Why Do We Value Merit?

Published 24 May 2017

“The virtuous are rewarded and the vicious punished in proportion to their relative deserts.” This exact sentence is the main argument of Louis Pojman in his article entitled Merit: Why Do We Value It? Pojman was able to emphasize his theory that about the concept of desert wherein a person should be given what is due to him or her. In this sense, Pojman gave importance to the intention and motive of an individual in doing an action. Merit is given to a person not simply because of the natural talents and abilities that one has but rather for the intention that he or she has as well as the related actions that make it possible for him or her to hone the abilities that he or she possesses. In line with this, after carefully analyzing and studying the arguments that Pojman in comparison with philosophers like John Rawls, it is quite evident that Pojman was able to make a sound argument in his belief that every person should get what is due to him or her, which is the exact idea of desert.

The belief of John Rawls tends to contradict Pojman’s concept of desert. Rawls asserted that individuals do not deserve the merit that they acquire from the abilities and talents that they have like their intelligence. This is because these characteristics do not come from them but rather they were able to gain it through the natural lottery of life. The natural lottery is the belief that every person’s characteristics, abilities, and other genetically related factors are given to an individual without his or her control. As a result, the benefits that would be gain from it should not simply be enjoyed by the respective individual, but rather it should be after the good of numerous people or the entire society. This kind of thinking is similar to the idea of utilitarianism and socialism. They want to achieve equality by giving every individual equally, opportunity, resource, and other means that they need without putting into consideration that the other is more intelligent than the other or that he or she could contribute more (Pojman, 1999).

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On the other hand, Pojman emphasizes that applying the idea of utilitarianism and socialism makes it unjust for some people to get the same amount of resources despite the fact that they did and contribute more as compared with others. This could be exemplified by the scenario wherein an employee was able to produce twice the amount of output as compared with the other employees but he still gets the same salary as his other co-workers. This productive employee is not given what is due to him. He is exerting the necessary effort and diligence in order to work more but his salary is still same with those who produced average output or sometimes even lower than that. In line with this, he is being treated unjustly because of the fact that the product of his hard work is not being compensated properly.

The utilitarian and socialist perspective that pertains to the idea of sacrificing individual benefits for the good of the society in terms of equal distribution of resources, opportunities and other factors also addressed by Pojman. He highlighted that the idea of utilitarianism is to make maximum consumption of utilities or resources. In doing so, they need the help of talented and skilled individuals in order to make maximize these utilities. As a result, they also have to give importance to those people who work more and contribute more in order to establish a sound and productive society (Pojman, 1999).

Louis Pojman also made the clear distinction between merit and desert in order to clearly show his point. Merit is the reward given to an individual because of the skills, talents, and abilities that he or she has. These pertain to the characteristics an individual gained through the natural lottery. An example of this is a beauty contest wherein the winner will be judged based on their physical attractiveness. The genetically good-looks of a person is something that is beyond her control. It’s something that is simply given to her since birth, which she did not do anything in order to achieve it but she will still be merited because of it. On the other hand, the concept of desert gives importance to the intention, motive, and action of a person. This describes the willingness of a person to do something in order to enhance and put to good use the natural talents and abilities that were given to him or her (Pojman, 1999). This could be exemplified by the idea of being diligent. If an individual who was given the talent to dance well hone this ability in order to become a really good dancer and in the process help other people then he deserve the reward that will be given to him.

The main argument of Pojman that entails rewarding the virtuous person and punishing the vicious one is also clearly proven as a deontological principle because of the supporting details that he enumerated. He was able to discuss different verses from the Bible both in the old and new testaments as well as teachings in other religion that supported his argument. The intention and the corresponding action of an individual in order to develop his or her natural skills to contribute something good are also one of the main lessons that are preached in almost all religions. This could be seen in one of the law-like principle rules in the Judeo-Christian Scripture, which states “whatsoever a person sows, that shall he also reap” (Pojman, 1999). Even the idea of the golden rule also follows Pojman’s argument wherein “as you do, you shall be done by” (Pojman, 1999).

The discussion above clearly shows that virtue should be rewarded and vice should be punished. This gives a sense of justice because the standard of proportionality is between the input of action and output of reward or punishment that an individual should obtain. In relation to this, it is also important to emphasize Pojman’s notion of merit as something that is based upon desert and moral effort. As a result, merit is not simply seen as the reward given to an individual because of the natural abilities that he or she has. It also gives due consideration and importance to his or her intention to do good by working hard in order to develop what he or she possesses and use it as a means to help other people. This kind of action is indeed something that is worthy of a merit because it is a combination of natural skills and moral effort.


  • Pojman, L. (1999). Merit: Why Do We Value It? Journal of Social Philosophy 30, 83-102.
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