue, to the dominant utilitarianism of the tradition.” (xviii) He is of a firm opinion that utilitarianism cannot guarantee basic rights, liberty, and opportunities to free and equal citizens, which are the foremost requirements for democratic institutions. Since the governing principle of utility is aimed at “maximizing the net balance of satisfaction”; it does not care about even the basic standards and rights for the least privileged. But Rawlsian principles are much concerned about the least advantaged, his rights and liberties. That is why, Rawls does not subscribe to the popular utilitarian idea of “careers open to talents”, which implies that certain privileged positions are reserved for a select group of the so-called meritorious individuals who alone are useful and hence deserving, and all other unrealized talents (thanks to their socio-economic contingencies) are not fit for these coveted positions. Hence, this paper will demonstrate how Rawls refutes the teleological utilitarian doctrine as it upholds the supremacy of merit, and according to him, prepares a fertile ground for flourishing meritocratic societies. He asserts that a democratic interpretation of his principles of justice can potentially avert that situation.
In section 12 of Chapter 2nd, Rawls discusses 4 possible interpretations of his principles:
(1) The system of natural liberty,
(2) Liberal equality,
(3) Democratic equality and
(4) Natural aristocracy.
Out of these 4, only a third interpretation (democratic interpretation) is desirable. The other 3, in some of the other ways, support and sustain meritocracy. Natural liberty is integrally linked with the principle of efficiency which advocates distribution of wealth and income as per natural gifts, talents, and smartness of individuals. “In the system of natural liberty, the initial distribution is regulated by the arrangements implicit in the conception of careers open to talents” (62). Evidently, this interpretation is talent-driven and justifies selection through merit, sidestepping unequal opportunities. Although the liberal interpretation seeks to address social contingencies by adding fair equality of opportunity; yet it does not rule out the decisive role of merit as it still hinges on the natural distributions of abilities. Furthermore, natural aristocracy combines nepotism with natural talents to champion the virtue of merit.
Thus, all these interpretations are helpful to understand the notion of a meritocratic society. Such a society, as discussed above, essentially counts on natural talents that are useful in particular ways and distribute benefits accordingly. Opportunities are provided to garner specific talents and meet certain set standards. Here, merit is arbitrarily defined and in accordance with fixed ideas of useful abilities; all other capabilities and people associated are considered redundant and hence debarred from that arena. Michael Young, who first propounded the concept of meritocracy, maintains: “when those who are judged to have the merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others. ”In a meritocracy, there is no substantial prospect for the dispossessed and the disadvantaged who are not in a position to achieve certain standards of merit.
In this way, a meritocratic society is exclusionary as it is based on ableist assumptions. Those who will possess certain abilities will be accepted and bestowed with important benefits, and others will be relegated to the margin. In effect, it is analogous to the Spencerian Social Darwinism (Survival of the Fittest), where those with the requisite talents will only survive. It is this special emphasis on natural capabilities as determining criterion of merit and thereby the distribution of social fortunes, that is problematic and objectionable for Rawls’ theory of justice. From the disability standpoint, a meritocracy is a form of ableism. Individuals with certain physical, sensory, and mental limitations will always miss the ableist standards of merit and then face constant exclusion. In fact, merit in itself constitutes a norm, a norm to which all must adhere. According to an eminent disability theorist, L. J. Davis, the problem does not lie in the individual, but it lies in the construction of social normality which creates a problem for the individual (1). Indeed, in case of failing to the norm of merit, even the physically and mentally abled people are deemed abnormal (and also somewhat disabled in this sense).
Since Rawls’ theory of justice claims to be an inclusive framework; it is necessary for it to ward off the defects related to a meritocratic society. He presents a model of contractarian society which is marked by cooperation, not envy and clash. He elaborates this through the democratic interpretation of his principles. Instead of natural liberty and liberal equality, democratic equality is the guiding idea. This interpretation results from a judicious blending of fair equality of opportunity and the difference principle (65). It is to explain that individuals have a rational tendency to equality (section 17) which prompts them to promote equal rights and opportunities for all. Even the most advantaged cannot prosper without ensuring advancement for the least advantaged. “Those who have been favored by nature, whoever they are, may gain from their good fortune only on terms that improve the situation of those who have lost out.” (87) according to this view, the principles of justice are the principles of reciprocity/mutual benefits. Unlike the rules of merit, here natural talents are taken as common assets to ensure greater socio-economic benefits for all. “The naturally advantaged are not to gain merely because they are more gifted, but only to cover the costs of training and education and for using their endowments in ways that help the less fortunate as well.” (87).
In a just society guided by the Rawlsian principles, resources would be spent in education in order to ameliorate expectations of the most deprived persons. “resources for education are not to be allotted solely or necessarily according to their return as estimated in productive trained abilities, but also according to their worth in enriching the personal and social life of citizens, including here the less favored.” (92). But in a meritocratic society, education functions differently. It ultimately acts as an instrument of exclusion by selecting a few privileged in the name of merit. As Young incisively remarks: “With an amazing battery of certificates and degrees at its disposal, education has put its seal of approval on a minority, and its seal of disapproval on the many who fail to shine from the time they are relegated to the bottom streams at the age of seven or before.”
And finally, Rawls states that the democratic interpretation of his principles is crucially connected with the principle of fraternity. This can be understood as another critique of meritocratic virtues and the utilitarian principle behind them. The import of fraternity is that the most privileged will not maximize his advantages unless he accrues some benefits to the least circumstanced. Ideal family members are cited as representative examples, as they do not want to advance their individual interests if it does not affect other members positively. Not only fraternity, but liberty and equality also illuminate these two principles of justice. If fraternity is intertwined with the difference principle; liberty is embedded in the first principle and equality in equal liberty and fair equality of opportunity.
Hence, these Rawlsian principles of justice, on strong theoretical ground, promise an alternative conception of a just society that is not meritocratic and shaped by utilitarianism. These principles and their democratic interpretation can be judiciously applied to complex contemporary societies as well. In today’s world, where cut-throat competitions and supremacy of merit have become an overpowering norm, Rawlsian views can blaze our path ahead. Rawls is still relevant as he imagines a harmonious and balanced relationship between the self and society, between the individual and the community, which is marked by reciprocity, cooperation, and co-existence, rather than clash, competition, and alienation.
(The author is a Doctoral Fellow, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Delhi)
Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice: Revised Edition. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999.
Davis, Lennard J. “Introduction: Normality, Power, and Culture.” The Disability Studies Reader, 4th ed., Routledge, 2013, pp. 1–14.
Young, Michael. “Comment: Down with Meritocracy.” The Guardian, 29 June 2001, www.theguardian.com/politics/2001/jun/29/comment.