Meritocracy in Confucianism: An Inquiry


Imagine you were to organize a dinner at your place, for which you invite a few friends: a chemist, a plumber and a geography teacher. Whilst talking about the value of filial piety in modern societies, a pipe in the kitchen suddenly bursts. Not having any expertise with the wrench, you seek help from your friends. Who would you now ask to have a look at the damage?

Imagine further that you were working on a very important project that needs to be presented to the superordinate manager by noon. The other two members of your team have years of experience for the case at hand, whilst your understanding of the matter is rather limited. Do you think that your voice should matter as much as the thorough elaborations of your partners? In both cases, however justified it may be, most people would intuitively agree to let those handle the tasks who are best suited for it. By such trusting in someone’s ability, authority – understood as the explicit or implicit right to command and to be obeyed (Wolff, 1998) – is granted. Even though such distribution of authority appears to be rational for the contexts treated above, it is questionable to uncritically expand this idea to the political discourse when asking whose opinions should be taken into account to make political decisions. Since governing a state clearly has more important long-term impact on masses of people than preventing a flooded kitchen or handing in a marketing project, it remains unclear whether people’s voices should also be graded depending on their expertise and suitableness in the political decision context.

Such promising, but intuitively deterrent ideals of having only the most able govern a state are associated with the concept of meritocracy. A meritocracy is a system of rule that allocates positions of influence to individuals with credit and achievement, aiming for an ideal world in which every citizen occupies the position that he or she deserves (this ideal world has been sophisticat- edly illustrated by Michael Young in his satire “Rise of the Meritocracy” in 1958). Whilst such a merit-based form of state seems to be strongly at odds with democratic ideology, it finds support in Confucian thinking, the tradition of which also emphasizes humanitarian values important to defenders of democracy (Chan, 2015, p. 13-16). It may thus be better to think of meritocracy and democracy as two anchors on a continuum rather than strict antagonists – and there may even be ways to combine the two concepts.

To investigate whether this idea of a “democratic meritocracy” results in contradiction or not, the relationship between the concepts of democracy and meritocracy will be analysed from the per- spective of traditional Confucianism, emphasizing on the compatibility of the two.
Having said that, it seems to be essential not to think of Confucian philosophy as a unified tradi- tion, but rather as a compilation of ideas concerning recurring principles. To use a cosmological metaphor, we can think of Confucianism as a thinking circling around a common centre. As such, each thinker has to be understood in the specific context of his time, since different Confucian schools emerged due to (sometimes radically) new hermeneutical approaches closely tied to socio-political and historical changes.

These inconsistencies across Confucian tradition must be borne in mind when investigating the concept of a democratic meritocracy, and so the first chapter of the paper will be dedicated to the analysis of the most fundamental and frequently applied principles to which almost every Confucian thinker would agree. This section aims for clarification of the terms that will be used repeatedly in later parts of the thesis and will focus primarily on the very original Confucian literature. Following these insight, it will be investigated how the concepts of democracy and meritocracy should best be understood in a Confucian context. For the definition of the latter, the philosophy of state proposed by Ogyū Sorai will serve as a first point of reference, used to get a general idea of what a Confucian meritocracy could look like. Since Sorai desired to move classic Con- fucianism away from the traditional central concern on individual self-cultivation, and empha- sized a radical and authoritarian reconstruction instead (McMullen, 2001, p. 252), delicate con- trasting with and careful analysis of Sorai’s model may also provide insights into a less radical meritocratic form of state that would still be congruent with the Confucian principles elaborated in the first chapter of the paper. In other words, this section will try to approximate the concept of Confucian meritocracy over the analysis of that which it is not.

A third step written in front of this background will help to relate and bridge the concepts that have been investigated in the first chapters and will treat this paper’s central question of whether there is space for democratic elements in Confucian meritocracy or not.
A final step will then summarize the arguments of this paper that concern perspectives on how to overcome the assumed contradiction that lies inside the notion of a democratic meritocracy.

Download the Paper

Bargetzi (2015): Meritocracy in Confucianism: An Inquiry. University of Zurich (Philosophy Department). B.A. Seminar “Justice in Confucianism”, FS/HS 15, Lecturer: Paulus Kaufmann


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