The Illusion of Merit (2021)


“The Illusion of Merit”

Interdisciplinary workshop

April 15, 2021

Hosting institution:
Cardiff University | Cardiff Business School


— Keynotes —
Robert Frank (Cornell)
Jo Littler (City, UoL)
Daniel Markovits (Yale)
Robert Sugden (UEA)

— Call for Papers / Manifesto —

Nowadays, Western societies revolve around the concept of meritocracy. This umbrella term is gaining more and more momentum in different social spheres. In Politics, Education, Public Health, those deemed as ‘deserving’ are encouraged through incentives and receive better positions and treatments. Other logics, as gratuitousness, equality of opportunity, are progressively losing ground but they remain fundamental to understand why in many states persist universal scholarly duties, public access to health treatments, and so on.

While meritocracy finds support in public opinion (Bell 1972, 2012; Herrnstein and Murray 1994), from the pioneering work of Michael Young – The Rise of Meritocracy (1958) – there has been a rising current of criticism in the academic domain (Vlastos 1975; Chapman 1986; Hayes 2013; Bloodworth 2016; Appiah 2018; Scaggs 2018; Markovits 2019; Sandel 2020). Critiques of meritocracy converge on one point: the meritocratic discourse legitimates socio-economic inequalities and contrasts redistribution (Arrow, Bowles, and Durlauf 2000; Alesina and Angeletos 2005; Charité et al. 2015; Frank 2016; Heiserman and Simpson 2017; Laird 2017; Weinzierl 2017; Sugden 2018 Alesina et al. 2018; Piketty 2019). In Piketty’s words, “the discourse of meritocracy and entrepreneurship often seems to serve primarily as a way for the winners in today’s economy to justify any level of inequality whatsoever while peremptorily blaming the losers for lacking talent, virtue and diligence” (Piketty 2020, 2). As the other side of the coin, people who are affected by the socioeconomic inequalities produced by meritocracies see these inequalities as necessary and legitimate (Jost et al. 2003; Bénabou and Tirole 2006; Piff et al. 2018), what recently Jo Littler (2017) named ‘the meritocratic deficit’.

Recently, it emerged another common understanding: the problems of meritocracy are mostly related to the concept of merit. As Amartya Sen well-argued (2000), “the idea of meritocracy has many merits, but clarity is not among them. The lack of clarity may relate […] that the concept of merit is deeply contingent on our views of a good society” (5). It is not surprising, then, reading the titles of the last publications of the matter: The Mirage of Merit by Thornton (2013), The Merit of Meritocracy by Son Hing at al. (2016), The Merit Myth by Carnevale, Schmidt and Strohl (2020), The Tyranny of Merit by Sandel (2020).

Notwithstanding its many problems, the meritocratic discourse is still dominant. Hence, it emerges evidently the need for further researches, which can address meritocracy also inquiring the philosophical and theological features of its nucleus, i.e. merit.

To advance our understanding of the plural features of merit and meritocracy and its annexed virtues and problems, we warmly invite economists, historians, theologians, philosophers, scholars in organization and management and other social scientists to answer to this call and submit an abstract

Important dates:
– Abstracts (max 300 words) must be submitted by March 1 2021, to
– Acceptance by March 10, 2021.
– Final registrations from March 11 to March 31, 2021.


Organizing institutions:
Cardiff University | Cardiff Business School, HEIRS, IREC: International Review of Economics

Scientific committee:
Luigino Bruni (LUMSA University), Huw Dixon (Cardiff University), Karel Musilek (Cardiff University) Vittorio Pelligra (University of Cagliari), Tommaso Reggiani (Cardiff University), Rainer Michael Rilke (WHU – Otto Beisheim School of  Management), Paolo Santori (LUMSA University).

Local Organizers:
Beverly Francis, Tommaso Reggiani, Paolo Santori.






The Community of Advantage (Rome 2019)

HEIRS, IREC & LUMSA University
organize the conference:

Rome, 21st – 22nd November 2019

::: Programme [ PDF ] :::

— Nov. 21st: 10:00 AM – 6:00 PM at Italian Embassy to the Holy See, Belle Arti Street 2, Rome

— Nov. 22nd: 9:00 AM – 1:30 PM at LUMSA University (Aula Pia), Porta Castello Street 44, Rome

The publication of The Community of Advantage (Oxford University Press, 2018) of Robert Sugden is an important event for the scholars working in one of the research avenues open by Bob Sugden in the last 40 years of activity.  The HEIRS association and LUMSA University organize in Rome two days conference for discussing the several aspects related to The Community of Advantage  – i.e. reconciling normative and behavioural economics, we-rationality, the moral dimensions of the market, reciprocity, philosophical foundations of liberal economics, etc.  With this call, we invite all scholars interested in Bob Sugden’s economics and philosophy to join us in Rome.

