Notes On: “The Tyranny Of Merit” – Chapter Two

In Chapter Two of his work, entitled “‘Great Because Good’: A brief moral history of merit”, Sandel asked “When exactly did merit turn toxic, and how?”

All Excerpt From
The Tyranny of Merit
Michael J. Sandel
This material may be protected by copyright.


“This is the idea that our destiny is in our hands, that our success does not depend on forces beyond our control, that it’s up to us. We are not victims of circumstance but masters of our fate, free to rise as far as our effort and talents and dreams will take us.”

This idea is, of course, not really grounded in reality. Ones circumstances play a huge roll in ones success or failure. Can negative circumstances be overcome? Yes, of course. But the amount of effort to needed to attain success in such cases can be significantly high. In many cases, prohibitively high.

“This reminds us that the most consequential early debates about merit were not about income and jobs but about God’s favor: Is it something we earn or receive as a gift?”

Success as a sign of predestination. Thinking here on Max Webers’ Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

“It reflects the belief that the moral universe is arranged in a way that aligns prosperity with merit and suffering with wrongdoing. This is not far from the familiar contemporary view that wealth signifies talent and hard work and that poverty signifies indolence”

Or the notion that those that have fallen on hard times, or those that have not succeeded even though they were born with social and economic disadvantages, are somehow of less value. Value has become equivalent with monitory worth. What one contributes economically is equal to worth.

“Second, this meritocratic way of thinking gives rise to harsh attitudes toward those who suffer misfortune. The more acute the suffering, the greater the suspicion that the victim has brought it on himself.”

As stated above.

“God confirms Job’s righteousness but chastises him for presuming to grasp the moral logic of God’s rule. This represents a radical departure from the theology of merit that informs Genesis and Exodus.5 In renouncing the idea that he presides over a cosmic meritocracy, God asserts his unbounded power and teaches Job a lesson in humility. Faith in God means accepting the grandeur and mystery of creation, not expecting God to dispense rewards and punishments based on what each person merits or deserves.”

Beyond the ‘lesson’ that his actions are not meritorious, this whole situation is an example of how the Judaea-Christian God is toxic to the human psyche. The development of this being has lead to 2000 years of collective social damage.

“Seeking to improve our chances by taking communion or attending Mass or otherwise trying to persuade God of our merit is presumptuous to the point of blasphemy.”

Something that has been completely lost on the religious extremists in the USA. They believe that simply because they extol the virtue of Christianity, attend mass, gloat about their attendance at one church over another, and in the end attempt to force other to live by their subjective view of ‘what Gods wants’, that they are somehow saved.

“The Protestant work ethic, then, not only gives rise to the spirit of capitalism. It also promotes an ethic of self-help and of responsibility for one’s fate congenial to meritocratic ways of thinking. This ethic unleashes a torrent of anxious, energetic striving that generates great wealth but at the same time reveals the dark side of responsibility and self-making. The humility prompted by helplessness in the face of grace gives way to the hubris prompted by belief in one’s own merit.”

And thusly gives rise to men like Donald Trump. He truly believes that he is right, and probably righteous, because he has been so successful. All others are to him, and so many that believe as he does, losers simply because they are not successful, or more importantly, because they do not believe as he does.

“Although the successful do not owe their power and wealth to divine intervention—they rise thanks to their own effort and hard work—their success reflects their superior virtu”

All while at the same time completely ignoring the contributions of those around them that aided in their success. The view, the generalized believe of ‘self-made’ is egotistical and pathological.

“And it reinforced the belief that prosperity is a sign of virtue.”

E.g., doing economically well means you are a good person.

“…but demoralizing, even punitive, when things go badly.”

Again, this notion of success as a virtue. When one fails it is suggested that the failure is some sort of character flaw, a lack of virtue.

“But there is no necessary connection between being good and being great. For nations as for persons, justice is one thing, power and wealth another”

When one equate wealth and power to ‘goodness’ you strip away any sense of objective human worth.

Chapter Conclusion:

Chapter Two: “‘Great Because Good’: A Brief Moral History of Merit” provides a very clear history of how toxic American culture has become in regard to the way in which we view each other. Our whole social fabric has been turned into one big moral competition between those who have money being ‘good’ and those without being ‘bad’. What’s worse, beyond the baseline madness, is that those that are being vilified have been taught that they are, in fact, bad for their standing.

On the flip side, those that are wealthy, or even those that have a middle income, have weighed the poor as bad, but they have come to believe that individual worth is literally equal to economic success. So it is not even that the poor, or those that have tried but failed, are simple bad, but they also are of less worth than those with money. These views, while aiding the expansion of capitalism, are held even in the face reality that is all to clear to everyone.

The nature these views speaks deeply of wide spread colonizations of not just individual minds, but the collective mind of the body politic. The zeitgeist of our time, vis-à-vis human value, is corrosive to society at large.

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 )

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s