Monday, April 26, 2010

Meritocracy: Whose reward?

Ah that Genghis, what will he do next?

On a serious note, finding a balance between being awarded for work and being able to live from it is an issue. Many people work in sweatshops to earn what a checkout person in New Zealand earns working for 15 minutes. Thats if your lucky. shares several facts about Sweatshops. Facts such as how many earn as little as 1/4th for their basic human needs. Most of their income is spent on food. The US government also selectively gives aid to countries that have sweatshops operated by US companies. The Anti-Slavery society gives more insight into sweatshops: "Many children in Asia are kidnapped or otherwise trapped in servitude, where they work in factories and workshops for no pay and receive constant beatings."

In highschool I remember a world vision volunteer visiting my class before New Zealand's yearly 40 hour famine. He discussed how the conditions in sweatshops were better than many alternatives. These alternatives included digging in the trash, trying to look for garbage to sell. If you were blind or disabled, you would dig in the garbage at night. I think he didn't want to break our young spirits by explaining other some of the other alternatives. Unfortunately I think some of us could already guess.

Harvard Business School doctoral student Neeru Paharia and Professor Rohit Deshpandé have several ideas to stop sweatshops. They include:
  • Stopping the desire for sweatshop products
  • Empowering consumers to drive the opinion on how products should be made
  • That shoppers become more self-aware about sweatshops themselves
Neeru Paharia also had this to add: "It's troubling that so much of our social and economic system is based on our moral judgment, especially if it's easy for us to justify our actions based on what we want." If you want it, it's yours as long as you can pay for it. You can be awarded for your work. No worries about the child's award for all their hard work. Their hard work can be your award.

This is a problem with Meritocracy in our system. Of course in New Zealand we aren't a pure meritocracy. We do have a mininum wage and a welfare system that is suppose to ensure people aren't in poverty in New Zealand. However problems do exist and so does poverty in New Zealand for that matter. Who receives an award can vary based on age, race and sex.

Individuality does have a link with Meritocracy. Humans have a long history of working towards their goals and being awarded for doing so. However some people forget that we don't all play on a level playing field. The work we can do is influenced by our DNA, the circumstances we were born under and the community. As well as this there are people who want to steal awards and claim them for themselves. Sweatshops are an example of this.

Dr. Joseph H. Saleh is Assistant Professor of Aerospace Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He was also a technical consultant for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. When working for the Michigan Institute of Technology, he had some comments and suggestions for a fairer Meritocracy:

"Consistency and transparency on what constitutes merit are necessary conditions for a meritocracy to actually be one... Meritocracy requires that we first articulate what constitutes "merit," and what constitutes merit in turn should reflect 1) our values, 2) what kind of people we want to attract and retain, and 3) what kind of behaviors we want to promote and encourage. So while talking about meritocracy, perhaps even better while talking about a "caring meritocracy," we can also talk about our shared values at MIT."

With this combination of ethics and engineering, maybe we could use this to benefit New Zealand's social and economic system? We could make our system:
  1. Have more transperacy about how products are made and come from
  2. Reflect Aotearoa New Zealand's values
  3. Attract people to our country that appreciate these values
  4. Promote and encourage behaviours based on Aotearoa New Zealand's values
To some extent our system does these four things already. But not to a totally large extent. I'd say many some products sold in New Zealand have involved slave labour in some form unfortunately. I also think the Warehouse wouldn't be too pleased if people knew where their bargains were coming from. However recognising a problem is usually the first way to fixing it. As well as this, some people feel they are too small to change the system and may be blind to the benefit of working as a group.

As for Aotearoa New Zealand's values, they can be hard to pinpoint. Our national anthem doesn't give us much of a clue about what these values are. I'm all for saving the Queen but I'm also for saving other people as well. The well-regarded New Zealand historian Michael King does give us some suggestions about where New Zealand's values come from.

In his interview with Kim Hill Michael talked about the values within New Zealand which are from Maori and Pakeha(NZ Europeans): "Pakeha culture is largely derived from Europe, its more individually oriented whereas Maori culture is more communally oriented. Pakeha culture has all sorts of other values that New Zealanders think are precious, like protecting the underdog, not having great extremes of wealth and extremities of poor. There’s a whole list of these things." How do you define a underdog? What is extremely wealthy or poor? And how can you have a combination of collectivism and individuality? For instance in individuality you usually earn your respect. Generally though in Maori culture, you are already born with it due to your inherited mana. As Michael explains, the values New Zealanders share are many. Investigating some practical definitions would be helpful.

Dwight Furrow is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at San Diego Mesa College, USA. Furrow(2005, p.4) explains in his book Ethics that humans often base their ethical behaviour on beliefs and habits they've learned early in life. Infact Furrow(2005, p.1) also says teachers and parents are responsible for teaching ethical behaviour. We are all individuals with our own individual needs and thoughts. But there are things that must be taught by the collective in order for people to be in a safe society. A collective teaching and encouraging New Zealand's values would play a part in a fair New Zealand Meritocracy.

David Perry director of Vann Center for ethics at Davidson College gives some insight into preventing people being exploited by meritocracy. Within his review of Tobias Wolff's novel Old School, he states that "our ethical system [at Davidson] is opposed to the contemptuous, arrogant and cruel sort of meritocracy advocated by Ayn Rand (91-96). Our code of honor at Davidson, unlike hers, is joined at the hip with mercy and forgiveness." He acknowledges that problems and unfairness happen in the real world and meritocracy should make room for this.

Genghis Khan shows us some of meritocracys pros and pitfalls. We can earn rewards through hard work. But these rewards aren't always earned fairly, they can be stolen from others and we don't always get the same rewards for the same work. Rewards play a part in our individuality and can help us gain meaning to our lives. But exploiting others for rewards makes us earn them unfairly. This hurts society, which hurts us for being part of society.

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