The matter of affirmative action once again hit the headlines in the United States with the Supreme Court upholding Michigan’s civil rights amendment, which had been overturned. The amendment specifies that:
(1) The University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Wayne State University, and any other public college or university, community college, or school district shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.
(2) The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.
On the face of it, these two things seem to be exactly what civil rights laws should state, namely that discrimination and preferential treatment of the sorts specified is forbidden. As such, it might surprise some that the amendment has faced opposition from civil rights supporters and liberals. The main reason is that the amendment is aimed at ending affirmative action in public education and public sector jobs. Before the amendment, race could be used as a factor in college admissions and in hiring when doing so would address perceived racial disparities.
Despite being often cast as an academic liberal (with all attendant sins), I have long had a somewhat mixed view of affirmative action in education and employment. As an individualist who believes in the value of merit, I hold that college admission and hiring should be based entirely on the merit of the individual. That is, the best qualified person should be admitted or hired, regardless of race, gender and so on. This is based on the principle that admission and hiring should be based on earning the admission or job and this is fairly and justly based on whether or not an individual merits the admission or job.
To use a sports analogy, the person who gets the first place award for a 5K race should be the person who runs the race the fastest. This person has merited the award by winning. To deny the best runner the award and give it to someone else in the name of diversity would be both absurd and unfair—even if there is a lack of diversity in regards to the winners. As such, the idea of engaging in social engineering at the expense of the individual tends to strike me as wrong.
However, I also am well aware of the institutionalized inequality in America and that dismantling such a system can, on utilitarian grounds, allow treating specific individuals unjustly in the name of the greater good. There is also the matter of the fairness of the competition.
In my 5K analogy, I am assuming that the competition is fair and victory is a matter of ability. That is, everyone one runs the same course and no one possesses an unfair advantage, such as having a head start or being able to use a bike. In such a fair competition, the winner fairly earns the victory. Unfortunately, the world outside of a fair 5K is rather different.
Discrimination, segregation and unjust inequality are still the order of the day in much of the United States. As such, when people are competing for admission to schools and for jobs, some people enjoy considerable unfair advantages while others face significant and unfair disadvantages. For example, African-Americans are more likely to attend underfunded and lower quality public schools and they face the specter of racism that still haunts America. As such, when people apply for college or for state jobs they are not meeting on the starting line of a fair race which will grant victory to the best person. Rather, people are scattered about (some far behind the starting line, some far ahead) and some enjoy unfair advantages while others unfair burdens.
Interestingly, many of these advantages and burdens involve employment and education. For example, a family that has a legacy at a school will have an advantage over a family whose members have never attended college. As such, affirmative action can shift things in the direction of fairness by, to use my racing analogy, pushing people backwards or forwards to bring everyone closer to the starting line to allow for a fairer competition.
To use a somewhat problematic analogy, 5K races divide the trophies up by age and gender (and some have wheelchair divisions as well). As such, an old runner like myself can stand a chance of winning an age group award, even though the young fellows enjoy that advantage of youth. The analogy works in that the 5K, like affirmative action done properly, recognizes factors that influence the competition that can be justly compensated for so that people can achieve success. The analogy, obviously enough, does start to break apart when pushed (as all analogies do). For example, affirmative action with trophies will never make me as fast as the youth, whereas affirmative action in college admission could allow a disadvantaged student match those who have enjoyed advantages. It also faces the obvious risk of suggesting that the competitors are actually inferior and cannot compete in the open competition. However, it does show that affirmative action can be squared with fair competition.
In closing, I do believe that a person of good conscience can be concerned about the ethics of affirmative action. After all, it does seem to run contrary to the principles of fairness and equality by seeming to grant a special advantage to some people based on race, gender and such. I also hold that a person of good conscience can be for affirmative action—after all, it is supposed to aim at rectifying disadvantages and creating a society in which fair competition based on merit can properly take place.