The Merits of Meritocracy

The subject of meritocracy was stated on the facebook status of one of my friends.  A hyper-intelligent and talented philosopher who is very knowledgeable about Mormonism confidently declared meritocracy a false doctrine to be refuted.  This is a subject I posted on once or twice and wanted to do it again and figured now may be as good a time as any.

As I understand it, meritocracy is usually a term applied to government.  In a meritocracy, government officials are appointed based on some system of merit possibly including attributes like intelligence, morality, aptitude, etc.  Problems with this type of system include who decides the criteria, who evaluates the candidates, and how are the characteristics objectively measured?

Principles of a meritocracy applied to religion, and particularly to salvation short-circuit some of these problems.  God decides the criteria, does the evaluating, and measures the character.  But can salvation be profitably considered to include principles of a meritocracy?  While such a line of thought may be dangerous in terms of pride, I think there are some merits to meritocracy.

When one considers the eternal state of the soul after death, and assumes that some form of salvation is not absolutely universal, then one wonders what is the difference between those that are saved and those that are not.  The important point here, I think, is that this is necessarily a relative difference between saved and unsaved souls.  This line of thinking is almost inescapable with Mormonism’s idea of degrees of glory, but is also relevant in a heaven/hell dichotomy. 

In a government model of meritocracy, being selected for a government position does not imply that you created the world, or mankind.  It does not mean that you independently invented the concept of government.  It does not mean that you absolutely and independently created yourself along with your characteristics that were thought of as being superior.  You were simply evaluated by a higher power as having certain characteristics that made you more fit for the position than others were.

Similarly, meritocracy applied to salvation does not mean (to me) that you independently created heaven without any help, or that you resurrected yourself, or that God did not do a single thing for you whatsoever.  It does mean that those saved were saved because they were evaluated by God as meeting criteria which He set, that make them more fit for salvation than those not saved.  Thus salvation is not some arbitrary decree of a capricious God, or the equivalent of winning some type of lottery.  These ideas bring even more power for me when combined with the degrees of salvation found in Mormonism.

To me, this makes God a fair, just and merciful God.  This also gives meaning to the parable of the sower, the parable of the talents, and the Sermon on the Mount.

13 Responses to “The Merits of Meritocracy”

  1. 1 Last Lemming September 27, 2010 at 4:06 pm

    Since you bring up parables, how do you interpret the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16)? It would seem to me that a meritocracy would reward a full day’s work more than a single hour’s work. But in the parable, they all get the same reward and the complainers are told they are stuck with the deal they made at the outset, however unfair it may seem in retrospect.

  2. 2 Eric Nielson September 27, 2010 at 4:23 pm

    It would all come down to what the criteria is. So perhaps the type or quality of the labor is more important than the duration.

  3. 3 Last Lemming September 27, 2010 at 4:31 pm

    You are left, then, to speculate as to what the criteria might be. I read verse 15 to imply that the criteria are none of our dang business.

    Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?

    For a meritocracy to work, the criteria have to be known.

  4. 4 Eric Nielson September 27, 2010 at 4:52 pm

    Generally speaking I think the criteria are known. In this case of the parable we must labor in the vineyard. Yet life is quite complicated. We do not have ‘starting gate equality’. Some have more talents than others (to bounce between parables).

    So I would say that the exact evaluation can still be vague and customized to each individual, yet work.

    But I think I see what you are getting at. If a meritocracy does not have sharp dividing lines, does it cease to me a meritocracy? Interesting question.

  5. 5 Chris H. September 27, 2010 at 5:50 pm

    “…hyper-intelligent and talented philosopher…”


  6. 6 Mark Brown September 27, 2010 at 6:00 pm

    Eric, would it be fair to say that Korihor favors meritocracy? This isn’t an attempt to argue with you, just a way of saying that I think you haven’t accounted for all the evidence.

  7. 7 Eric Nielson September 27, 2010 at 6:29 pm


    Are you questioning Dennis Potter?


    I think you are forcing me into an all or nothing stand. Korihor claimed that there was no God and that individual merit was all there was. I am certainly making no such claim. I think you may need to read the post again.

  8. 8 Stephen M (ethesis) September 27, 2010 at 10:56 pm

    Since you bring up parables, how do you interpret the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) — I’ve often thought about that and that we are saved through the merits of Christ.

    Some interesting thoughts there.

  9. 9 Eric Nielson September 28, 2010 at 6:58 am


    Yet does Christ save all – universally? If not, why not? What is the difference between thos saved, and those not saved?

  10. 10 Michael September 28, 2010 at 9:35 am

    The fullness of the Restored Gospel does include a portion of meritocracy within its full framework. The definition of meritocracy (according to Merriam Webster) is:

    “a system in which the talented are chosen and moved ahead on the basis of their achievement”

    In the context of the gospel, such achievement would include acceptance of Christ, adoration of Christ, and emulation of Christ in all His Being and attributes.

    Now there is also the universal salvation aspect of the gospel in which the Saviour has atoned for all sin, sickness and weaknesses resulting in a resurrection for all and salvation in a kingdom of glory. Doctrine and Covenants 88 is the best source of knowledge for the difference between the two aspects – meritocracy and universal salvation.

    The Mormon definition of salvation is very different from the definition used by most Christian sects. We use Exaltation to better reflect the meritocratic aspect of the gospel and Salvation to reflect the universalism and grace of the Atonement.

  11. 12 John Mansfield September 28, 2010 at 2:25 pm

    I like how the opening chapter of the Book of Mormon ends with one of the purposes of writing it: “I, Nephi, will show unto you that the tender mercies of the Lord are over all those whom he hath chosen, because of their faith, to make them mighty even unto the power of deliverance.”

  12. 13 Chris H. September 28, 2010 at 2:33 pm


    Are you questioning Dennis Potter?”

    Since Dennis was agreeing with me and John Rawls…I have no problem with Dennis at all. I was just kidding with you.

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