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The hollow meritocracy



A side issue in the revelations of the abusive treatment of women in Parliament has been the dichotomy made between quotas and merit. In the Liberal Party many members base their opposition to quotas in a core belief of the party that merit should govern all advancement in society.

Main image: Two people trying to climb ladders (Getty)

The debate about quotas based on gender has been well canvassed. The wider issues raised about merit and meritocracy, however, merit further reflection. Far in the background to both conversations lies a sophisticated body of reflection on merit among Christian theologians.

Theologians drew the metaphor of merit from legal and commercial transactions. It was defined as the quality of actions that as a matter of justice entitle one person to a reward from another. With money at stake and lawyers involved, distinctions between different kinds of actions and theories about the kinds of merit they possessed multiplied from antiquity on.

Christian theologians adapted the metaphor of merit to describe the relationship between God and human actions. They asked whether good actions entitled us to a reward from God. Augustine argued, and his position proved normative in the Western Church, that salvation was God’s gift (grace) and was mediated by Christ’s life and death. In the relationship between God and human beings there was no space for any merit based in human entitlement. The exclusion of merit raised a then led theologians to ask whether there was space left for human freedom and about what value obedience to God’s law, life within the church and moral striving had in Christian life. 

Western Catholic theologians argued that although human beings had no merit of their own, they received it by God’s promise, with the result that a good, prayerful life lived in the church could contribute to their salvation. Salvation was still by God’s gift, but that gift was mediated to involve human activity. This insight was reflected in the rich texture of medieval religious life with its sacraments, indulgences, penances and prayers. These, however, could easily be seen without reference to God’s gift, as machinery whose mastery could guarantee salvation.

Luther and the Protestant Reformers saw the transactional metaphor of merit and the tissue of practices that it engendered as a corruption of Christian faith. They sought to abolish them. They focused on the metaphor of gift within which salvation was entirely unearned. It was to be received with gratitude, not calculation. This gift would naturally find expression in a generous and prayerful life. Catholic reformers defended the value of human goodness and of church life in God’s eyes while insisting also that they were God’s gift.

Though both movements emphasised the necessity of grace and gift, however, both were also vulnerable to a sense of entitlement if gratitude should fade and the priority of grace became a belief and not part of a living faith. The Reformed emphasis on God’s choice of those who were to be saved could lead easily to a conviction of entitlement and of superiority over the reprobate who were not saved. Merit entered through the back door. Similarly, among Catholics adherence to the true Church and to its life could slide into the belief that their own beliefs and practices led to a salvation denied to those who were not Catholic.


'The conversation about the treatment of women in Parliament has revealed the hollowness of the appeal to merit. No person is self-made.'


The keystone of this theological history is the insistence that all human activity lies under the canopy of gift. The world of competitive human transactions involves merit, but is only part of a wider world of interlocking relationships that are characterised as gift. In all relationships people are responsible as persons to one another. The world, differences between human beings based on education social status, nobility of birth and intelligence, human activity in it, and achievement are all gift available for the shaping of a just world.

That view came under pressure with the separation of faith from public life and the emphasis on the individual rather than the communal. It then became easier to see one’s gifts and the skills that went into financial success as achievements, not gifts. In this world competitive success entitled people to reward. It demonstrated merit. Those who lost out in competition had no merit. They were the undeserving poor, the losers, whose misery and exclusion from society gilded the merits of the successful winners. The canopy over the world was economic competition with all its divisions and not gift with its bindings together. This is the world occupied by a number of members of the Liberal Party whose appeal to merit is accompanied by support for harsh and demeaning treatment of people who fail to compete.

The conversation about the treatment of women in Parliament has revealed the hollowness of the appeal to merit. No person is self-made. We all depend on the accidents of birth, gender, education, connections, privileged social groupings. The division of society into those with merit and those without and the ascription of competitive success to merit ignores the extent to which merit depend on these accidents and on people’s unawareness to their influence. In the case of gender that ignorance is now increasingly recognised as wilful.

The attachment to merit under the canopy of competitive individualism, however, extends beyond the selection of political candidates. It survives even the systematic attempts to remove the influence of the accidents of birth and connections on individual achievement. These attempts are embodied in the competitive tests between individuals which theoretically are equally open to all. By such tests and examinations from early childhood into working life those with greater merit are separated by those without. The result is seen in unequal and stratified and often segregated societies in which the winners are well satisfied with superior merit. They can ignore the inequalities of birth, health, race, linguistic skills, educational opportunity and familiarity with the techniques and background information that contribute to success in tests.

The response to these defects has generally been to refine the competitive tests and narrow their scope to what is economically useful so that unadulterated individual merit is rewarded. The history of merit, however, suggests that this only exacerbates the problem. What has been lost is the stripping away of the canopy of gift as central to all thinking of human activity and relationships and substituting for it economic competition. Meritocracy, born out of the dream of equality, ends in an unequal and mean dystopia. 

In the light of the failure of merit to perform over distance, it might be worth again looking the gift horse in the mouth, and indeed saddling it up for the big race of life. 



