Natural Aristocracy, Instrumentalism, Equality and Excellence

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Tongdong Bai's Against Political Equality presents an interpretation of Confucian political morality, a critique of political equality and an argument in support of a form of meritocratic instrumentalism for politics. This paper sympathetically engages with Bai's discussion. It grants, but does not itself defend, his rejection of political equality. It distinguishes basic moral equality from the ideal of social equality, suggesting that Bai's view is compatible with the former, but not with the latter. It then distinguishes two understandings of political meritocracy: meritocratic instrumentalism and natural aristocracy. It clarifies natural aristocracy and presents a case for accepting it over meritocratic instrumentalism. Unlike the proponent of meritocratic instrumentalism, the proponent of natural aristocracy holds that those who are most fit to rule have a claim to rule over and above the instrumental advantages that their rule would secure. And, unlike the proponent of meritocratic instrumentalism, the proponent of natural aristocracy contends that relational values in politics have a role to play in the justification of political decision-making arrangements. Key to the discussion throughout is the challenge that the ideal of social equality poses to any defense of political meritocracy. The paper contends that natural aristocracy is better positioned to respond to this challenge than meritocratic instrumentalism. The paper concludes by relating natural aristocracy to the liberal idea of a social union of social unions and to Michael Walzer's ideal of complex equality.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)39-57
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Confucian Philosophy and Culture
StatePublished - Feb 1 2022


  • complex equality
  • excellence
  • fittingness
  • meritocracy
  • natural aristocracy
  • political equality

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Philosophy
  • Cultural Studies


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