The Illusion of Merit (2021)


“The Illusion of Merit”

Interdisciplinary workshop

April 15, 2021

— 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

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






HEIRS 2018 – Naples

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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:  –