Michael Sandel, professor of political philosophy at Harvard University, has a new book published. Unlike the other popular philosopher Slavoj Žižek, who also published a book during the pandemic about the pandemic, called Pandemic! (or Yuval Noah Harari’s acclaimed op-ed in the Financial Times in March, on the epidemic as proof of citizenship) Sandel’s book, The Tyranny of Merit, isn’t really about the coronavirus at all.
However, like his other writings and lectures, head over to YouTube and listen to his lecture series on justice, it applies just as much to what happened during the pandemic as it did to what happened in the decades before.
Sandel, a teacher of generations of students (including, most famously, the writers of The Simpsons, who modeled a character on him) certainly knows how to tell the story of ourselves. In The Tyranny of Merit, he speaks to us: he supposes an American audience, but he also applies in part to the Indian milieu; The strident criticism of the merit of the anti-caste movement is a testament to that, to how we have come to live in such deeply polarized times.
It starts with the pandemic. “Morally, the pandemic reminded us of our vulnerability, our dependence on each other: we are all in this together. But the solidarity it evoked was a solidarity of fear, a fear of contagion that demanded ‘social distancing’ … The moral paradox of solidarity through separation highlighted a gap in the assurance that ‘We are all in this together’ “, said. writes.
The virus also made clear how some people could easily survive, based on what they earned, where they lived, what work they did (which in India is still often linked to caste), and how some got on their knees. Excerpts from an interview:
Much has been said about the rise of populism and nationalist sentiment across the world, including India. What made you think of these issues in terms of the idea of merit?
What prompted me to think about this book was the rise of authoritarian populism around the world and the events of 2016, which saw the Brexit poll in Britain and the election of Donald Trump in the United States, and this seemed to be part The popular reaction against the elites is often related to strident nationalism.
How does merit come into play? It is paradoxical, because we generally think of merit as a good thing. If I need surgery, I want to find a well-qualified surgeon to perform it. What does merit have to do with the deep partisan and polarized divisions we see in our societies today?
Much of what animates the populist backlash is resentment against elites; the feeling among many ordinary citizens that they are looked down upon by the well-educated and reputable and that there is something about this complaint worth taking seriously. In recent decades, the division between winners and losers has deepened and distanced us. This has to do in part with the increase in inequalities that we have seen during four decades of globalization. But it is not just economic inequality. The possibilities are not equal and people do not have the same opportunities.
Meritocracy has a dark side, because the more opportunity is truly equal, the more those who succeed believe that they earned it on their own, and the more those who fight are inclined to become demoralized and even humble, believing that they have had every opportunity , they haven’t gotten up, so it must be their fault.
In India, opposition to the reservation has been central to the backlash against the anti-caste movement. An injustice is perceived, because the opportunities are very few to start. In a developing country like India, do you think the argument against merit could be relative?
The idea that there is a naturally occurring notion of merit that is violated by reservations assumes that each person has an individual right to be considered for job opportunities or places in universities solely on the basis of their academic qualifications, test scores. , etc. . But is there such a right? Only if you believe that admission to university, say, or being hired for a certain position, is a reward for superior merits and virtues … Such meritocratic arrogance can lead us to forget our indebtedness to family, to teachers, to our education, with the community, the country, the times in which we live.
You talk about how there was no solidarity of being “in this together” during the pandemic. Could you talk about that?
Those of us who have the luxury of working from home and having meetings at Zoom can’t help but recognize how deeply we depend on workers we often overlook. I am thinking not only of doctors and nurses, but also of delivery men, warehouse workers, supermarket clerks, truck drivers, drivers, home health care providers. These are not the highest paid or the most honest in society, but in the pandemic, we call them essential workers because we recognize their contribution to our ability to continue through the pandemic, even when they face much greater risks. So this could be a time, albeit highlighting inequality, for a broader public debate on how to make their pay and recognition better aligned with the importance of the work they do … We often assume that the money they do people win is a measure of their contribution to the common good, but this is wrong.
We have outsourced our moral judgment to the market. We must claim that moral judgment so that we, as democratic citizens, work together. That is a possible opening that the pandemic has opened for the common good.