Keynotes by: Robert Sugden (UEA) | Luigino Bruni (LUMSA) |Francesco Guala (University of Milan) | Shaun Hargreaves Heap (King’s College London) Mozaffar Qizilbash (University of York)| Christian Schubert (German University in Cairo)

Important dates: 
– Abstracts (max 300 words) must be submitted by July 15th, 2019                              to (.PDF format)
– Acceptance by Sept 15th, 2019
– Early registrations by Oct 15th, 2019: Junior fee: 100 € / Senior fee: 200 €
– Late registrations by  Nov 1st, 2019: Junior fee: 130 € / Senior fee: 260 €

Information:  –

Organizing institutions: HEIRS – LUMSA University –  IREC: International Review of Economics

Scientific committee: Leonardo Becchetti (University of Rome ‘Tor Vergata’), Sergio Beraldo (University of Napoli ‘Federico II’), Luigino Bruni (LUMSA University), Vittorio Pelligra (University of Cagliari), Yuriy Pidlisnyy (UCU-Lviv),Tommaso Reggiani (Masaryk University), Matteo Rizzolli (LUMSA University), Alessandra Smerilli (Auxilium), Stefano Zamagni (University of Bologna)
Local Organizers: Luigino Bruni (LUMSA University), Dalila De Rosa (University of Turin), Antonella Ferrucci (EdC), Tommaso Reggiani (Masaryk University), Paolo Santori (LUMSA University).


HEIRS 2018 – Naples

. .

Happiness, Capabilities, and Opportunities


         Naples, 15th – 17th November 2018

HEIRS International Conference 2018

University of Napoli ‘Federico II’ 






  • news: * FINAL PROGRAM * : [ link ]
  • VENUE: Conference Center Uni. Naples “Federico II”, via Partenope 36, 80121, Naples



After a 15-year research project that has explored many dimensions of happiness, HEIRS 2018 international conference will focus on the unconventional triad of Capabilities, Happiness and Opportunities.

The Capability approach emphasizes the objective dimensions of good life, or, more to the point, the objective dimensions that underpin the opportunities for a good life. In this perspective, happiness enters as one valuable functioning among others, not as the sole definitive objective. On the other hand, the capability approach is just one possible way to look at opportunities. These can be seen as more basically related to the size and richness of an individual’s opportunity set, that is, the set of options from which individuals are free to choose, bearing the consequences of their choices.

Although a subjective approach to happiness – that can be traced back to Jeremy Bentham’s theory of happiness as utility and is innervated by modern cognitive research – cannot skip the skepticism raised by those whose viewpoint favors either capabilities or opportunities, an alternative perspective, based on a more objective conception of happiness as eudaimonia or human flourishing, might.

The conference aims at stimulating a dialogue between different scientific perspectives on happiness. We welcome proposals from economics, psychology, philosophy, social sciences and humanities in general. The main purpose is one of deepening our understanding of the relationship between happiness on one side and capabilities and opportunities on the other.

In June 2005, a second conference on Capabilities and Happiness was held at the University of Milan Bicocca. The first had been celebrated just some months earlier at the St Edmund College, Cambridge. In 2005 the aim was to bring together scholars from different disciplines for a rich discussion. More than ten years later the aim is still that.

Keynote speakers: Sabine Alkire, Séverine Deneulin, Robert Sugden.

The conference will be held in memory of Pier Luigi Porta, who organized the first conference on happiness in Milan in 2003. A special ‘Pier Luigi Porta prize’ on happiness’ will be awarded to a young scholar.

Venue in Naples: TBA

Organizing institutions: HEIRS – University of  Napoli ‘Federico II’, Department of Economics and Statistics – LUMSA University –  IREC: International Review of Economics.

Scientific committee: Sergio Beraldo (University of Napoli ‘Federico II’ & CSEF), Leonardo Becchetti (University of Rome ‘Tor Vergata’), Luigino Bruni (LUMSA University), Stefano Bartolini (University of Siena), Luca Crivelli (SUPSI), Benedetto Gui (Sophia University Institute), Vittorio Pelligra (University of Cagliari), Maurizio Pugno (University of Cassino), Tommaso Reggiani (Masaryk University), Alessandra Smerilli (Auxilium), Luca Stanca (University of Milan-Bicocca).

