Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Problem with Meritocracy

Meritocracy is the idea that society should reward people based on merit, i.e. if you work hard and/or are more talented you should generally get ahead. Most people tend to agree that this is a good idea, and better than alternatives such as monarchies or other systems that give wealth and power based on a concept of hereditary rights. You often see this issue come up with university selection processes and the use of legacy preferences (i.e. getting a boost because one of your parents went to the university) or the use of affirmative action. Affirmative action also comes up a lot with jobs and the candidate selection process there, with people often trying to argue that it goes against meritocratic principles.

In this post I want to talk about how meritocracy only works if there is real equality of opportunity, how hard this is to achieve in practice, and how programs like affirmative action are not just a temporary measure to increase equality but are in fact a necessary, permanent requirement of any system that genuinely seeks to be a meritocracy.

Enhanced opportunities

It seems fairly obvious that a meritocracy will work if you have a level playing field. If everyone begins under identical circumstances, then rewarding those who work hardest and perform best is probably fair. Now, of course, in our current society we are far from a level playing field, with massive wealth inequality and legacies of discrimination that give some people a much greater advantage than others.

What difference does this make? Well, if you take two children with otherwise identical potential, a child born into a wealthier family is going to have so many more opportunities to realize that potential. Parents can pay for extra tutoring so the child can perform better at school. Children are less likely to have to work in a family business after school, do chores around the house to help their parents out, look after siblings, all of which means more time to study and get ahead.

A child of more educated parents may have a big advantage of being able to learn more directly from their parents. The parents may set a better example of spending spare time reading, studying and doing activities that help improve their own knowledge and education, which can rub off on children who learn to see this as normal behaviour and tend to do the same.

Successful families typically have much better contacts and networking opportunities so the child can meet the right people and build up a social network with much greater opportunities for career advancement.

Level playing field

Now, the big problem is that even if we start from a level playing field, as soon as we begin rewarding some people based on meritocratic principles, things immediately get skewed and unequal. Those who get rewarded are better able to provide their own children (and of course themselves) with the various opportunities mentioned above, and more. It can easily become like a snowball effect, with the playing field becoming less and less level.

Those getting ahead will of course try to defend their success as being meritocratic, but it's actually extremely rare in this kind of environment that someone with very poor opportunities gets ahead. Most of the success stories you hear about involve various factors that can make you say, "ah, well that obviously would have helped them." This isn't to say that hard work isn't also involved, but rather that their chances of success would have been much smaller without the various factors that increased their opportunities.

Gaming the system

The other important thing to consider is that the people who get ahead and make it to the top tend to modify the rules to favour themselves. Whether it is CEOs and top executives awarding themselves huge salaries and bonuses; successful companies lobbying to get rules changed to make it easier to keep their position and make it harder for competition to have a fair chance; or setting up organizational structures and responsibilities in companies to increase their own influence and power; there are countless ways that the people who get ahead meritocratically can set up the system to keep themselves ahead.

So when we combine all of these issues, it's clear that explicit actions need to be taken in order to keep a society meritocratic. Affirmative action is a big one that can help level the playing field for groups that can be clearly identified in a society as being disenfranchised and subject to higher levels of inequality than average. While it may sometimes be a blunt instrument, it can be highly effective and a far better trade off than other alternatives. People who miss out on opportunities due to affirmative action obviously don't tend to feel this way, but this is because they can see a single case of explicit discrimination against them, while not seeing the many implicit and subtler forms of discrimination and reduced opportunities of the people that affirmative action is designed to help.

The estate tax is another tool for keeping meritocracy fair. Often called a 'death tax' by the very people who have benefited from inequality and have a strong incentive to keep it that way, one of the main functions of estate taxes is to stop wealth and power from accumulating and being inherited. If a person required inherited wealth from their parents and can't create it themselves through hard work, then in a meritocracy they don't really deserve it. In practice we tend to think it's fair to allow people to pass on some of their wealth to their children, hence a tax rather than some sort of confiscation. It's hard to see how anyone who claims to be in favour of meritocracy could be against an estate tax in principle.

NOTE: I got a lot of the ideas here from the excellent book Twilight of the Elites by Chris Hayes, which I listened to in audiobook form a few months ago and have been pondering some of the ideas in it since.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Rethinking the Trolley Problem

There is a well known thought experiment called The Trolley Problem. You may have come across it before. A basic description of the problem is:
There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. Unfortunately, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You do not have the ability to operate the lever in a way that would cause the trolley to derail without loss of life (for example, holding the lever in an intermediate position so that the trolley goes between the two sets of tracks, or pulling the lever after the front wheels pass the switch, but before the rear wheels do). You have two options: (1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. Which is the correct choice?
(Source: Wikipedia)

Most people tend to conclude that the right course of action is to pull the lever and kill the one person rather than the five. I also agreed with this until thinking about it some more recently, and I now think that the right choice is probably to not touch the switch and let the five people die. In the remainder of this post I will try to back up my choice and either convince you that it is the right one, or at least give you some good food for thought and make you examine your own moral intuitions a bit.


The first thing to point out is that when most people justify why they would pull the switch, they tend to appeal to some form of utilitarianism, that is, given two bad choices, the right one is the one that minimizes death/suffering. This seems fairly sound. After all, if your choice is one person dying or five people dying, why wouldn't you save as many lives as possible?

However, a variant on this problem shows that the reasoning is probably more complex than this. The variant, sometimes called The Fat Man, is a bit contrived and I'm not a big fan of it, but it's the standard one so I'll stick with it:
As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you – your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?
(Source: Wikipedia)  

Now, it does require a certain amount of leeway to accept that you could be in this situation and somehow be certain that pushing the fat man onto the tracks would definitely stop the trolley, and that nothing else within reach will do.

