Merit is a moral consideration related to justice. It concerns our response to excellence of various kinds, how some people deserve reward, gratitude, and praise for achievements and accomplishments they have made that others have not.
As with need and culpability, merit concerns equitable treatment, rather than equal treatment. That is, we give extra attention to those who have done more or given up more.
There are several ways in which we consider merit. We'll look at them briefly:
In assessing merit, we often look at how much people have contributed. For instance, those who have worked harder, or who have made a greater (positive) difference in the lives of others are considered to have greater merit.
How exactly we measure this is controversial. There's an instinctive inclination to use the "sweat of the brow" test: just see how hard a person has worked, how much effort they've put into a project. But hard work doesn't necessarily mean productive work. There is such a thing as "busy work" that takes a lot of energy and occupies a person's attention, but that does not really result in much of a gain for anyone.
Better, then, to look at the actual benefits that result: Were lives saved that would otherwise have been lost? Were lives improved in a way that otherwise wouldn't have happened? Were people protected from need or harm?
These are the things that we look at when we evaluate people's contributions. And, naturally, the greater the contribution, the greater the merit. All else being else being equal, philanthropists who contribute millions are credited with greater merit than those who give only a few dollars.
Another way of looking at merit is to consider the sacrifice that was made in order to improve the lives of others.
Again, the "sweat of the brow" test comes to mind -- that is, how much energy, time, and effort was invested. But, again, this depends on the work actually yielding some benefit to someone else.
Sacrifices can be small -- such as giving an hour of one's time, a small donation of money, etc. -- or large -- giving one's very life for the sake of others. Philanthropists who donate millions are contributing a great deal, but -- since they typically remain wealthy even after their donation and are not left in economic hardship -- it's not clear that they have made a great sacrifice. People who give to the point of putting themselves in hardship, or who die for the sake of others, are given the greatest merit of all.
Achievement and Excellence
There is another sort of merit, one that comes under the more generic description of achievement or excellence.
For instance, people who demonstrate athletic or artistic excellence -- who win at sports or at spelling bees or have other such accomplishments -- have earned greater merit. It's not quite the same sort of merit as when someone donates a kidney or funds cancer research, but it's not insignificant, either.
Response to Merit
How do we respond, morally speaking, to merit? It varies in different circumstances, but there are examples we can look at to draw broad lessons.
The moral response to merit typically involves things such as praise, gratitude, and reward. We often give praise to those who make great sacrifices, contributions, or exhibit excellence. And we generally (though not always) do this publicly in the form of medals, trophies, parades, etc. We also offer expressions of gratitude to those who have made contributions and sacrifices. Again, sometimes these expressions are made publicly, sometimes privately.
Sometimes we go further, and respond to merit by giving rewards. In the same way that we give aid to the needy, we give rewards to the meritorious.
Controversially, this can mean rewarding someone for the good they have done by excusing them for the bad that they are guilty of. But this is almost always a difficult decision, as we don't want to send the message that, by doing good, people can earn the right to (or at least get a free pass for) doing bad.
Merit pops up in our lives -- as well as in political and moral discussions -- in lots of ways.
People insist that tax rates reflect the right of people to keep the money they have earned through their hard work. People ask for more pay when they believe they work harder or contribute more, or offer skills that are more scarce or in greater demand (and therefore more valuable). People who have sacrificed more -- or risked more to potential sacrifice -- ask for more reward.
We often give greater expressions of praise and gratitude to police, soldiers, firefighters, and medical workers, on the basis of the greater contributions they make and/or sacrifices that they risk. At the same time, we often worry -- probably correctly -- that we still don't do enough to separate these people out for the greater consideration they deserve on the basis of merit. Although these are all paying occupations, the pay they get is rarely comparable to the benefit they provide or what they risk losing.
Merit, then, is central to our thinking about justice. And justice, in turn, is central to our understanding of what is right and wrong, both morally and politically.