Information:  –


Workshop 2017: “Prizes and Virtues”

LUMSA University, Rome – April 10-11, 2017


::: PROGRAM       : [ PDF ]

::: REGISTRATIONS : [ online form ]

Call for Papers

To an economist, a prize, such as a golden medal, is merely a special type of incentive. Any other kind of social scientist would be perplexed by thinking of the Nobel Prize, or of the Medal of Honour, in these terms. In contemporary neoclassical economics, the concept of incentive is a primitive, similar to that of “utility”, “price”, “production” or “consumption”, that all economists use but none feels the need to define: it is a foundation, or a corner stone, of the science of economics. However, if we tried to articulate what economists mean by incentives, we would probably find that they are considered as any “motivation” for adhering to and for complying with some form of contract. Once incentives are intended in this all-embracing way, it immediately follows that prizes and awards are considered simply as their sub-set. Yet many real world prizes and awards do not follow this contractarian, consequentialist logic and cannot be understood within this framework. A more complex understanding of human motivation–we believe-is needed to hold that prizes are indeed not incentives.

This search cannot ignore the history of economic and philosophical ideals. Competing theories of action and motivation were central topics of debate among eighteenth century philosophers. David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Adam Smith’s theories implied much more complex social and economic motivations than mere self-interest, which can be opportunely diverted through an appropriate incentive. Within the Italian school of civil economy, Pietro Verri and Antonio Genovesi elaborated on the unintended consequences of public and institutional actions on individuals’ behaviour. In the same line, Giacinto Dragonetti debated (at a distance) with Cesare Beccaria on the nature and effectiveness of punishments and awards in shaping agents’ choices, both in private and public contexts. From the mid XIX century onward, economists became those social scientists most characterized by the purest anthropology (i.e. that of a human being acting in order to maximize individual utility), endorsing utilitarian philosophy and sacrificing previously complex understanding of human actions. In the XX century, microeconomics has continued this process of anthropological reductionism: management theory, as well as agency and contract theory, have distilled the allembracing theory of incentives.

In the last three decades, behavioural and experimental economics are undermining from
within this reductionist model of human behaviour. By taking serious account of concepts such as reciprocity, intrinsic motivation, inequality aversion, and fairness, they are making more complex interpretations of human action and motivation central again, albeit still within the utilitarian framework. In addition, there is an important contemporary philosophical stream of inquiry, the socalled virtue ethics, which competes with utilitarianism yet remains almost unknown to the economic profession. We argue that this research may provide further insights into human action, which seem otherwise intractable within the current anthropological framework, and can cast a new light on the nature and working of prizes as fundamentally different from incentives. In particular, prizes may well suit the rewarding of virtues, because incentive are known to be liable to cause motivation crowdingout.

To advance our understanding of the economics of prizes, awards and their link with virtues,we warmly invite economists, historians, philosophers, scholars in organization and management and other social scientists to answer to this call and submit an extended abstract (max 1000 words).

Keynote speakers:
– Robert Dur, Erasmus University Rotterdam (Economics)
– Ruth Grant, Duke University (Political Science)                                           – Matteo Rizzoli, LUMSA University (Law & Economics)
– Robert Sugden, UEA – UK (Economics)

LUMSA UNIVERSITY – campus Giubileo: Via di Porta Castello 44, 00193 Rome.

“Pier Luigi Porta” Award:
Heirs will honour the memory of the past Heirs’ President Professor Pier Luigi Porta by a special award to the best paper presented at this conference, a stream of research strongly supported by him before dying. Heirs invites all under fourty scholars to apply for this special “Pier Luigi Porta Award”. The award consist in 2500 euro plus travel cost and accomodation for the conference. The prize will be assigned during the social dinner.

Deadline for submissions of extended abstracts (max 1000 words): 
February 15th, 2017 (acceptance date: February 25th, 2017)

Organization committee: HEIRS & LUMSA University
Luigino Bruni (LUMSA), Vittorio Pelligra (U. Cagliari), Tommaso Reggiani (LUMSA),     Matteo Rizzolli (LUMSA), Alessandra Smerilli (LUMSA).


Conference Fee:
We accept bank transfer to the following account:
ACCOUNT HOLDER: HEIRS Associazione Culturale
IBAN: IT33A0326801604052879608610
Bank: BANCA SELLA S.P.A ( Local Ag. Via Montero Nero 71, 20135 Milan – Italy )
Once you have paid, please send us an email for confirmation to <>.

Type of Registrations

Junior fee (student, PhD student) – Early Registration (by March 10th) – 75 €
Junior fee (student, PhD student) – Late Registration (by Apr 1st) – 130 €
Senior fee (Associate researcher, Professor, Practitioner) – Early Registration (by March 10th) – 200 €
Senior fee (Associate researcher, Professor, Practitioner) – Late Registration (by Apr 1st) – 260 €