But, accepting the premises, most people in this case will not support pushing the man onto the tracks, even though the utilitarian argument should still apply in this case. Is it the direct action that puts people off? If the fat man was instead standing on a trap door and you could drop him onto the tracks with a lever, would that make it easier for some people? Or is it the feeling that you're directly causing the death of the fat man, while in the original case the death is an indirect result of your actions?

To be clear, just as I thought the lever should not be pulled in the first example, I think that the fat man should not be pushed in this example.

Reframing the problem

Sometimes clarity can be obtained by reframing a problem and looking at it in a different light. Since this is just a thought experiment, we can take the basic dilemma and set it up using different elements, which has been done in various ways by other people over the years.

One version is The Crashing Plane: a plane has critically malfunctioned and is going down over a populated area. The pilot cannot stop the crash, but he has some limited choice in steering the plane towards a more populated area or a less populated area. He can safely assume that his choice will result in a lot of deaths in the former and less deaths in the latter, but people will die either way.

Most people would say that the pilot should aim for the less densely populated area, and I agree with that choice. Does this contradict my stance on the two previous examples? I don't believe so, and I will explain why shortly.

But first, here is another version of the problem, and the one that for me framed it in a way that made me change my mind about the original trolley problem. This one is The Transplant Problem:
A brilliant transplant surgeon has five patients, each in need of a different organ, each of whom will die without that organ. Unfortunately, there are no organs available to perform any of these five transplant operations. A healthy young traveler, just passing through the city the doctor works in, comes in for a routine checkup. In the course of doing the checkup, the doctor discovers that his organs are compatible with all five of his dying patients. Suppose further that if the young man were to disappear, no one would suspect the doctor.
(Source: Wikipedia)
In this case, I would say that it is wrong to kill the one person to save the lives of the other five. An interesting question for this version is whether or not it makes a difference that that the doctor would not be suspected of committing the murder. The purpose of this clause is probably just to simplify the problem to not have any further repercussions on the doctor, so the choice becomes simply about the lives of the five patients and the one traveller. But in this clause I think also lies the key to the whole problem.

Wider consequences

What if we were to take The Transplant Problem, but remove the secrecy aspect of it? What if people knew that the doctor had made this choice? In all of the previous versions of the problem there was no requirement of secrecy. To be a proper solution to a moral problem, I think that most people would agree that the choice should either be defendable in court, or if the law doesn't currently support it, then it should be modified to make the choice legal. After all, does it really make sense to say, for example, that the right moral choice is to push the fat man off the bridge, but that if you did it, you should go to jail? Morals and laws might get out of sync in practice, but does it make sense to want them to be out of sync in principle? (maybe there is a case to be made for this, and if anyone can think of one, I'd love to hear it!)

So for The Transplant Problem, we need to ask: would we support the law changing in such a way that doctors would be allowed to kill one of their patients if it meant that they could save others? Would you want to live in a society where every visit to your local GP could potentially result in you having your organs harvested, all in the name of the greater good?

I think very few people would support this. And so the key to all of these problems is that our moral intuitions can get pushed in a certain direction when we are only thinking of them in an isolated context, but we can't do that. We need to think about these choices in a broader context where other people might be put in the same position of having to make the choice, and you or people you care about are potentially on the receiving end of those choices. In this context, things can look very different.

Let's now backtrack through the versions of the problem and see if I can now justify my choices:
  • The Transplant Problem: As stated, I don't think many people would want to live in a world where doctors harvest the organs of people against their will to save other people's lives. The resulting fear and paranoia, not to mention the obscene violation of an individual's right to be secure in person, would far outweigh the lives saved. So it also shouldn't be okay for a doctor to do this in the case where it was illegal but he didn't get caught.
  • The Crashing Plane: In this case, the pilot is an active participant in the scenario. He has created the very threat that is going to cause deaths one way or the other, and his only choice is whether to minimize the number of deaths, so steering towards the lesser populated area is the right thing to do.
  • The Fat Man: In this case, you are choosing to sacrifice one person's life to save the lives of others. But by what right do you get to decide that someone should die to save other people? If you were the fat man, would you want to live in a society where other people would decide to kill you for the greater good?
  • The Trolley Problem: Whether you push a person to their death or pull a lever knowing that a person will die as a result, we don't have the right to choose to sacrifice one person's life to save others. Unless our actions have already put people's lives in peril and we're simply trying to minimize the damage (as in the crashing plane scenario), we need to respect the right each individual has to be secure in person.
Now, I have to admit that I still have trouble feeling that my choice for the trolley problem is right (and even the fat man, to some degree), but the transplant problem seems much clearer and more obvious to me, and since I can't see a logical difference between them (as opposed to the crashing plane, which I think is different), I have to conclude that it is the correct choice even if my ape brain doesn't like it.


I thought of something that might make the choice in the trolley problem a little easier to understand, which is illustrated nicely by, of all things, what Batman says to Ra's Al Ghul at the end of Batman Begins: I won't kill you, but I don't have to save you.

There is a moral difference between killing a person and simply not acting to save them, and this is a key part of the trolley problem, where pulling the lever is actively killing a person, while not touching it is not saving five people. While I think that the former is worse than the latter, I'm not sure that this would be true for any number of people. If it was the choice between actively killing one person or failing to save the lives of 1 million people, would the choice be the same. And if not, where is the dividing line? Can we justify having one? This may be a bit like the case for abortion, where most people (who support abortion at all) think that it's somewhere between conception and birth, but actually placing a specific cutoff point seems arbitrary. Or maybe this situation is different, and we can't ever really justify killing one person as the better choice?