Everyone agrees that incompetence is a good reason to fire someone. But what if an employee makes a racist joke off working hours? Expresses skepticism about transgender identity on a personal Twitter account? Is a card-carrying member of the Communist Party?
People have lost their jobs for these and lesser “offenses” for years. But unlike the case of the incompetent employee, there is hot debate about whether this kind of extramural conduct constitutes just grounds for termination.
As a political philosopher, my job is to formulate moral principles to guide us in situations like these. A good principle will be simple, compelling on its face, and helpful in distinguishing the morally acceptable forms of “cancellation” from the unacceptable ones.
A principle that satisfies the criteria — one that I think is right — is the meritocratic principle: Employment decisions, such as who should be hired and how much they should be paid, should be made strictly on the basis of merit.
Why is it wrong for a business owner to refuse to hire Black applicants? It violates the meritocratic principle; applicants are judged on the basis of race, not merit.
Why is it wrong for a woman to earn less than a man for the same work? It violates the meritocratic principle. Is it fair that attractive people earn more than plain people of equal productivity (the “beauty premium”)? No, because this violates the meritocratic principle.
Cancel culture is morally dangerous because of its potential to violate the meritocratic principle. Whether it does or not depends on the facts of the case.
Suppose, for example, that a police officer marches in support of white supremacy off hours. The officer is fired as a result. Is that fair?
I think so. An important part of being a police officer — an element of merit in policing — is unbiased enforcement of the law. What we’ve learned about this officer’s beliefs casts doubt on his or her ability to do the job. The officer is fired not for the extramural conduct, but because he or she is not meritorious (which we learned from the extramural conduct).
However, most cases of cancellation are not like this. It’s simply irrelevant, from the point-of-view of merit, that one has conservative political beliefs; engages in “cultural appropriation” in the form of a Halloween costume; or tells the occasional racist joke. And so, the meritocratic principle tells us, this kind of extramural conduct must be ignored.
Now, there will be tough cases, in which the connection between extramural conduct and merit is unclear. In these cases, we must simply do the best that we can. I urge caution, though, in inferring facts about an employee’s merit from his or her extramural conduct. Once upon a time, private homosexual behavior was accepted as a demerit. And arguments for this, not all of them unreasonable, were mustered; after all, homosexuality was not removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 1987. But it was wrong then, as now, to fire a person for private sexual behavior. Historically, we have been too willing to regard extramural conduct as a demerit, and so that is what we must be on guard against.
In addition to its theoretical virtues, the principle provides guidance for resolving the difficult questions of justice we are grappling with today. It is a principle which has served us well. We should trust in it for the future.
Thomas Mulligan is a political philosopher at Georgetown University and author of “Justice and the Meritocratic State.”