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Two people trying to climb ladders (Getty)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, merit, meritocracy, australian government, theology, Catholic, Protestant



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Existing comments

As is often the case Augustine's position gains unmerited prominence. How so much of his speculation gains credibility is not so much a matter of the merit of his thinking but of his filling in space usually occupied by popular superstition. This piece,Andrew, seems to confuse connections, 'who you know', personal gifts from birth or enhanced, social status, earned qualifications, fitness to do a job and gifts. 'The canopy of gift' is that just luck or accident? Or is there a suggestion that God is in the staff selection business? Without recourse to dubious speculative theology or what is in God's mind-as if such exists, a perfectly good case could be made including women more fairly and selecting people on their professed values and track record rather than which influential people they can get on their side instead of mates selecting mates or those who crawl to people with political power or have the dirt on the selectors.

Michael D. Breen | 08 April 2021  

The key message is : “ No person is self-made. We all depend on the accidents of birth, gender, education, connections, privileged social groupings. ” I am grateful for the gift of having the ability to successfully complete a university course and the resulting economic benefit to me. I often think of the people who struggle to navigate the system and the prejudices of unthinking others. My adult child is one who will struggle when we die to satisfy the bureaucratic processes to receive NDIS help.

Frank S | 08 April 2021  

Imagine attempting to impress God by our merits. It would be the height of hubris. Our response to God’s gift (grace) can only be fear (reverence) and a profound sense of our limitations combined with no little gratitude. I go to church because of my belief it is important to God. Perhaps that shouldn’t be the only reason but it is my reason. Gifts should be gratefully received with no thought of merit on either side. Love that final paragraph!

Pam | 08 April 2021  

This article appears to embrace the “Woke” fad of attacking meritocracy. Asia Times writer, David Goldman, wrote “Meritocracy vs. Idiocracy: Why China Is Winning.” Every year in China only half the students pass the Gaoko entrance exam. “The meritocratic element of the standardized exam system has been sacrosanct for millennia…The one thing Xi Jinping can’t do is send his kid to Peking University. It’s all done by exam score.” China graduates six times as many STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) students as the USA. Meanwhile, the USA is at war with the concept of meritocracy. It’s a “white supremist dog-whistle” says Professor Donna Zuckerberg, and the Oregon Department of Education encourages “ethnomathematics” arguing that White Supremacy manifests itself in the focus on finding the right answer. Goldman asks, “As we turn our schools into ideological indoctrination centres, though, what kind of creative minds will survive them?” Goldman: “Meritocracy will win, because it always does, and all the more so in a high-tech, winner-take-all world…Instead of a democratic meritocracy that rewards achievement while honouring the rights of the individual, we will have a merciless meritocracy that treats the losers like so much detritus.” Be careful what you wish for!

Ross Howard | 08 April 2021  

What an exemplary application of theological learning to a pressing socio-political issue!

Brendan | 08 April 2021  

This is an exceptionally lucid application to a society governed by neoliberal ideology of a theological insight that can seem esoteric and even arcane. For human beings the meaning of merit cannot be understood except against the background of gift. If only F.A. Hayek could have read this piece!

MICHAEL LEAHY | 08 April 2021  

Very interesting treatise, Fr Andrew, but does it belong only in the world of the theoretical rather than the reality. After 60 years experience of driving all manner of motor vehicles and obeying the road rules, I have never had a collision or other mishap on the roads. However, I have bugger all knowledge of how a car works and it would be very foolish to entrust me with, or pay me for, the repair of a vehicle that fell on malfunctioning times. Good theory, a bit like some theology, often seems to suffer from impracticality on a grand scale. Merit surely doesn't exist until a revealing test has been applied and passed with flying colours. Giftedness, while truly God given, often doesn't bloom into its fullness without directed training and experience. Some might say that our politicians need to have demonstrated that they have been fertilised and have bloomed into fullness before they can be trusted to repair society's metaphorical malfunctioning motor vehicle.

john frawley | 08 April 2021  

A quota is a contestable claim that the defining characteristic of the quota is the relevant aspect of merit that keeps being overlooked. A women’s quota in the Liberal Party will benefit white middle class women against white middle class men. And? Contrast two examples where non-whites made sense. Was it time for the first ‘Asian American’ woman to be the US Trade Representative or was it a strategic political calculation that there was no better time than now for the US to face Beijing with a trade representative of Taiwan Chinese extraction (who, being a woman, made a contrast to the male Chinese delegates and a more interesting item to China’s TV-watching women)? Was it time for the commissioners of the UK Race and Ethnic Disparities Commission to be almost wholly coloured or was there a strategic calculation that only a commission of almost wholly coloured commissioners could have the standing to author a report which breaks the race narrative? If you’re an intersectional and you want a job which conventionally goes to a cis-whatever, market yourself. Think how your intersectionality provides a merit.

roy chen yee | 09 April 2021  

"I go to church because of my belief it is important to God." That's the best line I've read today, Pam - it expresses with unadorned simplicity and highly impressive humility the heeding of Christ's injunction to "Seek first the kingdom of God." Thank you, and God bless you.

