Is the Premise of Meritocracy Immoral?

A challenge to the widely held notion that the power of brains is more legitimate than the power of fists.

Claro Cortes / Reuters

Has an insight ever abruptly changed one of your core beliefs?

This week, I’m sharing a variety of responses to the question, “What insight or idea has thrilled or excited you?” This installment comes courtesy of writer William Deresiewicz, who found his outlook on the world changed by a single sentence:

This would’ve been about 20 years ago. I had just discovered the work of John Ruskin, the 19th century’s greatest art critic as well as one of its greatest social critics. Like so many readers before—Tolstoy, Gandhi, Proust—I was overwhelmed not only by the sharpness of his mind but also by the strength of his moral intelligence. In The Crown of Wild Olive, I came upon the following sentence: “What then! Do you think the old practice, that ‘they should take who have the power, and they should keep who can,’ is less iniquitous, when the power has become power of brains instead of fist?”

I had rarely read anything that so abruptly pulled the rug out from under my worldview. Ruskin was saying that getting more than other people because you are smarter than they—the moral premise of meritocracy—is no less wrong than taking from them directly by physical violence.

I've never thought about society the same way since. I’ve never thought about thinking the same way, either. The ability to challenge a premise that has become so pervasive that no one even notices it anymore: that is genuine intelligence.

Email to share an idea or insight that has thrilled or excited you.