Meritocracies and Morality

Disclaimer: This post is from the archives, and may not represent the current views of the author. It also may not be at all interesting to read. Continue at your own peril!

I’ve recently gained a whole new level of respect for the Chinese. Not that I didn’t have any for them before, but well…to be honest, I never knew all that much about them. Last night, I was reading my textbook for Studies in the Humanities (basically a history of the arts), and it had a small section on the ancient Chinese civilization. One of the things it mentions was their system of government, an aristocracy based on merit. Essentially, their system involved examinations testing the skill and competence of those seeking government office. Is that not amazing or what?

What was remarkable to me is that they instituted this system between 1200 and 800 BCE, and yet it’s very similar in nature to the type of “meritocracy” that Plato envisioned hundreds of years later, in 400 to 300 BCE. I mean, some of the details are certainly different, but Plato talked about “philosopher kings” in his work “The Republic,” which are essentially the intellectual elite – the wisest. These Chinese folks actually instituted this system and, well, it appears to have worked decently well if it stuck around for at least 400 years.

I think something like this should be instituted into the Canadian system of government. Right now, being a politician is a fairly lucrative business. Unstable, yes, but you get paid pretty well. And yet, the requirements for becoming a successful politician are, a) popularity, and b) popularity. There’s really no intelligence required. Just look at Sarah Palin (okay, okay, cheap shot). But seriously, look at someone like Arnold Schwarzeneggar. He’s certainly not the most intelligent, though I’d be cruel if I said he was an idiot, and yet his popularity as an actor was surely one of the biggest reasons why he was instituted as governor. The Canadian system is little different in this respect. I’d love it if there were some sort of competency requirement for politicians wanting to get into office. Or better yet, let’s put one in for the voters.

I’m only half-joking about this. There are too many ill-informed voters in our country that are voting either a) because they have one issue alone that they care about or b) because they like the sound of a politician’s name. Even a simple test like, say, being able to match up the names with the parties they represent, would be amazing for weeding out people who are voting because their friends told them to vote for Person A because he has shiny teeth. I mean, I know that democracy is very important in this country, and I know that a person’s right to vote is part of that democratic ideal, but at the same time, part of me wants to say that if you have not taken the time to understand the issues of the election and the platforms of the parties, then you forfeit your right to vote.

Think about this for a second here. Without getting into the issue of rights for a moment, whose vote should logically count for more: a political science professor who studies the government in detail for a living, or an old grandma who doesn’t watch the news or read the paper, but votes for Stephen Harper because he’s “such a nice boy”? We’d like to say that all votes should be equal just like all people are equal, but part of us still would definitely say that the political science professor “deserves” the vote more than the old lady. (Not trying to pick on old ladies here. It’s just an example.) That was the sort of thought process I had for the last provincial election. I knew that I knew nothing about the issues. I was terribly uninformed, and had I gone into the voting booth, I would have ended up choosing the candidate’s name that I had heard of, or played eenie-meenie-minie-mo to determine who to vote for. So you know what I did? I just didn’t vote. I figured that an ill-informed vote was worse than no vote at all. And while again, I’m only half-joking that we should deny voting to stupid people, I do think that at the very least, it’s a consideration people should make before voting because it’s their “civic duty.” No. It’s your civic duty to be informed, and then vote. Not just to vote.

Let’s travel down another path that I’ve been pondering about for the past couple of days. Sometimes I think that we as North Americans (typically those in the US, but also in Canada) place a little too much emphasis on rights-based ethics. Please don’t get me wrong – I am certainly in favour of equal rights, and I think that those types of discussions are extremely important. But at the same time, I think that along the way, perhaps we have lost out on other forms of ethical systems that can at least provide a fuller picture of morality. Rights-based ethics is cut and dried. It’s very much like a contract. You don’t step on my toes, I don’t step on your toes, and we all just leave each other alone. It’s important to remember that we as humans have rights, but it’s very much only a negative consideration – what you can’t do to other people. I kind of like a system known as virtue ethics. It was developed, or at least written about, by the Greeks such as Plato and Aristotle. However, it almost certainly goes back further. To go back to the Chinese again, their civilization (as far as I am aware, anyway) centered around honour. In other words, “Do what would bring honour to yourself and others.” To this day, Asian cultures are still very much honour-based societies. And among the Greeks, Plato and Aristotle talked about “doing what the virtuous person would do.”

There are of course criticisms to this system. Different cultures have different ideas of virtue, which may lead to some conflicts. But at the same time, I think there is much to be said for the common base of virtues I think all humans would share. Perhaps this ethical system cannot stand on its own, but when combined with rights-based ethics, it can be very powerful. A virtuous person is others-focused. So when you combine the rights of others – “this is what I can’t do to this person” – with a focus on others – “this is what I can do for this person” – you get a great basis for living.

