Bernard White


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Equality versus Meritocracy. Which Wins?

I have been having this debate in my Head for quite a while now, and I can't decide. Which is more important? Both are in conflict to a certain extent on various issues, like "Education" for example.
It could help to watch this TED talk :
- Jonathan Haidt: The moral roots of liberals and conservatives.
I ask this because many politicians talk about "Fairness" they usually mean many different things. Roughly speaking when Liberals talk about "Fairness" they typically mean "Equality". While when Conservatives talk about "Fairness" they typically mean "Meritocracy".
So which one is more important to you? (Or in other words, What do you mean when you say "Fairness"?)

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    Jul 31 2013: Bernie, good topic...

    When politicians talk.... the old joke is if you see a politician's lips moving, he is BSing, lying, exaggerating, fill in your own descriptive adjective.
    OK Terms,
    Fairness means.... what is fair to me or what I think is fair for you.
    Equality is a math term, if there was equality in people, I'd look like Roger Moore
    Meritocracy.... Harry Truman correctly noted that the US Federal Government is run by "C" students.
    In spite of Haidt's talk, Liberal and Conservative politicians have no moral roots. You want morality, go to a church.
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      Jul 31 2013: Check, check, check, check. Yup this looks about right to me.
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      Aug 1 2013: Nice to see you again Mike Colera! :D
      Still sceptical of this line of reasoning ("You want morality, go to a church.").
      Otherwise I mostly agree. Good answer.
      I couldn't help but think that "Fairness" to you is a bit like the "Golden Rule". Is this Correct?
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        Aug 1 2013: Hi Bernie
        OK, you want to split hairs, great that's what makes this fun...,
        Morality.... Look at your politicians and I'll look at mine.... see any morality? Like I said, go to least there is a chance...
        The golden rule? that's moral.

        Political fairness? That's when a politician will do anything to get your vote, When he says, I want to be fair with you. He is saying I want your vote and I will kill your mother-in-law to get it,
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    Aug 30 2013: Bernard, I am concerned that people would either accept or attempt to defend the definitions you have mandated to liberals or conservatives.

    By your definition there should not ever be a rich liberal ... that would be immoral and "unfair". Liberals should spread their wealth ... to be fair. Ain't gonna happen. As a example: Obama has a Aunt and Uncle in the US illegally. Both are on welfare .... he is a multimillionaire who acknowledges them but will not use his money to assist even his relatives ... I fail to see the "fairness" or "equality".

    As for conservatives ... perhaps you have confused meritocracy and capitalism. I would more closely associate meritocracy with the communist / socialist programs that existed in Russia and the communist blocks. Wher capitalism allows those citizens to advance who provide a service or product that is in demand. That person can come from any walk of life. America, democracy, capitalism provides the opportunity for growth.

    In this case I would say that fairness would be to not label either party, thus stacking the deck and skewing the answers.

    I like your question ... but your explanation has the appearance of a political agenda.

    I wish you well. Bob.
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      Aug 31 2013: Well, I can assure you I have no political agenda. Only a honest interest in this matter, but I can see how explanation can lead to this assumption. The reason of my explanation is that is what the statistics say.
      With regards to Obama, I think he is being immoral (if this is true), I think he has a duty to help his relatives.
      I wish you well also! :-)
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    W. Ying

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    Aug 30 2013: To Bernard White (1 hour ago):


    Very glad to give my answers:

    (1). During war in constant danger, people can be happy if they find a way to be a-step-better for keeping their DNA alive, no matter how small the “step” may be.
    (2) Having someone’s “survival and genetic offspring completely secured”, without many a-step-betters for keeping his/her DNA alive, can make him/her very boring or sad.

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      Aug 31 2013: Yes, if you don't mind me saying. I think you are wrong to an extent.
      1) People can enjoy sacrificing themselves for their kin, to ensure their relatives genes get passed on. Or would you argue this is a form of survival? I mean people form bonds (or become friends) with their fellow soldiers, I think this would counter your original point.
      2) I'm afraid I don't understand this point, I would be happy if you could explain it to me. Are you arguing that we actually need to be doing something which would have increased our chances of survival or passing on our genes?
      Kind regards,
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    W. Ying

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    Aug 28 2013: .

    Both are for the same purpose of "symbiosis".
    Thus, humans can survive.

    "Equality" is the base.
    "Meritocracy" is the improvement.
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      Aug 28 2013: W. Ling, if you don't mind me saying, it seems to me the most important things to you are what make humans either survive (and possibly reproduce) and be happy. Is this correct?
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        W. Ying

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        Aug 29 2013: . .

