Tag Archives: ethics

Take care of the common good: Meritocracy is a sham

I am going to end up at the stop sign above in a minute. But I am going to start by listening in as the elites have a belated chat about ethics.

Some academics are talking about the “meritocracy” — the idea that people rise and should rise to the optimum level of their value in the system. That is supposedly how things work in a capitalist democracy from being accepted to college to being promoted on the job.

What became of the common good?

The debate about whether meritocracy is a real thing (or moral if it is) mainly comes down to assessing what people think freedom means. Americans have a long infatuation with the idea that freedom means individual autonomy, just “doing your own thing” [Theme song] as long as you “do no harm.” But they are waking up to the reality that such freedom is directly related to the lack of solidarity in American society. It has occurred to many people (long about when the Capitol was being stormed, perhaps) that a society with no shared ideals or mutual affection isn’t the happy place they once assumed it would be. If people think freedom means independence at any cost rather than a sense of worth and connection that allows for self-determination, we are in trouble. And we are in trouble.

I was there for the cultural revolution of the 1960s that spawned identity politics. I decided to follow Jesus so I have endured the increasing hostility to religion since then. I became untraditional, so I had to note how I added to the general contempt for tradition. I’ve lamented the market deregulation that created a whole layer of entrepreneur cowboys and megarich predators (I admit learning a lot from them). All these factors, combined with Reagonomics (which beget Trumponomics), legitimated greed, widened inequality and encouraged Americans to forget their collective identity. And all this development was certainly a shot at Jesus, who had been tempering the godless instincts of the country all along.

So I am happy I ran into Marty Moss-Coane interviewing Michael J. Sandel about his new book: The Tyranny of Merit: What Became of the Common Good?. I always love it when elitists catch up with Jesus. The gist of the book is in his Ted Talk video below. But here it is in a few sentences.

We live in an age of winners and losers, where the odds are stacked in favor of the already fortunate. Stalled social mobility and entrenched inequality give the lie to the American credo that “you can make it if you try.” The consequence is a brew of anger and frustration that has fueled populist protest and extreme polarization, and led to deep distrust of both government and our fellow citizens–leaving us morally unprepared to face the profound challenges of our time.

If Sandel were speaking as a Jesus-follower his book would be great preaching. He’s focusing on truths which much of the church has forgotten along with much of the society. But these truths have been in the Bible all along.

You have value as yourself

You are not what you produce or whatever fame or notoriety you achieve. You are not worth what your bank account or economic rung on the long climb up the stratospheric ladder toward the 1% might imply.

My clients need to be instructed never to look up “celebrity worth” on Google. Otherwise they might find out that Mark Wahlberg is worth $300 million while they can’t afford a new phone. Moreso, they need a constant push to turn away from the voices in their heads that accuse them of being of no value. Christians, especially would do well to consider it a sin to feel unworthy of the Lord’s free gift of life and grace, as if Jesus were stupid to die for them.

You do your work for the common good

Dr. King famously said the refuse workers in Memphis were just as important as doctors in the prevention of disease. Our newly-named “essential workers” are not paid like they are essential but we are at least recognizing that the whole ship goes down if they don’t make it float. We all help build whatever there is, or we are in the process of tearing it down.

In the church, that must be one of the top ten pieces of truth that make us the salt of the earth. The gifts of the Spirit are given for the common good and every part of the body of Christ is indispensably worthwhile. We need each other.

You did not get where you are because you deserve it.

When we are all autonomous, we are each condemned to make it on our own. Many of my clients are so condemned. Their parents did not want to bother their uniqueness by influencing them too much or even parenting them. They come to me as free-range children. Or their parents made it plain that it was crucial that they live up to their potential and rise to the top like the cream of the crop they are: “You can make it if you just believe and keep trying.” Now they are failures or fakers to the core.  How many TV ads tell us we need some shampoo or Cadillac because we deserve it? Most of us know that is not true, but we go with it anyway because that is common sense to Americans.

In the church many people let the elite run the place because that’s what’s supposed to happen. Sometimes they feel unworthy to speak — won’t talk to the pastor because “They are probably too busy.” Or they won’t get involved because it would take them too much time to be important and they can leave it to someone better suited. So even in the new, pluralistic, untraditional churches (like Circle of Hope) the idea of meritocracy organizes us and people feel the need to honor success.

