How East Meets West: Justice and Consequences in Confucian Meritocracy

Journal of Confucian Philosophy and Culture 37:17-38 (2022)
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"Meritocracy" has historically been understood in two ways. The first is as an approach to governance. On this understanding, we seek to put meritorious (somehow defined) people into public office to the benefit of society. This understanding has its roots in Confucius, its scope is political offices, and its justification is consequentialist. The second understanding of "meritocracy" is as a theory of justice. We distribute in accordance with merit in order to give people the things that they deserve, as justice demands. This understanding has its roots in Aristotle, its scope is social goods broadly, and its justification is deontological. In this article, I discuss the differences--especially the conceptual differences--between these two, prima facie distinct, meritocratic traditions. I also argue that despite their differences Eastern Meritocracy and Western Meritocracy are harmonious. In Section I of the article I introduce the two meritocratic traditions through, in part, a highly abbreviated history of talk about "merit" and "meritocracy" in Chinese and Western philosophy. In Section II, I discuss a number of conceptual issues and partition meritocratic theories in accordance with their scopes and normative justifications. I also discuss two scenarios. In one scenario, Eastern Meritocracy appears to deliver the right result and Western Meritocracy, the wrong result. In the other scenario, vice versa. Finally, in Section III, I argue that Eastern Meritocracy and Western Meritocracy are each special cases of a single, compelling notion of "meritocracy."

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Thomas Mulligan
Georgetown University


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