        “Survive” and “happy” are the same thing to me.
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          Aug 29 2013: I disagree, considering you can be in severe danger yet be happy.
          To give a thought experiment, people can be (sadisticky and ecstatically) happy during war yet in constant danger. Or someone can be very sad yet have their survival and genetic offspring completely secured.
          I'm interested to see how you would respond! :-)
          Kind regards,
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    Aug 15 2013: Bernie,
    I have been thinking about this for a few days... I am not sure I agree with your definitions. Liberals, Conservatives, Equality, Fairness and Meritocracy....this is how I see it.... and there are no winners

    Liberals are those who glean great personal affirmation from the distribution of other peoples money to those who may or may not need it.
    Conservatives are still not sure that the use of the electric light bulb is a good thing and clamor for the good old days, when no matter how drunk you were, your horse got you home.
    Fairness is a term used by people when they've skinned some sucker and tell them that they lost fair and square.
    Equality is not reality. Otherwise, I would look like George Clooney and have the income of Warren Buffet.
    Meritocracy is a form of governance where the capable make the rules. It sounds good but power corrupts. Maybe, some giant computer programmed to govern objectively... just as soon as we can create a computer that will write the programming

    Hey, I am a curmudgeon and a cynic too!
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      Aug 28 2013: Sorry. I haven't been very active on TED recently. I hop you can forgive me for my late reply!
      Out of interest, who would write the programming? The powerful? Or would (moral) philosopher do it? Who would be worthy to write such a code? (Could this lead to quite a elitist system?)
      You also have to consider security! The computer could be hacked, and that would be disaster.
      I personally view fairness as what people deserve, while many view fairness as a form of equality. Just a matter of definitions really.
      Kind regards,
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        Aug 28 2013: You make good points, but you're not a curmudgeon.
        Plato made a case for meritocracy 2500 years ago and to think about it, it makes a lot of sense...
        but, there are people involved. The authors of the American constitution created a system of checks and balances into our republic governance. They really didn't trust "people" either.
        They back up these checks and balances with a 10 point bill of rights giving powers to the people including the arming them. Over the years, our national government has picked away at the constitution to centralize power in the capital and if we follow this trend to it's obvious conclusion, this country could be come a meritocracy. There are academics who have already said they are ready and able to lead us (The USA) to a better place. There are other countries/cultures out there that have also considered that opportunity.
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          Aug 31 2013: I think this sums up my (and incidentally your) position :
          "If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary" - James Madison
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    Aug 2 2013: Meritocracy. Because its the meritorious who can define equality the best and use it with impunity.
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      Aug 2 2013: PM
      We are talking politicians here. Are Indian Politicians a noble breed that have a meritorious nobility to best define equality.....

      Or, should I look at the word impunity a little closer?
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        Aug 3 2013: Indian Politicians are nothing of that sort. I do not include Indian Politicians within meritocracy. Rather by that I mean elitist front runners of Indian intellectualism, who in my opinion, control the Indian psyche in a subtle manner (for good or bad).
        It's time for you to reflect on the limitedness of US real politik to look beyond liberals and conservatives. By my understanding none of them truly represent a vast majority of people in the US.
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          Aug 4 2013: Your correct..there seems to be a disconnect between the people and our representatives. It's like a disease they catch when they go to Washington. I have long petitioned for a term limit but.....
          I am not happy with the political bent of our intelligentsia. They are for the moist part social progressives hell bent to save everyone. They seem to ignore the fact that good will cost money that the government who is the proponent of all this good will has to get the funds and the academics careless where. Currently, our Federal administration is spending one trillion dollars more the the revenues generate. Mostly borrowed and US academics are proud of the advances made in social welfare programs. I am more pragmatic. I have no problem helping people needing help, but I am not convinced that committing financial suicide
          is a practical way to help people.... it leads to two people needing help. A principle that our academics seem to lack cognizant of that problem. I hope you academics are more adroit are looking at the big picture of society.
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        Aug 5 2013: Mike, I think I understand what you are trying to say and I agree. I am completely disillusioned with 'saviours of mankind' and 'armchair reformers'. I'd want a peoples' representative to be unaswerable for small things - roads, schools, healthcare of the communities they reprsent. If they cannot deliver those, I'd ask them to spare me their speeches.
        I think I am a kind and concrned citizen but its better to remember that our affiliations work in the order self>family>neighborhood>community>nation>world. That's an honest and practical position a do-gooder should take.
        Also in a functional democracy, equatability is what matters and it is a practical combination of equality and merit.
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          Aug 5 2013: PM,
          I like legal equality, but to much is made of all things are equal... it ain't real.... otherwise, I'd look more like George Clooney then your avatar... Altho, it may not be a bad wife would be pleased....
  • Aug 2 2013: To me
    1. Equality to me means equality of opportunity.
    2. Meritocracy to means the best person gets the opportunity with no prejudice

    I am for equal opportunity for all and the best person gets the opportunity. Today there is no equal opportunity for k-12 education and for jobs and people get into college because of legacy rules. So today there is no equality and meritocracy.,
  • Aug 31 2013: True Story --
    In 8th grade I was the campaign manager for a mock presidential election. There were 4 candidates. My guy won. All 4 candidates and the three other campaign managers were all given an A for their work, I was given a B. I asked "we won, why do I get a B?" The teachers said it was because "they didn't think I worked that hard".

