Arc of the Moral Universe

Michael Sandel concludes Chapter 2 of The Tyranny of Merit (2020) with a reference to Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous line:  “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”.  Barack Obama loved that quote so much he cited it 33 times and had it woven into a rug in the Oval Office.  Merit is the quality of being good or worthy so as to deserve praise or reward.  This chapter explores the history of whether or not merit is a moral and just way of allocating resources, praise and power among humans. 

I enjoyed the chapter but disagree that meritocracy is purely evil.  Sandel begins by explaining why meritocracy is a good, desirable, beneficial way of allocating resources:  Efficiency, fairness and most importantly, human agency (freedom).  But then he takes a contradictory turn towards tyranny, arguing that meritocracy is very bad.  Why?  His answer – human agency – too much of a good thing.

The promise of freedom, mastery and self-making is good… up to a point, Sandel argues.  But holding people responsible to think and act as moral agents assumes we are wholly responsible for our “lot in life”.  Sandel says the phrase “lot in life” is telling; like drawing random lots, our life is also determined by fate, fortune and faith.  He discusses religious salvation and the Protestant reformation when Martin Luther got fed up with the Catholic Church letting people buy their way into heaven.  Theology on whether humans determine moral reality or whether it’s solely God’s grace parallels today’s debate about whether people deserve their success or are just lucky.  It’s obviously both.  Sandel, and others who want to confiscate our wealth, slide down that all or nothing, “you didn’t build that”, slippery slope argument again and again.  It’s like the nature vs. nurture fight.  Humans are both nature and nurture and it’s silly to argue otherwise.  We have and undeniable human nature and we are also at least partly, maybe not solely, responsible for our own successes and failures.

I wrote here on 9/24/19 regarding Obama’s “you didn’t build that” nonsense; quoting George Will:

“Something quite sinister is being done here. The banal fact that no person lives or thinks or works in a “vacuum” – the fact that everyone is situated in a society – becomes the basis for asserting a “vital dependence” of the individual on society.  This, in turn, is said to justify declaring that there can be no suitable individual property right to intellectual work.  The products of such work are, because of the individual’s immersion in society, properly regarded as inherently socialized.  So individualism is attenuated to the point of disappearance, and society can claim ownership to whatever portion it feels entitled to of what individuals produce.

Obama and others are “pyromaniacs in a field of straw men”.  They energetically refute propositions no one asserts.  Everyone knows that all striving occurs in a social context and all attainments are, to some extent, enabled and conditioned by contexts that are shaped by government.  The more that individualism can be portrayed as a chimera, the more that any individual’s achievements can be considered as derivative from society, the less the achievements warrant respect.  And the more society is entitled to conscript – that is, to socialize – whatever portion of the individual’s wealth it considers its fair share.”

That’s what makes the “you didn’t build that” argument fail so badly – there is no constraining idea that limits how much it can confiscate and redistribute – no moral or rational principle preventing autocratic tyranny.  Anyone who is enough of a polemicist can take a slippery slope argument, erect a field of flimsy, flammable straw men and then mow them down with a flamethrower.  But what makes this particular argument so egregiously evil is that it is used in an attempt to hurt people – to attack what they and their families have worked so hard and so long to build.

Next week, we move to the “rhetoric of rising” – you can make it if you try!

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