Understanding Merit: An In-depth Examination of our Worthiness

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Merit, a quality of worthiness or excellence, has evolved into a critical measure of individual capability and achievements in various spheres[1][2][6]. It represents the virtues, actions, and qualities a person holds, determining what they deserve in terms of recognition or reward, thus serving as both a noun and a verb in contemporary language[1][2].

In the context of a society increasingly inclined towards meritocracy, the concept of merit underscores a system where talent, skills, and performance drive advancement and recognition, challenging traditional systems prioritizing lineage, wealth, or social standing[9][10]. This article dives into the multifaceted notion of merit and its implications in shaping an equitable future, laying a foundation to explore beyond mere academic excellence or professional success[5][6].

Merit: The Evolution of an Idea

The evolution of the concept of merit has been influenced by various cultural, social, and political factors, making it a complex and multifaceted idea:

  1. Historical Roots and Global Perspectives
    • The term ‘meritocracy’ was coined in 1958 by Michael Young, highlighting the shift towards recognizing ability and talent over lineage or wealth[10].
    • In Eastern thought, particularly Confucianism, meritocracy has long been a guiding principle, emphasizing governance by the virtuous and capable[11].
    • Western philosophy also explored meritocratic ideas, with Plato and Aristotle discussing governance and social goods distribution based on merit[11].
  2. Metaphorical Understanding and Categories
    • Metaphors like gold, justice, and the sun have been used to describe merit, indicating its perceived value, essential nature, and enlightening effect on society[9].
    • Nine categories, including ensuring justice, adding societal strength, and promoting success, have been developed to encompass the broad implications of merit[9].
  3. Merit in Modern Governance and Society
    • Political meritocracy aims to elevate competent individuals in governance, a concept explored in both Eastern and Western traditions[11].
    • The merit system in government employment emphasizes hiring based on ability, aiming to create an effective and productive workplace[16].
    • Meritocracy’s evolution has seen it become a foundational value in corporate environments, shedding its pejorative origins for a more positive connotation[18].

These points illustrate the intricate development of merit and meritocracy, highlighting its significance across different cultures and epochs.

Meritocracy in Modern Society

In the landscape of modern society, meritocracy plays a pivotal role, especially within the corporate and educational sectors. Here’s an in-depth look at its impact:

  • Corporate Sphere:
    1. Objective Communication: Merit-based systems clearly outline a company’s goals and the valued employee attributes, fostering a culture of transparency and achievement[19].
    2. Employee Motivation and Retention: These systems differentiate between high and low performers, motivating employees through merit-based compensation and recognition, thus retaining top talent[19][20].
    3. Productivity and Morale: By rewarding individual performance, merit-based compensation increases productivity, improves morale, and attracts superior performers, establishing a high-performance standard[20][21][22][23].
  • Educational Sphere:
    1. Promoting Equity and Social Mobility: The meritocratic ideal, deeply intertwined with the American Dream, emphasizes equal opportunity and rewards natural talents, aiming to provide justice and social mobility through education[9][11].
    2. Challenges and Biases: Despite its ideals, meritocracy often inadvertently propagates biases related to socioeconomic status, race, and gender, influencing career trajectories and affecting diversity and inclusion efforts[18]. Recent scandals and studies have highlighted the need for a reevaluation of merit-based practices in admissions, suggesting holistic review practices to mitigate biases and promote diversity[25][26][27].

This examination reveals the double-edged nature of meritocracy in modern society, underscoring the need for careful implementation and continuous evaluation to ensure it serves its intended purpose of promoting fairness and excellence.

The Double-Edged Sword of Merit

While merit-based systems are designed to reward talent and hard work, they come with several inherent challenges that can undermine their effectiveness and fairness:

  • Subjectivity and Bias: Evaluating performance can be inherently subjective, leading to biases in compensation distribution. This subjectivity can depend on potentially biased judgments, further complicating fair assessment and fostering issues like jealousy and favoritism among employees[23][24].
  • Operational Challenges:
    1. Measurability: Not all results are easily quantifiable, making performance assessment challenging[22].
    2. Resource Intensiveness: The effort and resources required to make performance measurable may detract from other valuable activities[19].
    3. Communication and Transparency: The effectiveness of merit-based systems hinges on the communication skills of supervisors and the transparency of the evaluation process. Lack of clarity and open communication can lead to perceptions of favoritism[19][20].
  • Cultural and Societal Impact:
    • Meritocracy as Illusion: The belief in meritocracy can lead to discriminatory behavior and reinforce social inequalities by justifying the status quo. It promotes a toxic political culture and supports the rise of populist figures who exploit the resentment of those perceived as ‘losers’ in the system[28][29]. Credentialism, a byproduct of meritocratic belief, devalues non-college-educated work and individuals, perpetuating class division[28].

These challenges highlight the complexity of implementing merit-based systems effectively and the need for ongoing scrutiny to ensure they promote fairness and excellence.