    As a result of that I decided that in 9th grade the teachers would see every bit of work I did. My goal for the entire 4 years was to never take a book home, and except for a single exception, I never did. I did math problems walking to class, bigger assignments in homeroom, I wrote papers during lunch, etc. My senior year my mother came up to the school to talk to the guidance counselors about college. The counselor said "oh, he has a free period now, do you want to see him?" As they were walking to the study hall she said "he is the hardest working student we have ever seen". My mom said she was in shock. Sure enough I was in the back corner busily finishing some paper. At home my mom was laughing because she had never seen me with a book. However, the rule in our house was that as long as I had A's they didn't bother me about school.

    Several times throughout the 4 years teachers had given me higher grades for poor work because "they knew how hard I worked".

    This whole idea of judging people based on merit and how hard they work is a farce. You have very little idea how hard someone works.
  • Aug 31 2013: when Liberals talk about "Fairness" they typically mean "Equality". While when Conservatives talk about "Fairness" they typically mean "Meritocracy".

    Which ever way you slice it, then both end up talking about the lowest common denominator.
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    Aug 31 2013: I know that in school, when teaching, we use the terms equity and equality; they are not the same thing though. I believe in the equity of effort, in which each child puts in the same amount of effort according to their ability to do so, even if the results are not the same.

    "Fairness" is a hard thing to quantify, because we need to make value judgements and that's where individual or cultural bias comes into place; Sure a child deserves to get sufficient resources to thrive, without being expected to contribute back to society right away.... However, there is the implicit thought that, by nourishing them today, we expect a pay back some time in the future, after they reach adulthood.

    Meritocracy would be a great idea to foster, if the playing fields were levelled and all who wanted to thrive could...Unfortunately, we know the system is broken and what passes for "merit" is often the luck of good birth and the right skin tone and genitals.
  • Aug 28 2013: Which wins? It would be a lousy world without equality and that would ultimately impact meritocracy as the best and brightest would not have a fair chance. On the other hand without a meritocracy you will stifle development as we saw in the Communist countries and they will be left in the dust heap of history.

    According to the talk you referenced he said we need all 5 tools in our tool chest and what he was pointing out is that we need to value "order" over "chaos" and "coordination" over "individualism". What makes man so powerful among all the species is our ability to be organized into a very large and complex society in which there is a tremendous amount of coordination unparalleled in the rest of the animal kingdom.

    Equality taken to extremes leads to chaos and poverty. Meritocracy taken to extremes leads to horrors and crimes against humanity. We need both, we also need justice, and truth, and love.
  • Aug 8 2013: While summing up the topic of this debate, you introduce "Fairness" to the aforementioned Equality and Meritocracy. It would seem, or at least it appears to me, that the three are not mutually exclusive. In fact the three are rather intertwined by my senses, if not by conventiional definition.

    If my grasp of meritocracy holds, a beneficiary receives from his benefactor, intuitavely a court, judge, king or parent, in accordance with that which his efforts or real contribution warrants. You give more, you get more.

    Equality presents an initial level playing field upon which other systems may or may not be established as ammendments to an ideal state of exacting equality. How would equality be meeted out? If one man = one woman and one boy = one girl, does one girl = one woman or does a citizen = a non-citizen? Are there not shades of equality and how are they established? Does not meritocracy exist in order to define, however awkwardly the various possible hues existant within the concept of equality?

    Fairness begs to be embraced as the measure used within the meritocracy in balancing the scales to enable the meritocracy to serve the concept of true equality, as admittedly this goal, almost by definition, demands supreme objectivity and that "someone else" keep things in balance.