I’m not saying there is no value in monitoring whether we meet our goals; I’m just saying we must not monitor them in service to shame or fear based on some strange sense born in the godless “economy.” Anything we might call success is a gift of God like everything else; and any goodness I enact is just a fraction of who I might become in Christ.

Our better angels

The other day I was nearly hit in the crosswalk while I was on the last leg of my please-get-me-out-of-the-house walk (I’ll be looking like Marky Mark in no time!). After I was not hit, it hit me. Abraham Lincoln has been quoted to death recently for a good reason. Just like Lincoln, Joe Biden is talking about the common good all the time. Barack Obama liked to talk about the rule of law. Donald Trump liked to talk about Donald Trump. But Biden is a breath of fresh air to me because he thinks Americans can build something together and take care of each other.

If Biden is wrong, that’s the right way to be wrong. He even has the Chinese talking about our mutual “better angels.” The reason you stop at the stop sign isn’t because the police are going to catch you if you don’t or because you need to dominate the intersection instead of those other losers. Stopping is always a nod to the common good right there in the middle. We all pass through it and leave it safe and sound — or wreck it (and squash me!). Stop signs assume people are decent enough to stop at them. I may run a few of them before I am done. But I dare not forget that such an act runs over the common good when I do.

The meritocracy, while being a sham in reality, has a thin layer of logic to it covering a core of self-condemnation waiting to be realized. The Apostle Paul realized the great merit he had achieved as a law-keeping Jew had no value; it was his partnership with Jesus that made him someone. Any merit we have will eternally start there. Any difference we make will start with acting out our common love in Christ for the common good.

Six foundations for being good: let’s stand on all of them

Christians often conform to the prevailing norms of society and find something in the Bible to justify their morality. Nevertheless the Bible survives. It continues to offer a broad sense of what is good and teaches tried-and-true ways to live as a good person. Last week I was telling you about Jonathan Haidt and his book The Righteous Mind.  In it he follows his own journey out of being WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic) and discovers that there are six foundations for morality, not just the one that Americans are mainly using right now to make all their new laws about protecting rights. I was happy to see a social scientist “discovering” truths that were in the Bible all along. I think the Bible has always been as broad as Haidt wishes we are all were.

One reason Jesus-followers need to keep talking about how all this arguing about morality is going to work out is that pretty soon some new morality minion is likely to denounce one of us in the street for our lack of conformity to the narrow sense of being good that is being legislated — we’ll be sent to some Maoist-like camp for re-education! Yes, that sounds hysterical, but I heard a TED talk the other day in which the speaker told us how he is using his career to create peer group pressure to conform to things “not just because they are legal, but because they are right.” He was teaching guys to correct the nonconforming speech of their bar pals and to police their behavior while sharing a beer. I agreed with his ends, actually. But the means scare me – especially when they are not monitored by God.  (God is strictly left out of the new morality).

1. The care/harm foundation

foundations on the moral spectrumThe main morality Haidt thinks is dominating the landscape these days is what he calls the care/harm foundation. We are supposed to care. We are not supposed to harm. Like I said last week, this is basic to Christianity: Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13:10). Feel a lot of compassion here.

The problem is that there are more foundational ways people see what is good and act on it. The care/harm foundation is the basis for protecting “human rights” and it is fundamental to our ethics codes, but that is not all that people, and God, care about. So as I briefly move through Haidt’s six foundations that he “discovered” on his journey away from the WEIRD focus on one foundation, let’s be as broad as the Bible.

2) The fairness/cheating foundation.

We should be fair and be treated fairly. We should not cheat or be cheated.  Honestly, feel a lot of anger here. It is a righteous anger that goes for justice and a rage about how untrustworthy people are. Watch Cheaters. People care about fidelity. We hate machines that don’t work and that steal our money.  The Occupy movement was mainly a fight about fairness.

In Isaiah 59 the prophet calls for a return to this foundation: Your lips have spoken falsely,/ and your tongue mutters wicked things./ No one calls for justice;/ no one pleads a case with integrity./ They rely on empty arguments, they utter lies;/ they conceive trouble and give birth to evil.

3) The loyalty/betrayal foundation.

We should commit and stick with our commitments. Our loyalty should be rewarded, not betrayed.  Feel group pride here and rage against traitors. This is the foundation of patriotism and painting yourself green for an Eagles games. This motivates bosses who have bought into the company to try to get employees to buy in (and then we really feel it when they fire us after we have given our loyalty). For this morality, soldiers sacrifice their lives and gang members take absurd risks.