Redefining Merit for an Equitable Future

Redefining merit for an equitable future necessitates a comprehensive approach that involves various sectors of society, from educational institutions to technology organizations. The following strategies highlight the necessary shifts:

  • Educational Reform:
    1. Redefining Merit: Abandon overvalued metrics based on historical racism and classism, focusing instead on an individual’s circumstances, their starting point, and the obstacles they have overcome[27].
    2. Transparent Admissions: Develop clear methods to demonstrate how admissions decisions are made, prioritizing a holistic review that considers diverse experiences and achievements[25].
    3. Addressing Educational Disparities: Recognize and actively work to amend the classist and racist structures within the K-12 educational system that limit access to higher education for underserved communities[27].
  • Corporate and Organizational Change:
    1. Expanding Definitions of Excellence: Acknowledge a wider array of skills, experiences, and perspectives, moving beyond traditional metrics of merit to include collaborative efforts and diverse contributions[30].
    2. Objective Evaluations: Implement transparent evaluation processes that account for various backgrounds, aiming to minimize biases and foster a more inclusive environment[30].
  • Technology and Innovation as Catalysts:
    Technology companies have the unique potential to lead by example, adopting equitable practices and promoting diversity within their ranks, thus influencing broader societal norms[30].

By embracing these strategies, organizations and institutions can play a pivotal role in redefining merit to foster an equitable future that values diversity and inclusivity.


Throughout this exploration, we have unearthed the complex terrain of merit and its pivotal role in shaping our modern society. From the historical roots deeply embedded in Eastern and Western philosophies to its current implications in governance, corporate, and educational sectors, the idea of merit as a cornerstone of fairness and excellence has been both celebrated and scrutinized. Such an in-depth examination reveals the multifaceted nature of merit and meritocracy, drawing attention to the inherent challenges and biases that accompany its implementation. The pursuit of an equitable future thus hinges on our collective efforts to redefine merit, ensuring it embraces a broader spectrum of qualities and achievements reflective of a just society.

As we stand on the cusp of redefining merit for the generations to come, it is imperative that all sectors – educational, corporate, and technology organizations, among others – undertake a concerted effort to scrutinize and adapt their practices. By expanding our understanding of excellence and incorporating diverse perspectives and contributions, we pave the way for a future where merit accurately represents the myriad dimensions of human potential and achievement. This journey towards an equitable tomorrow demands not just contemplation but actionable steps that challenge the status quo, fostering an environment where every individual’s worth is recognized and celebrated in its rightful essence.


Q: How is merit defined in the context of evaluation?
A: Merit refers to the inherent and intrinsic value of an entity, which is considered to be independent of context. In evaluations, merit is often assessed by a panel of experts who examine the inherent qualities of the entity in question.

Q: What distinguishes merit from worth when evaluating something?
A: Merit is seen as a value that does not depend on context, while worth is always determined in relation to a specific context. Worth requires a unique evaluation in each different context, as it is influenced by local social, cultural, political, and value factors.

Q: Can you describe the process used to assess the merit, worth, or significance of an object?
A: The process of evaluating the merit, worth, or significance of an object involves a systematic procedure. According to Scriven (1991) and the American Evaluation Association (AEA, 2014), evaluation is this systematic process aimed at determining these aspects, which is a widely accepted definition within the field.

Q: What does the systematic process of determining merit, worth, value, or significance entail?
A: The systematic process of evaluation involves assessing activities and methods to make a judgement about the merit, worth, or value of something. This is done by following planned steps to gain a deeper understanding of a program or service, according to Mertens & Wilson (2013) and Scriven (2003–04).


[1] –https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/merit
[2] –https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/merit
[3] –https://www.dictionary.com/browse/merit
[4] –https://www.collinsdictionary.com/us/dictionary/english/merit
[5] –http://www.wipsociology.org/2020/06/23/how-managers-understand-and-apply-merit-in-the-workplace/
[6] –https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/what-merit-how-should-we-measure-jeff-selingo
[7] –https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/merit
[8] –https://chiyanlam.com/2013/11/11/meritworthsignificance-explained-in-plain-language/
[9] –https://slejournal.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s40561-023-00238-w
[10] –https://www.economics-sociology.eu/files/ES_10_1_Kim_Choi.pdf
[11] –https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/meritocracy/
[12] –http://www.oecd-forum.org/posts/the-aristocracy-of-talent-how-meritocracy-made-the-modern-world-by-adrian-wooldridge
[13] –https://www.cornellpress.cornell.edu/book/9780801451225/merit/
[14] –https://muse.jhu.edu/article/537622
[15] –https://www.strategy-business.com/article/The-rise-and-fall-of-merit
[16] –https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merit_system
[17] –https://www.encyclopedia.com/philosophy-and-religion/christianity/christianity-general/merit
[18] –https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/how-i-redefined-merit-workplace-embracing-dei-quest-excellence-mehta-twsfc
[19] –https://www.thebalancemoney.com/the-advantages-and-disadvantages-of-merit-pay-1919083
[20] –https://www.salary.com/blog/the-pros-and-cons-of-implementing-a-merit-pay-system/
[21] –https://cws-software.com/the-pros-and-cons-of-merit-pay/
[22] –https://www.fool.com/the-ascent/small-business/human-resources/articles/merit-pay/
[23] –https://hr-guide.com/Compensation/Merit_Pay.htm
[24] –https://smallbusiness.chron.com/advantages-merit-compensation-17550.html
[25] –https://www.diverseeducation.com/students/article/15104610/redefining-merit
[26] –https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.3102/01623737231201612
[27] –https://www.insidehighered.com/opinion/views/2023/07/05/affirmative-action-and-myth-merit-opinion
[28] –https://www.blinkist.com/en/books/the-tyranny-of-merit-en
[29] –https://press.princeton.edu/ideas/a-belief-in-meritocracy-is-not-only-false-its-bad-for-you
[30] –https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/redefining-meritocracy-fostering-equity-organizations-sampathkumar
[31] –https://www.thelantern.com/projects/project/reinventing-meaning-merit-higher-education/