Adam Ozimek has an interesting post on merit:
The answer is of course that the murkiness Freddie sees exists in all these areas. And yet, should we not praise good behavior? Should we stop praising honesty because, like work ethic of someone who finished med school, we can’t in a rigorous way distinguish when honesty is just a product of how they were brought up?
I would say no, in both cases we should praise the achievements and think of them as such. To me it is simply common sense we should praise honest people. I would say the same applies to those with economic and intellectual achievements, but to folks like Freddie that is not the case. Much like I don’t know how to explain to someone why telling the truth is praiseworthy if they don’t see it, I can’t really explain to Freddie why having a good work ethic or the other characteristics that help make someone economic or academically successful is praiseworthy if he doesn’t see it. I can only draw parallels and ask what the differences are.
But what I do think should be visible to all is that holding aside all of these philosophical difficulties, praising moral behavior and having an economic system that rewards the creation of economic value is instrumentally valuable. A world that praises charitable behavior despite humanity’s widely differing propensities for it means we have more charitable behavior and are all better off, including those without such propensities. And a world that rewards the creation of economic value despite humanity’s widely different propensities for it means we have more economic value and are all better off, including those without such propensities.
In other words, Freddie’s socialist dream is a bad idea even I can’t convince you it’s also immoral.
I think I do know how to explain to someone why telling the truth is praiseworthy, and it isn’t “common sense.”
It’s a mistake to differentiate between how someone was “brought up” and how they are treated as an adult. Being well brought up means being praised when you do good and criticized when you are bad. That process never ends. I’ve been criticized a lot over the past decade, and I’m in my late 50s. The criticism has probably made me a better person, and has certainly changed my behavior in certain respects. When commenters/friends/family criticize me, they help “bring me up.” Ditto for when they praise me. In other words, criticism and praise have instrumental value.
Ozimek is criticizing a post by Freddie deBoer, which ends as follows:
The long-term project of those who decry the role of unearned advantage in human society should not be to try and parse who is most and least privileged. The project should be to deny the salience of “merit” as a moral arbiter of material security and comfort. The very notion of just deserts– the notion that some people have legitimate accomplishments that we must celebrate because they represent “merit,” whatever that is, distinct from their privileges– is what has to die. There is no space where privilege ends and legitimate accomplishment begins. There is, instead, a world of such multivariate complexity that we can never know whose accomplishments are earned and whose aren’t. Instead, we should recognize the folly of tying material security and comfort to our flawed perceptions of other people’s value, and instead institute an economic system based on the absolute right of all people to food, shelter, clothing, health care, and education.
Unlike 99% of libertarians, I agree with much of this paragraph, except for the last half of the last sentence. I wish he had ended his post as follows:
Instead, we should recognize the folly of tying material security and comfort to our flawed perceptions of other people’s value, and instead institute an economic system based on maximizing aggregate utility. That system is called capitalism.
I also slightly disagree with deBoer’s comments on merit. I certainly don’t think we “must celebrate” the success of billionaires, but I do think praise is appropriate for the sort of good behavior that has positive external benefits. It’s worth mentioning in the media that Bill Gates spends his wealth on charity, not 500 foot yachts. Not because Gates needs our praise, or even “merits” it in the common sense meaning of the term. Rather we should praise him because poor kids in Africa need his mosquito nets.