Vermutlich geht die sozialwissenschaftliche Verwendung des Begriffes der Meritokratie auf Michael Young zurück, der ihn 1958 in seinem Buch “The Rise of Meritocracy” eingeführt hat. Seither gibt es eine Reihe von Arbeiten, die sich mit Meritokratie befassen, wobei das, was Meritokratie darstellen soll, zumeist unter dem Diktum des “Wir wissen schon, wovon wir sprechen” steht, aber nie genauer definiert wird. Eine der wenigen ausführlichen und aussagekräftigen Definitionen des Begriffs Meritokratie findet sich in einem Artikel, den Amartya Sen im Jahre 2000 zu dem von Kenneth Arrow, Samuel Bowles und Steven Durlauf herausgegebenen Sammelband “Meritocracy and Economic Inequality” beigetragen hat:
“In fact, meritocracy is just an extension of a general system of rewarding merit, and elements of such a system clearly have been present in one form or another throughout human history. There are, it can be argued, at least two different ways of seeing merit and systems of rewarding it.
- Incentives: Actions may be rewarded for the good they do, and a system of remunerating the activities that generate good consequences would, it is presumed, tend to produce a better society. The rationale of incentive structure may be more complex than the simple statement suggests, but the idea of merits in this instrumental perspective relates to the motivation of producing better results. In this view, actions are meritorious in a derivative and contingent way, depending on the good they do, and more particularly the good that can be brought about by rewarding them.
- Action propriety: Actions may be judged by their propriety – not by their results – and they may be rewarded according to the quality of such actions, judged in a result-independent way. Much use has been made of this approach to merit, and parts of deontological ethics separate out right conduct – for praise and emulation – independent of the goodness of the consequences generated.
The distinction between the propriety and merit of an action is described by [Adam] Smith (1790, II.i.1-2, p.67) in the following way:
There is another set of qualities ascribed to the actions and conduct of mankind distinct from their propriety and impropriety, their decency and ungracefulness, and which are the objects of a distinct species of approbation. These are Merit and Demerit, the qualities of deserving reward, and deserving punishment. … upon the beneficial or hurtful effects which the affection proposes and tends to produce, depends the merit or demerit, the good or ill desert of the action to which it gives occasion.
aus: Sen, Amartya (2000). Merit and Justice. In: Arrow, Kenneth, Bowles, Samuel & Durlauf, Steven (eds.). Meritocracy and Economic Inequality. Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp.5-16.