The early church was forming a new “tribe” around the risen Jesus. This foundation may have been more relevant to them than others.  That changed a good bit when it became less dangerous to be a Christian. Jesus says it plainly in Luke 12:  “I tell you, whoever publicly acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man will also acknowledge before the angels of God. But whoever disowns me before others will be disowned before the angels of God.”

4) The authority/subversion foundation.

We should respect those in charge. We should not subvert the process. Feel respect here, deference; give honor. Adversely, feel fear. This is the foundation for talking in a manner around the boss that is different than when you’re with your friend.  In the U.S., the empire has been so strong for a while that it gives a lot of room for insubordination; but experience a 9/11 and a decade of almost universally-approved war can ensue. The church of the 19th and 20th centuries proliferated leaders who demanded obedience to God and to themselves from the pulpit based on this foundation.

Christians teach their children to obey their private desires just like most Americans these days, even though their scripture is heavily into the authority/subversion foundation.  Paul teaches in Romans 6: “Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.” Paul even told slaves to obey their masters, knowing that their obedience to God made them a master even when their masters were slaves to sin.

foundations for good

5) The sanctity/degradation foundation.

We should keep certain things sacred and clean. We should not contaminate situations or people. Feel awe, reverence and disgust here. In the era of autonomy, where the only objection we can make is that some behavior does someone harm, people don’t get this ethic. They are losing their sense of disgust and they think that is a good thing. So nothing is sacred and breaking taboos is considered freedom. Artists do all sorts of things to religious symbols that might have gotten them killed in the past. But they rarely desecrate a picture of Nelson Mandela, at least where people are WEIRD. It is ironic of course that people hold autonomy to be sacred.

This is the foundation that really sets Christians apart in the United States. It is also what makes an Ayatollah call the United States the “great Satan” since the U.S. undermines everything that is sacred and uses military might to back its blasphemy. Jesus followers seek what is holy and seek to be holy. Their sense of it is so refined that Paul can teach the Corinthian church that it is sanctified: Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.

6) The liberty/oppression foundation.

We should protect liberty. We should not tyrannize or be tyrannized. In some sense, there is the same anger as the justice foundation, only this is about being part of a group in which some sense of equality is prized, and that is pretty much any group. Feel hatred for oppression here. It is not hard to find someone to feel bad with you about the parking authority or arbitrary (and sometimes brutal) police. People often see the U.S. army like a relief and advocacy group because it is supposedly at work in the world as a good cop, thwarting oppression.

Almost all the foundations are found in James 2, it seems, but he teaches about this sixth one well: “Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong? If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.”

Even while Haidt is, appropriately, undermining the value of Western culture’s sense of reason, he is writing a well-reasoned book based mostly in evolutionary theory, which he thinks explains why people do what they do, in one way or another. Nevertheless, I think he does us all a service by showing how many ways we can think about what is good. I think Jesus followers need to be aware that the Bible also lays out these six foundational ways to be moral lest we choose one that’s ascendant in our territory and start arguing some skewed political position instead of being faithful to the fullness in Jesus.

We’re Getting Schooled to Relate without Jesus

We’re getting schooled — but nicely and in the name of being nice, protecting the rights of others and being inclusive. But are people actually being nice to me? protecting my so-called rights? including me? More important, are they being nice to Jesus? protecting his rights? including the Lord?

I ran across this statement during my research the other day and I feel a bit obsessed with it. It revealed that the discomfort I have been feeling with the way people talk to me about various subjects has a philosophical underpinning. We are being taught to relate in a certain way that may be right in line with Jesus in some ways, but may sell the farm completely in other ways. I think we need to talk back to our teachers.  Check it out:

Only if “you respond to me” in a way sensitive to the “relations” between your and my actions, can “we” act together as a “collective we”; and if I sense you as not being sensitive in that way, then I feel immediately offended, ethically offended. – Shotter & Katz (1999, p.152).

Let’s not run the whole intellectual nine yards with this. Let’s skip right to the popular application.

If you run me over I will be offended.
If you run me over I will be offended.

First of all, there is a relational rule that begins with: “Only if.” For some reason, it just dawned on me that any number of people begin their relationship with me with an “only if.” They have this rule that kicks in when they meet me: I will relate to this person only if they agree with my assumed standards for relating. I have a way of life that must be accepted at any cost — if they don’t “get” that, no relationship. For instance, a young man recently reported he would not be back to our public meeting because we seemed to assume he was a Christian, since the meeting was all about being a Christian. He did not feel accepted for who he was so he was immediately offended (at least in a philosophical way — everyone can still exchange pleasantries). We did not pass the “only if” assessment.

