Meritocracy, privilege or equality?

Good morning all. Wednesday brings my guest blogger, Rambler5319, and his post prompting by a certain new arrival on the UK scene…


Last week LLM mentioned the birth of a certain baby: George Alexander Louis – one who is now 3rd in line to the throne here in the UK. (According to the statistics he is just one of 14,000 babies born in the UK last week.) The birth has stirred up interest in a particular area over the past week or so – privilege and the benefits it confers on later generations. Some people are not happy about those who simply inherit a pot of money or land or a title, and don’t have to work for it; others are quite content to live in a society where there will always be inequalities. My reason for writing about the subject is that the BBC dedicated a whole programme on the radio to a discussion on the subject. They have a discussion series called The Moral Maze and it tries to tackle controversial issues; it uses the format of a panel who question “witnesses” (3 or 4 on each prog) who come to state their case on the subject for the week.

Many folks consider life (in general) is unfair: those with money and privilege seem to get access to jobs, education and many other opportunities, those without don’t. The difficulty comes when we or the state take the view that the “playing field” should be levelled so that all have an equal opportunity to get the position under consideration be it a place at university, a job or membership of a club or team. How can it be done? Some would say we already have that in that anyone can apply but that it’s an equality of outcome that would be the best solution. For that to happen though certain things would have to be put in place which might seem unfair to those who do not get what they believed they deserved.

First principle to think about is – do we believe in the idea that if you work hard and get the results you need in exams for instance you should get the place that was offered? However if we then have a situation, as has happened in the UK in recent years, that for example the government wants more people from, as they put it, poorer sections of society to go to university how can that be achieved? Their answer is that you help them with maybe some extra teaching or finance or bursary payment. This though puts the university admission system under great strain because how do they decide between two candidates applying for say one place? Do they admit a person from a poor background who needs financial aid or say a middle class person who can afford to go because their parents simply have more money than the poorer person? Do you see the problem? Yes, they can admit say 10 people from poorer backgrounds to various courses but in order to do that 10 people from what is considered a higher social group have to be excluded. Is that fair or is it simply what we would call social engineering – making a university population a cross section of the wider society in terms of its social & financial groupings? Is that more morally right? Shouldn’t the emphasis be on the academic achievements of the candidates for the places and other factors come in afterwards? If the grade required in a particular subject is for example a “C” and there are two applicants – one has an “A” and one a “B”. Suppose the B grade applicant is from the poorer background – can you see the problem? Why should one way be more right than another? How many students from poor backgrounds would we expect to find in say some of the top universities like Oxford or Cambridge? It is not simply a case of grades it is also one of expense once you’re there. A further problem arises if, as history tends to confirm, that the people from the poorer social grouping, for one reason or another, don’t do as well academically as those from the more affluent neighbourhoods. Again this is not necessarily down to the child. It may be that the school itself has a poor record and one of the reasons for that might be due to poorer quality teachers ending up in say schools in poorer areas. The child may have come from a family in which education was not valued & books were not read. It could even be that the parents were just not interested in the child; perhaps it was not even wanted. There are a number of possible reasons and we can’t just blame or highlight one.

Second principle to think about is that of inheritance. Is it morally right that you or I as a parent should seek to do our best for our children? Do we believe that if we work hard and accumulate wealth during our lives that we have the right to pass it on to our children? In other words should you get what are called your “just deserts”? I think most people would say that this system seems fair – if you work hard, you get the rewards. Again we can do this in a number of ways but in the final analysis a big question is about what we leave behind for them. Suppose the parents “work their socks off” so they can pay off their mortgage so that their children can inherit their house and not be in debt. Should those parents be penalised for having worked really hard to be able to leave their children money or property or whatever? One speaker in the programme suggested that those who leave “excessive wealth” should have it taken off them. When challenged by the panel as to what he would define as excessive of course he couldn’t and also couldn’t say who should do the defining. The panel’s conclusion was quite simply that his idea amounted to straightforward theft!

Another speaker used the phrase when speaking of the opportunities that it was “unacceptably unfair” to those at the bottom of the social scale. As with the previous point, he was unable to properly define “unacceptably”. In the end he went down the route of saying that some things were unacceptably unfair but not all. He then went on to discuss the idea of rewarding those who “fulfil their potential”. In other words if you are not so clever academically and are expected to attain a grade C and you then do or perhaps achieve even higher, say a B you should be rewarded. This is a nice idea but think about this – suppose a student who was expected to achieve an A just misses it and gets a B. If both are applying to the same university, who is more deserving of the place? – Both have got B grades but to whom would you give the place if you had to make the decision? And why?

The last speaker came up with another generalisation: it’s unfair that bright kids from poor working class backgrounds are losing out to middle class kids who are less bright. I’m not sure how you could prove that. Surely I’d be just as “right” to say that bright middle class kids are losing out to bright working class kids because the latter are being favoured by the social engineering going on in higher education entrance procedures.

Now there isn’t time to go into all the arguments for & against but it seems clear to me that it will be incredibly difficult to move from our present position. Consider this – those who say the present system is unfair because a certain person only “got in” or “got the job” because they were born into a higher income family, than those who did not, haven’t got a practical alternative. If the current system is deemed unfair then how can you replace it with one which bestows favour on lower income groups in order to level things up a little? That just means there will be similar cries of unfairness by those who qualified but were discriminated against in the interests of some social policy either by the state or the institution concerned. You will simply be replacing one unfair system with another unfair one. So can anything help? Do we just have to accept that, as has been the case throughout history, in a society where money buys things those with the most can buy the most of whatever it is – material possessions or access to jobs & education? Is it unfair that one is born into a rich family and one into a poor?


One response to this post.

  1. I share with Plato the idea that the purpose of the State is to benefit all its constituents. If the State acts in any manner where one individual loses then this is contrary to the purpose, thus to act in a discriminatory manner to deprive someone of a benefit so that another may gain is failing to follow the purpose of the State.

    I wrote today on my blog about the problems of morality. It is crazy to ascribe morality to a knife, so why do so to another tool the State? The State functions according to a purpose, which is to benefit all, it is therefore better to let society work itself out without interference by the State. I promote the idea of the State as a honey pot, where the individual can come to the table asking for resources or skill training, but trade benefit for benefit so that the pot is always acting sustainably. The rich have no need for the honey pot since they have the resources to pay their own way. The State won’t punish the rich person, just make sure that resources are only available where it is needed.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: