The Case for Favoritism

Thor May
South Korea 2003


Imagine the perfect meritocracy. Now think again. In our perfect meritocracy prizes go to the most able, the most worthy, the best ... But who is to decide the most able, worthy or best ? A fair system you say, innocent of human bias, objective in its evaluation.

That's nice. How many fair systems do you know? Well, there are some admirably equal decision processes in science and technology. A thermometer is pretty fair about measuring the temperature, and a binary calculator separates zeroes and ones reliably.

Consider human affairs. Have you ever seen a fair examination? Well, the 'fairness' here is relative to your criteria, isn't it. If the exam measures what the teacher taught, and the student answers what the teacher asked, then we might say (in some cases) that the exam was fair. But what if the teaching was inadequate or the teacher was misinformed? Or what if the student was smarter than the teacher, and the teacher had trouble admitting that? Rare, you say. No, as a teacher for 27 years in many venues, I have to say that it is extremely common, even the norm. Hmm, what happened to our meritocracy here? We wind up with "brilliant" students who in fact are models of conformity, while some of the really clever students (as well as any number of genuine failures of course), are sent down the waste disposal chute.

Come to the so-called real world. The world of adult work. Suppose we have a personnel hiring and promotion system based on, um, merit. Hmm, who decides? Well, people who are paid to decide make decisions based on their best judgement. Judgement, there's the rub. How good is their judgement? If they are average -- and most people are average -- then their judgement will often be pretty awful. Another name for average is mediocre, and it is extremely difficult emotionally and intellectually, for the mediocre to make good decisions about exceptional people, especially if those exceptional people might discomfort the mediocre at some future time. It is also extremely difficult for a 25 year old personnel officer to make a fair decision about a 55 year old job applicant, since 55 for the young seems like the cusp of death. It may be difficult for a rigid older person to make fair judgements about a more laid back youth too. In other words, even with the best will in the world, human judgements in any organization will tend to a lower common denominator. Those with experience in organizations will also know that 'the best will in the world' is not so common either, being complicated by ambition, politics and the seven deadly sins.

What applies in companies and other organizations also applies at a national level. Democracy is an excellent way to dispose of scoundrels once they are unmasked. It is a dubious mechanism, to say the least, for choosing the wise and the able for high office. The judgement of the majority is by definition the judgement of the mediocre. In practice it is also the judgement of the misinformed, for even without media manipulation, we all only have twenty-four hours in a day, and few people have the ability, time or interest to remain well-informed on the issues and players in national and international affairs.

Merit therefore may be clear to the gods, but for mere humans the choices are often clouded.

So what is to be done? We tend to be confident that transparent, fair and democratic choices are not only characteristic of the most 'modern' societies, but also lead to the best overall outcomes. I have just questioned the reality of this kind of 'meritocracy'. Other societies throughout history, and many today, have had no qualms about imposing less open systems of choice and governance. Inheritance, caste, nepotism, favoritism, force, bribery, the judgement (sober or otherwise) of a council of elders ... and countless other mechanisms have been used to rearrange or tie down the players in the human circus.

The outcomes of rule by favour etc. have often been appalling. The loss of human potential, the lives ruined or enslaved, the prejudice, poverty and regression in many human ant-heaps is all too well chronicled.

Yet it is also the case that arbitrary and 'unfair' judgements by those in power can have good outcomes as well as bad. There have been kings who were able, wise and tolerant, shaping at least for their brief tenure, societies which were far more successful than one which any colloquium of their average citizens at the time could have managed. There have been any number of companies which were founded and thrived under the tutelage of an exceptional entrepreneur, but with his departure withered and died amid the bickering of "professional managers".

Equally there have always been deals done on the strength of bribes or favours. Deals between nations, companies and individuals. Many of them cause waste, loss or suffering. But also there are deals which would never have happened without the bribes and favours. Not a small number of them have had beneficial outcomes way beyond the corrupt interests of those who gave them birth.

And yes, there are men and women who have obtained their jobs unfairly. They are legion, and the burden of their incompetence has sunk countless companies and economies. Yet amongst their number are individuals of great ability, who lacking beauty, mediocrity or some other qualification of 'meritorious selection' by average fools, would never have had the chance to exercise their gifts without the unfair intervention of some wiser sponsor.



A few recent readings on the topic


Asma, Stephen T. (7 December 2012) " Why Favoritism Is Virtuous: The Case Against Fairness". The Daily Beast website, online @

Catli, Jon (April 6, 2013) "The Case Against Fairness: Why Favoritism, Not Fairness, Should be The Ethical Standard for The 21st Century". The Air Space website, online @

Fish, Stanley (January 7, 2013) "Favoritism Is Good". The New York Times, online @

Moontouch et al (2013) "The Case Against Fairness, for Favoritism: Machiavelli and Darwin vs. Nussbaum and Singer". [forum comments] Reddit Philosophy online @



Professional bio: Thor May has a core professional interest in cognitive linguistics, at which he has rarely succeeded in making a living. He has also, perhaps fatally in a career sense, cultivated an interest in how things work people, brains, systems, countries, machines, whatever In the world of daily employment he has mostly taught English as a foreign language, a stimulating activity though rarely regarded as a profession by the world at large. His PhD dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. In an earlier life, prior to becoming a teacher, he had a decade of finding his way out of working class origins, through unskilled jobs in Australia, New Zealand and finally England (after backpacking across Asia to England in 1972).

"The Case for Favoritism" copyrighted to Thor May; all rights reserved 2000


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