John RD | 09 April 2021  

Neither in 'test based' merit nor in bar graphed quotas is greater humanisation guaranteed; I suggest a CV which shows an awareness of the context of human flourishing: an evolving yet entropic world. Easter suggests an openness to constructive novelty, but at the cost of a particular kind of discipleship that favours the well being of all, especially 'losers'. There is no true winning without solidarity with losers.

Noel McMaster | 09 April 2021  

A welcome aspect of Andy's brilliant argument is that it invites contention, while embracing what he most treasures. To encourage mediocrity, as so much popular culture does, is hardly life-enhancing. 'Average', with its connotation of a static universe, is by definition where most people live their lives. God's creation, contrarily, is a process of ineluctable evolution which, perforce, faces us with choices that are mutually contradictory, viz. competition or conformity. Were parliamentary selection truly meritocratic it would be perfectly competitive, as the Guinness Book of Records shows. That's the paradox! Side by side with this reality is the largely accepted attitude: don’t be different; just conform; buy the advertised product; be unexceptional; stick with populism; follow the lemmings. Glittering prize advocates from Oxbridge, the Ivy League, France's ENA and China's Gaoko have missed the point that their hurdles reinforce conformity and suppress improvement. Raising the bar of improvement in both ability and contribution to human welfare at all levels has vastly increased in the last few years. Human evolution has speeded up quite markedly, and to live beyond 100 is now unexceptional. But to use this statistic as a reason for advancing or denying women equal political representation is absurd.

Michael Furtado | 09 April 2021  

Thanks John RD 10 April post. Maybe I should have added that I can find church-going a challenging commitment as humility does not come naturally to me. There is a self-sufficiency bubble that appeals.

Pam | 10 April 2021  

I should think awareness and admission of that very human tendency is a pretty sure antidote to the bubble becoming a bleb, Pam.

John RD | 12 April 2021  

The one's promoting the so-called "merit system" are the same ones who've already managed to make it to positions of influence. They are patting themselves on the back, telling us how talented they are, and advising us to be just like them. Julie Bishop is a case in point. She was a strong advocate of the merit system. Then she was finally betrayed- and she no longer served the selfish political career aspirations of her rival male colleagues. She finally realised that we are all created equal, but some of us are more equal than others. The "canopy of gift" is a bit like the argument of "nature or nurture". It's part-philosophy and part-empirical science. Faith seeing reason. We need brave leaders who admit we are not operating on a level playing field.

AURELIUS | 12 April 2021  

John RD: ‘bleb’ Or bulla/e. Thanks, John RD, as of today, you expanded my vocabulary by two/three words. We’ll show that (Dr.) Frawley yet! Now, while I’m on a roll, or a pitch or yaw even, I might go see what the Internet has to say about the bends.

roy chen yee | 13 April 2021  

I've Seamus Heaney to thank for expanding my vocab with that little beauty, Roy - I find many of his poems useful and illuminating for more than vocabulary extension. "Postscript" is one of them. "Mid-term Break" and "Digging" are others. I could go on . . .

John RD | 13 April 2021  

Nice to see ES promoting this affable back-patting chit-chat and (civil) vocabulary extension! Heaneyesque though it be, it is to be noted, without appropriation and intention to cause spoke-in-the wheel dissent, that at Blackfriars, Oxford, the extraordinary Seamus was always published, invited and introduced by Herbert McCabe OP and offered a vote of thanks by Terry Eagleton, two of Anglo-Irish Catholicism's most forward-thinking writers of the latter half of the twentieth century. I am indebted to Roy and John RD for the opportunity to say this.

Michael Furtado | 14 April 2021  

MF: I accept that there could well have been a strong affinity between Seamus Heaney and Fr Herbert McCabe, but for reasons I've presented today on another thread (A Hamilton, "Questions of Courage and Risk, 18/3/2021), I find it difficult to see how the same can be said for then neo-Marxist and later critical theory promoter, Terry Eagleton.

John RD | 16 April 2021  

A good question, Johnno! I think personality rather than politics is sometimes a maker of friendships that last. Activist Dominican though he undoubtedly was, McCabe was in 'everything but the crib' during the Sixties and Seventies. Eagleton, a cradle Catholic, embraced, as many of us did then, the International Socialists - followers to a degree of Trotsky, whose socialism was more socially liberal than Stalin's and who earned Stalin's murderous revenge because of it. I have always also supposed that the social justice commitments of Catholics have drawn us at times into close collaboration with the socialist left; although, like my hero, Shirley Williams (RIP), I disdain and reject their determinism and criticism of a spiritual dimension to human life and behaviour. Finally, Eagleton is a very good writer and his critical essays on the substance of great writers (and poets!) have always focused on matters of much more than style but instead substantially on the human virtues, especially of justice, which, ineluctably, is part and parcel of the overall poetic domain that Heaney made his own.

Michael Furtado | 16 April 2021  

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