Meritocracy and the Tests of Virtue in Greek and Confucian Political Thought

Journal of Confucian Philosophy and Culture 41:111–147 (2024)
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A crucial tenet of virtue-based or expertise-based theorizing about politics is that there are ways to identify and select morally and epistemically excellent people to hold office. This paper considers historical challenges to this task that come from within Greek and Confucian thought and political practice. Because of how difficult it is to assess character in ordinary settings, we argue that it is even more difficult to design institutions that select for virtue at the much wider political scale. Specifically, we argue that the vast majority of proposals that purport to select for virtue are either (a) unlikely to be effective, (b) not implementable at the scale of most current nations, or (c) have already been incorporated into most democratic states. Thus defenders of meritocratic institutions should take more seriously the practical barriers that will almost certainly arise when trying to implement these proposals at scale. Historical proponents of meritocratic values were well aware of concerns about the feasibility of their political ideals, and we should be too.

Author Profiles

Justin Tiwald
University of Hong Kong
Jeremy Reid
San Francisco State University


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