Some might argue, of course, that this sounds exactly like Christian morality. Well, yes and no. I think it’s important to define what exactly Christian morality is. Is it the system that all Christians use? Well if so, it’s a pretty crummy standard, since Christians typically are no better or worse than non-Christians. For every good Christian, I can show you a good atheist to match. Is it the set of laws that includes the Ten Commandments? Well, I don’t believe anymore that a rigid set of do’s and don’ts is a useful system of ethics. Such laws risk becoming out-dated – as shown by the lack of guidelines in the Bible concerning movie piracy, copyright infringement, or animal rights. If we are just going by the laws that are in there, we have nothing to go on for these. Not to mention that the Hebrews were not the first culture to have written laws, by any means. Just look up the Code of Hammurabi, which is very similar. How can we claim these as being “Jewish” or “Christian” when they had laws first?

But perhaps Christian ethics is the system that Jesus laid out in the Sermon on the Mount and in other places. We certainly cannot claim that Jesus was way off-base in his ethical teachings. You’d be hard-pressed to say that his principles are “unethical,” at any rate. But what in his teachings is really original? He had a very similar type of virtue ethics, which I already said the Greeks developed hundreds of years earlier. And while he had the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” this is hardly an original statement either. Cultures throughout the world and throughout history have almost without fail come up with a similar statement. Confucius, Socrates, and the Hindu and Buddhist scriptures all say very similar things. So where is the part of Christian ethics that we can say is “Christian”? Perhaps we would be better off calling them “human ethics.”

I find it odd that Christians tend to claim that they have some sort of monopoly on morality. And I suppose I shouldn’t, since I’ve made the same claim myself in the past. But cultures throughout history, some that never had contact with the Abrahamic God or with Jesus Christ, have seemed to do quite well with the ethical systems they’ve come up with. I don’t think that it takes a divine command in order to help us figure out that killing, stealing, and raping are not beneficial in the long run. I think that we would have figured out that doing good to others is a great principle to live by – and indeed, as shown by Confucius and others, we did figure that out. Moreover, the idea that it takes a command of God to tell us what is right and wrong is almost scary in a sense. It seems to say that in the absence of God, we would suddenly run around killing each other. It gives no credence to the idea that we can figure this stuff out ourselves. If you found out that God didn’t exist, would you suddenly go kill your boss? Perhaps that says more about you as a person rather than any ethical system.

Here I’m getting into the idea of external vs. internal morality. Even Jesus tended to lean towards an external moral system. Although he echoed truths that we can all agree on as being ethical, he tended to claim the reason for doing so as “so that God will bless you.” In other words, do these things not because they are the right thing to do, not because it is good to do good things for others, but because if you do these things, God will bless you. You’ll get something in return. This almost seems backwards to me – and it did even when I was a Christian. Why can’t we just do a good thing because it is the right thing to do? Why does there have to be some sort of reward for me? To move from a reward-based system to a reason-based system is what I see as the progress from an external to an internal morality. And like motivation, it’s always better when it’s internal rather than external. It’s more long-lasting, more rewarding, and more beneficial to all.

I didn’t intend to go on this long about morality. These thoughts have been mulling around in my head for a while, and were brought back to the forefront when reading Chuck Colson’s “The Faith.” He is one of those that would say that the remedy for all society’s ills – and the only remedy – is a return to Christian values. He asserts (and that’s all he does for the majority of the book, by the way) that during the Enlightenment, mankind tried to “do things on their own” and reject the authority of Scripture and of God, and since that failed them, they should return to said authority of Scripture. I think I’d have to disagree with him there. The Enlightenment is certainly as he described – a time when people decided to examine the world objectively rather than through the lens of Scripture. Much of modern science is due to that shift. But the way I see it, perhaps the shift itself was not wrong, but rather that it occurred too soon. Mankind jumped out from under the Christian umbrella, and then were left to try and figure things out on their own. Religion offers a nice framework, and as I’ve seen in my own life, when you leave that, you’re left to rebuild another worldview all on your own. Perhaps the reason that morality has gone downhill is simply because under Christianity, we were comfortable in an externally-based moral system. When we moved to a secular society, that external basis was destroyed, and not enough effort has gone into building an internal model. Perhaps we need to start teaching kids how to reason through complex moral decisions, and how to determine what the right thing to do. Not because God will reward you with candy and gumdrops, but rather because it makes the world a better place as a whole.

These are my thoughts. I confess that they have only come into my mind very recently, so they are not perfect. There are likely some flaws in my reasoning up above. But at the same time, I think the bulk of it is solid. I’m not trying to say that internal ethics will solve all the world’s problems. There will always be those that take advantage of the system, and always be conflicts as long as humans have to live with each other. But virtue ethics, which teach the importance of tolerance, respect, and dignity, are a way to progress as a society, I feel. That’s not to say that religion-based ethics never deal with virtues. A glance at the history of the Christian church will reveal such a shift toward virtues rather than rewards/punishments. And in that sense I still see religious ethics as valuable. But at the same time, I think the religious part of it might be an unnecessary structure, as we can certainly have ethics without religion. Whether religious or not, though, I think we can all agree that teaching children to internalize their ethical systems is the most crucial part. When we begin to show that we can reason through what the right decision to make is, without needing a cattle prod behind us, I think we can see progress as a society. Let’s all work to make it there.

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