Is meritocracy worth striving for?
The assumption, or even ideology, that rewards and resources should follow merit based performance is very alluring.
However it rests on a dubious assumption that everyone starts from an equal plane and chance plays no role. Through competition winners are claimed to emerge based on their own doing and merits, whilst losers had noone to blame but themselves.
The ideal of merit is thus fundamentally flawed, ignoring disparities, disabilities and privileges, generating hubris amongst the winners, and humiliation amongst losers - seen in elite universities, professions and institutions filled with more of those from the top 1% than the entire 50% bottom.
Worse, when valorised in Western societies, meritocracy becomes yet another public idol in civic life, captured in the phrase 'People get what they deserve!' Deep inequalities emerge where there are few winners. An economic hierarchy of status measures everyone. A polarised, toxic, rancorous world emerges, visible all around us today.
Michael Sanders, Professor of Political Philosophy at Harvard, observes:
"The more we think of ourselves as self-made and self-sufficient, the harder it is to learn gratitude and humility. And without these sentiments, it is hard to care for the common good." (The Tyranny of Meritocracy)
The way forward is then not more meritocracy, more competition and removing hurdles to achievement. All that does is force the privileged to find increasingly creative ways to advance their interests and maintain the status quo, doing little for most other than increasing stress and anxiety.
A collective rethink of the secular ideologies that have brought about this corrosive state of affairs is necessary.
Islam firstly introduces the notion of qada - divine ordainment, what the Secular West term chance or luck. This is a credal fact that events and circumstances in our lives are ordained and not everything is a consequence of our efforts. It creates gratitude and humility in outlook and attitude, marginalising hubris and arrogance.
It is then important to consider not equal opportunities or outcomes, but equal standing amongst people, part of which is ensuring they are broadly educated in good character, the Deen, social events and the world, whereby they can participate as respected members.
Islam also organises society where it replaces competition with cooperation, distributes rewards on needs whilst allowing for luxuries, encouraging competition in the khair, demanding a harmonious society where everyone and their contribution is valued as they collectively seek to please Allah.
The marginalisation of God from life's collective affairs has had uncountable unintended consequences.
It is why Allah says:
'I have not created man and jinn but to serve me.'
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