    I think the three, Equality, Meritocracy and Fairness coexist rather well.
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    Aug 1 2013: how about freedom?
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      Aug 1 2013: Kris,
      We are talking about politics.... Personal and Public freedoms are not in any part of this conversation. Freedoms are a cross that politicians have to bear. Really, what does freedom have anything to do to get elected and reelected, unless it is a perception that your voters can't get to the poles to vote, and if they vote twice, better yet. Read up on gerrymandering here in the states.
  • Aug 1 2013: Maybe you are getting too Aristotalian, and things are not as exclusive as you believe. There are questions of degree, weighting, and other issues. Maybe you respect politicians more than I are there really any conservatives or liberals? And there have always been other groups.
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    Aug 1 2013: I was just thinking, in the US this question could mean "Are you democrat or republican."
    • Aug 2 2013: I know a lot of people think this but i disagree. There is elements in both except for the extremes of each party.
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    Jul 31 2013: Let's say a test is given. 10% of students receive an A, 50% receive a B, 30% receive a C, and 10% receive a D. Then the teacher decides that in order to be equal all students will receive a D. Is that fair? 90% of the class was just cheated out of their hard work! Maybe they would work, and try and bring those other students up, but be realistic here, that is a long shot. Most would likely stop trying, and perform at a D level because it doesn't matter what they do the grade will be the same.

    Even if the situation was reversed, and the teacher gave all A's instead of all D's, the outcome would be the same. Sure you would have a lot of happy students, but the only students reaping a real benefit would be the students who already preformed at an A level. The others would have no need to try because they knew the A students would make sure everyone got an A.

    Equality isn't fairness. Fairness is getting what you deserve, or in other words meritocracy.
    • Jul 31 2013: There's a problem though - what you deem fair, isn't necessarily what others deem fair. It's the funny "human factor", which for some reason, even Popper fetishist conservatives largely seem to disregard. Based on environment, you might as well live in such conditions that you're forced to do something in terms that you see unfair, because alternative option is starving. The next guy, on the other hand, seems this completely fair as the gift of life is worth to preserve above all.

      I'd also love to know, how would water be distributed? How do you "fairly" decide, that this body of water is owned by x company? It's already mapped, it's already discovered. Do you just simply... chug it up before anyone else?

      The whole "get what you deserve" sounds rather ideological to me. What doesn't make it into one?
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        Aug 1 2013: That is a great point! The human factor is quite bothersome when trying to discuss something like this, because you are right, " what you deem fair, isn't necessarily what others deem fair." This is indeed where things get dicey. I think you would agree that "fair is relative".

        However, I still do believe "fair" is getting what you deserve. The first part of your response was articulated well, but the rest of it seems like jumbled thoughts to me at least. I apologize. I would assert though that you are asking the wrong questions though. You ought to have asked, "What determines what you deserve?" From here we can dig into humanity as smaller units versus as a whole.

        For instance, a family of four would need more water than the individual. Let us go further, and say that two members of the family are small children who do not contribute significantly to the economy. Would they deserve less water? Of course not, if "the gift of life is worth to preserve above all." Now, would it be acceptable for the individual to steal from the two children because he works harder, and he thinks he deserves more?

        Even if one accepts that fair is a relative idea, there must be some sort of limit of how relative that idea is. Otherwise, this discussion is useless because we will never come to any sort of agreement, and we will hammer back and forth forever.

        One last thing: "I'd also love to know, how would water be distributed? How do you "fairly" decide, that this body of water is owned by x company?" I am not entirely sure where this was going, but I do not appreciate the sarcastic "I'd love to know," as if I would not have an answer to your questions. If we are going to discuss this matter, please let your sarcasm out before you type.
        • Aug 2 2013: Yeah, I apologize, they are indeed sarcastic questions thrown at you. Their purpose was to serve to the point where it's ultimately hard to distribute something on the grounds of "fair", though same applies to grounds of "equal" as well, ironically for the same reasons - fairness is subjective.

          Now, your premise of "fair is relative", I find that ultimately very true. However, want to know what I fear the most? When there's nothing to catch a person from his fall which he deemed to be unfair. That's unfortunately what I can't see laissez-faire model to work at. Don't get me wrong though - I'm a large critic for the "modern western" world. That's why I'm also worried - I can see that the westphalia, after initiating modern global economy in Britain, couldn't protect itself from the inevitable. Now people are not happy and they certainly are worried. You can't find a job, you're living in pretty poor conditions and have hard time getting anywhere from these conditions.

          And this is where the meritocracy comes in conveniently in it's laissez-faire model. It promises wealth, it promises minimal unemployment, it promises a whole lot of things. But, just like the current model, it's tangled with the "human factor" where you have an impossible amount of moral issues just like we do now. But the difference is, more people are employed in x conditions, but less people are covered by a welfare to help with their fall, should one occur. Current model has a problem where welfare is getting expensive (and abused) when structural unemployment gets high due to outsourcing, whereas laissez-faire model would have no security for people who need it but couldn't afford it. This sort of desperation unfortunately leads to irrational actions.

          By the end of the day, when you discuss about these things, you have to accept the uncertain aspect of it. Which leads to the next point - only way to truly know is to try. But when you try, don't disregard the possible consequences.