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Pitfalls of Meritocracy

„Elevating the Worthy” in Early Chinese Thought

Prof. Dr. Yuri Pines, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Israel), Department of Asian Studies

Pitfalls of Meritocracy

Pitfalls of Meritocracy

Proliferation of the meritocratic discourse (more precisely the idea of “elevating the worthy and employing the able”) had dramatically changed the Chinese world of the Warring States period (453-221 BCE). By the fourth century BCE the pedigree-based social order was profoundly shattered and the idea that officials should be “the worthiest and the most able” men gained extraordinarily broad support. But the proliferation of these ideas created a new set of questions. First, who should determine one’s “worthiness”? One’s peers, a ruler, or maybe commoners below? Second, what exactly constitutes one’s “worth”? Is it a referent to one’s classical education, verbal eloquence, moral behavior, or, alternatively, to one’s practical achievements (e.g. distinguishing oneself on the battlefield)? Behind these questions we may discern many thinkers’ painful realization that meritocratic discourse could be utilized by unscrupulous manipulators who would pose themselves as virtuous “noble men” (junzi), while in practice pursuing their private interests.

By reviewing the debates of the Warring States-period thinkers about the pitfalls of “elevating the worthy and employing the able” ideal, I want to elucidate some of the perennial problems facing the implementation of meritocratic practices in China and elsewhere. How to prevent the lofty goal of meritocracy from being hijacked by intellectually powerful interest groups? How to prevent the elite’s ossification? How to ensure the fairness in access to social and political resources? These are the questions that are valid for our societies no less than they were valid back in the age of the Warring States.


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