DM_I_Feel_YouSecond, there is a definition of what relating means. Basically, the rule for relating begins with: We need to feel each other out. (Isn’t that why it became popular in the 90’s to say “I feel you?”). I need to sense you being sensitive. In the new school there are no individuals who have innate meaning or value. Any “meaning” is all about how our actions intersect, all about how we are feeling things out. The only meaning we share is what happens in our “collective we.” So sensitivity to how we talk and act is crucial.

Most people don’t get to this step of relating and it is even harder to get through it. There is a lot of wariness and circling around one another, seeing if one can connect. For instance, a man was talking last night about how difficult it was for him to make any relationships within a church whose meetings he had been sporadically attending for years. But he sensed he might fit into Circle of Hope because we dress more like he dresses and talk like he talks. He felt enough shared meaning to let himself connect. Someone else probably sniffed around last night and said, “My kind are not present. I’m out of here.”

Third, there is a consequence for violating the rules and not agreeing on the definitions. People are surprisingly judgmental these days, in spite of saying they hate people who are judgmental! They are surprisingly legalistic for saying they are so accepting! They have seemingly nice conversations that come with a hidden barb, something like:  If you don’t accept my rule and act according to my standards, I have a right to be ethically offended, and I will be so immediately. I was talking to one of the cell leaders yesterday and she was having a problem deciding what to do with certain people who were kind of gumming up the works with their bad behavior. The leader was so sensitive to the possibility that she might “get a time out” for offending the person in question that she was making all sorts of excuses for their bad behavior — pre-excusing before she was asked for grace! She was essentially taking care of the “we” for both sides of the relationship. She was predicting how she would be offensive, even before a person accused her of anything, and adjusting her behavior to keep things smooth, even though she felt personally hurt and frustrated. She was quite afraid she would be judged according to the new standards and get thrown out of the “we.”

We are all getting schooled and most of us did not even go to the class yet. The school turns out people who say (at least this is my application of the quote above): If you don’t respond to me in a way that makes me comfortable I am out of here. Or worse, I have a right to be me no matter how bad that is for you; deal with it or I will make sure you know how condemnable you are. We’re afraid to be sent to the “office” if we don’t get the rules right. It is ironic that in the name of inclusion people have set up a power struggle among all of us for the right to decide who is worthy of inclusion!  I am glad the person who would act in such a way is not God (we’re not, even when we act in god-like ways!). If they were actually God, I would be in outer darkness quickly. I would never really have gotten into light at all! I would not have passed the first “only if” rule!

Like I said, I am clueing in to all this might mean philosophically. And I am lamenting that the society is quickly being reorganized around the core ideas that are rendered in the quote. But I am trying to skip to the application.

We will run into someone this week who is doing their best to fit in and be nice. They have been taught this new school basis for relating. They bump into a Christian and it can be jarring. They meet up with a person who believes they have innate meaning as an individual and are also part of a “we” — not based solely on the meaning created by becoming a “we” but because God has made them a “we.” We’re still creating meaningfully by our process of dialogue, but it is inspired. And we are not assessing one another according to how inoffensively we do that, since we assume we will need to love others who can’t seem to stop sinning, just like God loves us. It has become an odd way to look at things.

I think we should keep being odd and not get schooled. Some of the new narrative is wise. But I don’t think the new nice is all that nice. I really don’t think it protects my rights to follow Jesus very well at all, instead it offers a new narrative that eradicates the possibility of Jesus. Everyone gets included except for Jesus, since his “only-ness” violates the “only if” of the new regime. I don’t want to go there, even if the new conformity police judge me harshly.

It is not enough to just ignore the new schoolmasters. They are making a difference. We’ve all been divided up into mutually offended identities — “being a Christian” is just one more of them. And most Christians seem to believe that about themselves — their faith is another one of the many identities competing for market share among discriminating consumers. Let’s keep telling the truth about Jesus — in love, as ourselves in Christ, in community, even if we get a time out.


Shottner, J. & Katz, A. (1999). Creating relational realities: Responsible responding to poetic “movements” and “moments.” In S. Mcnamee & K. Gergen (Eds.) Relational responsibility: Resources for sustainable dialogue (pp. 151-160). London: Sage.

No endorsements, just curiosity: