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Meritocratic Equality of Opportunity builds on Formal Equality of Opportunity’s opposition to formal and arbitrary discrimination. Meritocracy requires that positions and goods be distributed solely in accordance with individual merit. This idea is most familiar from the allocation of jobs, with respect to which most would agree that the applicant who would do best in the job should be appointed. Since whether someone is the best or most meritorious applicant need not depend on arbitrary factors, such as race and gender, Meritocratic Equality of Opportunity is opposed to arbitrary discrimination.

While moves away from arbitrary discrimination are welcome, Meritocratic Equality of Opportunity has well-known limitations, especially with respect to children. For instance, judging by merit may be misplaced in the case of education since education is supposed to cultivate merit, in the form of skills and qualifications. To illustrate a second limitation, imagine that all the top university places are awarded to members of the upper class and that some progressive new government is elected into power and enforces Meritocratic Equality of Opportunity. After generations of consolidating superior education, jobs and wealth at the expense of the poor, the upper-classes are in a far better place, particularly if private schooling is available, to ensure that their children end up being the most meritorious, preserving vast social inequalities between members of different classes. Although some opportunities are open to all equally, opportunities to develop ‘merit’ are not distributed equally. It is this inadequacy of Meritocratic Equality of Opportunity that motivates the conception of Fair Equality of Opportunity.

Finally, it has been argued that meritocracy goes too far, in that it overrides an individual business owner’s rights to select employees based on criteria other than their ability to do the job. A business owner may wish to keep his business in his community, for example if he owns an Italian restaurant he may wish to hire Italian staff, or else he may wish to hire staff who are systematically disadvantaged already or people who he thinks are morally virtuous. Some will argue that meritocracy, by insisting that the best person for the job be selected, does not give sufficient room for discretion by business owners. Others claim that merit is a placeholder for other values and without a clarification of those values no account of merit can be justified.


Daniels, Norman. “Merit And Meritocracy”. Philosophy & Public Affairs, Philosophy & Public Affairs, 1978, 206-223.

Notes: This paper argues that underlying any notion of merit in the meritocratic conception of equality of opportunity is a notion of efficiency that cannot ground strong claims of desert, as it must to count as a demand of justice.

Gomberg, Paul. How To Make Opportunity Equal: Race And Contributive Justice. Blackwell, 2007.

Notes: This book defends the equal opportunity to contribute their talents to the production of certain social goods as a means to flourishing. Gomberg argues against competitive conceptions of equality of opportunity, which regard the opportunity to be distributed as necessarily unavailable to some, on the grounds that it denies some the opportunity to flourish at all.

Guinier, Lani. The Tyranny Of The Meritocracy. Beacon Press, n.d.

Notes: This book addresses the way that the idea of merit has been miss-applied in the context of higher education. In particular, Guinier examines the way that conventional measures of merit do not predict performance, but do track race and social class, and that beneficiaries of Affirmative Action do out-perform their peers.

Miller, David. “Two Cheers For Meritocracy”. Journal Of Political Philosophy, Journal of Political Philosophy, 4, no. 4 (1996): 277-301.

Notes: The paper defends a version of the meritocratic conception of equality of opportunity, where merit is understood as the combination of both talent and effort.

Scheffler, Israel. Of Human Potential: An Essay In The Philosophy Of Education. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985.

Notes: This book examines the concepts of human nature and human potential as they apply to the educational context.

Segall, Shlomi. “Should The Best Qualified Be Appointed?”. Journal Of Moral Philosophy, Journal of Moral Philosophy, 9, no. 1 (2012): 31-54.

Notes: This paper argues that the meritocratic conception of equality of opportunity is mistaken and that we should instead be concerned with allocating jobs in accordance with luck egalitarianism and not merit or qualification.

Sen, Amartya. “Merit And Justice”. In Meritocracy And Economic Inequality. Meritocracy And Economic Inequality. Princeton University Press, 2000.

Notes: This paper examines the way that merit has been understood and how it must be grounded in an idea of what a good human life and good society is.

Swift, Adam. “Justice, Luck, And The Family: The Intergenerational Transmission Of Economic Advantage From A Normative Perspective”. In Unequal Chances: Family Background And Economic Success. Unequal Chances: Family Background And Economic Success. Princeton University Press, 2005.

Notes: This paper addresses the inequalities that follow from familial partiality and proposes a framework for thinking about which ways of transmitting advantage are legitimate and which are not.

Swift, Adam. How Not To Be A Hypocrite: School Choice For The Morally Perplexed Parent. Routledge, 2003.

Notes: The book examines the many values related to educational choice, including equality of opportunity, the value of education, parental partiality, and parents’ rights and brings these to bear upon real world policies and decisions about school choice. 

Young, Michael Dunlop. The Rise Of The Meritocracy. Transaction Publishers, 1958.

Notes: The book coins the phrase ‘meritocracy' in what is supposed to be a parody of taking intelligence plus effort as the sole criterion for one’s place in society.