Merit: Why Do We Value It?

“It is proper that the evil suffer and the good prosper to the extent of their respective viciousness or virtuousness.”  Louis Pojman’s thesis on merit is very agreeable. Individuals should deserve what they have earned: punishments and penalties for each and every vicious act done and prizes, praise and rewards are due to those who have performed better for the benefit of the society.

What Pojman is trying to emphasize about merit is its rationality. According to his theory, man is in a society where individuals are assumed to be rational beings where each one of them must benefit and each of their worth can be ascertained. This is the idea of desert: what one deserves from an act that he have done. Simply stated, someone who acted lazily without studying the lessons before an examination deserves a failing grade while the other who spent time understanding what have gone through the class discussions, what he has written in the notes and also takes time in reviewing the course textbooks deserves a passing grade. However, the idea of merit does not end here.

To pass the examination as mentioned in the preceding paragraph is not enough. Pojman have acknowledged the idea of “proportionality” where the greater good done deserves better rewards and the severe evil deed can warrant a death penalty. On the other hand, an act that is done half-heatedly, as opposed to the “goodwill” of Kant as mentioned by Pojman deserves little merit to his acts. Accordingly, a petty theft would only make the thief stay a day or two inside the prison. Getting back to the idea of having merit from the examination, the student who studied, but studied half-heartedly and spent little time, although he might have actually studied deserves little than the one who spent more time and more efforts and will all his heart and mind in studying for the examination.

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Another point of emphasis in Pojman’s theory is on the aspect of merit that one does not really deserve it at times. He have noted examples such as inborn talents or qualities: being tall, dark, beautiful and the likes. Although these qualities, according to him, can be simple natural rights, the bearer of these rights also must do something to enhance these qualities in making him deserving of some merit. Being black deserves the person to be acting the part of Othello in the play but without the person’s enhancement of his acting abilities he would not have deserved the role. Thus, natural rights is not desert unless this right is processed through labor.

With regards to the above idea, one can be inherently intelligent. This intelligence is the natural right of the bearer. But this intelligence that he has is nothing and would not give him any merit unless he studies specifically for the examination and prove his worth and labor processing that intelligence to be of value to him, his desert, when he gets an A++ in the examination. Corollary to this desert of getting an A++ that student is meritorious of a praise from his friends, classmates or the professor. He can even get an award during graduation or a prize for that excellent performance. All these are attributable to his labor (studying) in enhancing the natural or inborn talent of being intelligent.

Further analyzing the value of merit and its rationale, it is observable that without the essence of merit, this world would be a worse place to live in. Without merit, no one will work hard. Moreover, no one will study good to qualify for some scarce positions because without merit, anyone can be qualified. This means the big possibility of hiring an individual that is not fit for work or is lesser qualified. This does not actually means mere intelligence as the criterion (although it is part of it) but the overall capacity of the applicants. Hiring an applicant at work that is lesser qualified makes that individual undeserving of the position. As a result of such action, which does not conform to the idea of merit, efficiency and effectiveness at work suffer.

Is merit the ultimate measure? Although Pojman obviously acclaim the theory of merit he acknowledged that the concept is not absolute and it is not without pitfalls. For one, he mentioned that success and failure are strictly based on merit but he conceded to the idea of outside factors. According to him, no one can be accountable for things that are out of his control. True enough, this is one flaw of the merit idea.

During the examination day, the student have studied all night in order to deserve that A++. However, due to some unforeseen reasons, that student suffered a stomach ache during the examination and could not concentrate causing him to get a failing grade. In virtue, that student is due the desert after that much studying but he was not able to make it happen because of the some factors that are out of his control. Thus, merit is not absolute.

            “Our sense of merit seems to cry out for an omniscient or omnipotent judge to match virtue with happiness and vice with punishment.” Indeed this is another problem in the theory of merit and desert. If there is an omnipotent being that is aware of all happenings, there would be no problem at all. The reality is, there is none! Who really can measure our merit and match it with our virtues? Who can judge the extent of vices done? The idea of proportionality then poses a problem in assessing merit and desert, as to who deserves how much.         Since there is no one omnipotent that can measure merit, the student did fail despite his labor and virtue. Another drawback in the idea of merit. This is no cosmic justice happening in Man’s world.

Yet, despite its drawbacks merit is still very valuable. It makes humanity thrive and improve for the better. Merit is something that is deeply rooted upon Man’s desert. It is something that has a “moral effort”. It is something with a profound deontological basis. It is a synthetic theory. Lastly merit is valuable because it is a “truth” obvious on reflection. Pojman’s Theory of Merit deserves its “merit”.

Kant, Immanuel; translated by James W. Ellington [1785] (1993). Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals 3rd ed.

Pojman, Louis. (1999). Merit: Why Do We Value It? Journal of Social Philosophy, Vol. 30 No.1. Blackwell Publishers.



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