My Successes (and Failures) Are All Mine?

March 19, 2021   •   By Paul J. D’Ambrosio

The Tyranny of Merit

Michael Sandel

ANYONE CURIOUS ABOUT Michael J. Sandel’s newest book, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?, should not be intimidated by the author. Sandel is a Harvard University professor whose courses are widely popular, attracting hundreds of students to his classes and millions of online followers. He has been named the “most influential foreign figure” by China News Weekly, and hosts the BBC series The Public Philosopher and The Global Philosopher. More importantly, Sandel is a spirited interlocutor, always willing to engage in conversations about concrete issues with real (nonacademic) people.

Sandel’s books are not written in highfalutin academic jargon. Arguments are not given as theses. Metaphysical appeals are scarce. Nevertheless, his latest book might recast the way you view everything from college degrees to essential workers, from responsibility and choice to luck and smuggery.

The term “meritocracy” isn’t that old. It was coined by Michael Young in 1958. Tracking the idea of replacing aristocracy with talent-, skill-, and effort-based systems of economic and political rewards, as well as the accompanying social and moral recognition, Young saw a potential for disaster. Marrying this millennia-old idea with individualism leads, as Sandel demonstrates, to the erosion of the common good.

Those who win in our meritocracy are seen by others, and then tend to develop a sense in themselves, as truly deserving their success. Accomplishments are a person’s own, ground out through their “own” talents and hard work. Individuals are atomic in their achievements. The result is meritocratic hubris, “the tendency of winners to inhale too deeply of their success.” This way of thinking can certainly be stimulating, though it comes with its own punishment: stress, anxiety, and burnout are rising. And what about those on the other side? What happens to those who fail?

Our meritocratic thinking also “denigrates the losers, even in their own eyes.” If success is owned completely by the individual, so is failure. “[I]t is hard to escape the demoralizing thought that their failure is their own doing, that they simply lack the talent and drive to succeed.” It is a “politics of humiliation.” If one’s position in society is supposedly a badge of their merit, lower positions can become reflections of a person’s lesser worth. Contributions to the common good, the associated recognition, and other civic sentiments are suffocated by a web of capitalism, hyperindividualism, and meritocracy. The garbage collector is not someone who helps keep our streets free of trash and disease low in our communities, but someone who lacks talent for “higher” things or doesn’t try enough. Similarly, Wall Street traders are deserving of huge salaries, even while contributing relatively little to society.

This has a damaging effect on the common good. When we tell those who are losing out in the new global economy to arm themselves with a degree, we only further entrench ourselves in the meritocracy hubris. The honor and recognition we bestow on people is hugely significant. Winners tend to lack humility, empathy, and a sense of responsibility for those who lose. And those who don’t rise to the top may feel that they really deserve to fail.

Of course, the actual implementation of meritocratic systems continues to fall far short of the ideal. Sandel begins the book discussing inequality in opportunity. Higher education, and especially Ivy League universities, are in his crosshairs. Across many areas of society, the gap between those at the top and everyone else has only broadened in recent decades. We should, Sandel argues, foster a thicker civic sentiment. Encouraging people to go to college and expanding access is undoubtedly good, but it’s simply not enough. Even if everything was ideal, merit-based hubris and humiliation would remain — and perhaps only be emboldened. Populists have succeeded, Sandel believes, through exploiting the anger and resentment toward meritocratic thinking as well as toward the systems and institutions that valorize it. It isn’t just the failure to live up to the ideal, it is the ideal itself. To deal with our rancorous political and social lives, we need to rethink our civic attitudes and sentiments about the common good.

Throughout The Tyranny of Merit, Sandel makes appeals to recognizing the role of luck, chance, and contingency in our lives. Firstly, our talents, and perhaps to some degree even our motivation, are not a matter of our own doing. Sure, they must be cultivated, but not everyone who works as hard as LeBron James becomes a star basketball player. Secondly, the talents that a society prizes are equally a matter of luck. If LeBron James was born in a different time or place, his talents might very well go completely unrecognized. Coming to terms with the role of contingency in our lives would, according to Sandel, clear up much of the problems he finds with meritocracy, and indeed our broader social and political issues. The book ends:

“There, but for the grace of God, or the accident of birth, or the mystery of fate, go I.” Such humility is the beginning of the way back from the harsh ethic of success that drives us apart. It points beyond the tyranny of merit toward a less rancorous, more generous public life.

This suggestion is truly appealing, and could save us. Our sense of atomistic autonomy, the belief that we make many choices in a vacuum, and should live according to a “true self” — that is, one relatively divorced from concrete particulars — only serves to broaden the divide between “winners” and “losers,” stifles sentiments about the common good, and makes public discourse pointless. But there might be something else going on here as well.

The formulation of these concerns is, at times, strikingly individualistic. For example, Sandel asks (in a TED Talk): “Do I morally deserve the talents that enable me to flourish? Is it my doing that I live in a society that prizes the talents I happen to have? Or is that my good luck?” In other periods and places, luck, fate, and contingency have been more closely intertwined with a person’s will. Agency isn’t always so autonomous. Sequere deum (follow God) doesn’t refer to Augustine’s God, and the Dame Fortune of 18th-century Europe is not the fate (ming) of early China. Luck and contingency might be less “something that happens to us,” and more who we really are. Likewise, merit doesn’t have to be, as it unarguably predominates in the United States today, associated with the achievements of the individual for the individual.

Michael J. Sandel’s complaints about meritocratic hubris, its corrosive effects on the common good, and corrective power of appreciating luck and contingency are illuminating. Realizing the significance of individualism’s effect on these issues, and their solution might further sharpen our understanding, and improve the efficacy of our resolution. Indeed, it seems that when we strengthen our evaluation of the one, the other is correspondingly weakened. Should perhaps more emphasis then be placed on the problems of individualism?

In 2015, Daniel Bell published The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy. Bell’s subtitle is perhaps a play on Sandel’s first book, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (1982). Associating meritocracy with China is a familiar model. For over 1,000 years, governments in that region have been relying on tests, both theoretical and practical, for political office and social recognition. In demonstrating how this model works today, Bell reveals an understanding of merit where “meritocratic hubris” has little place. Without a strong culture of individualism, merit is measured and bestowed in different ways. “Proving oneself” means demonstrating how one’s achievements benefit the group. Individual advancement and recognition are thus closely tied with larger groups or institutions.

Needless to say, there are plenty of problems with the China model, or more collective configurations of merit, in general. But could one possible way back to humility, empathy, and more robust civic sentiment be an adjustment of meritocracy? Appreciating luck and contingency can go hand in hand with deprioritizing the autonomy of atomic individuals. After all, isn’t the real problem the marriage of individualism with meritocracy? Could we, should we, imagine a meritocracy of the common good?


Paul J. D’Ambrosio is associate professor of Chinese philosophy at East China Normal University in Shanghai, China. He mainly writes on Daoism, medieval Chinese thought, and contemporary profile-based identity formation.