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Letter: Compassion, Meritocracy, and Rights

Editor’s Note: This Letter is in response to the Features piece “Colloquium Offers a Fresh Take on Millennials,” which was originally published November 4, 2015.  To submit your own letter on any topic, click here.

Thanks to Lily Talmers for writing so clearly about my talk on “Millennials: What They Believe and Why.” For the sake of promoting discussion, I’d like to elaborate on a point I couldn’t cover in much depth.

Our study drew on the theories of Jonathan Haidt and others, who believe that each of us has a set of emotion-based “moral intuitions” that work something like taste buds, and lead us to intuitively feel that some values and beliefs are right, and others wrong.

We found that a majority of our respondents had intuitions rooted in empathy, compassion, and reciprocal altruism, which Haidit predicted, to voice support for ethnic and gender equality, and for helping the disadvantaged.

However, a majority also drew on the principle of meritocracy, rooted in an intuition of personal responsibility, which is not something Haidit predicted, to criticize our societal playing field not yet being level; or to endorse a social hierarchy based on merit.

A large majority of Millennials appear to believe that our social order either is, or should be, a meritocracy, in which inequality is legitimate as long as it results from differences in intelligence, ambition, and hard work. Very few thought of the social order in terms of rights.

A mountain of evidence, however, indicates that intelligence, ambition, and resilient hard work are powerfully shaped by both genetics, and by early childhood experiences that cannot be leveled.

Many social scientists have argued that the more perfect we make our meritocracy — especially as we more highly value intelligence, resilience, and socio-emotional skills – the more we will create society in which the lucky winners of the genetic and early environment sweepstakes prosper, and the unlucky “losers” slide into an underclass.

The more equal we make our schools, the more efficiently GPAs and SATs will do the sorting, and make it all seem fair.

I believe that as a society, we want some meritocratic competition– I confess that I’m a hopelessly-addicted NFL fan and I’m happy that my physician gets paid more than I do.

Yet, we are still far very far from leveling the playing field.

If we give priority to rights, however, including to a job at a living wage, decent housing, food security, health care, and a livable retirement pension, then we can think past the illusion that a “fair” meritocracy will yield a moral social hierarchy.

A strong conception of human rights could get us beyond the dilemmas of compassion vs. meritocracy to envision a society that would afford decent lives and dignity to everyone, even as we admire those who soar.

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Letter: Compassion, Meritocracy, and Rights