Affirmative Action

Arguments Against Arguments Against Affirmative Action

Louis P. Pojman in his essay The Case Against Affirmative Action divides affirmative action into two tiers: weak affirmative action and strong affirmative action. The weak version is an argument for the equality of opportunity, which would include policies such as providing scholarships for the underprivileged or in other ways increasing the opportunity for “disadvantaged people to attain social goods and offices” (Pojman 2). Conversely, strong affirmative action seeks to tilt the scales at the results stage; it would include policies that preferentially treat applicants on the basis of race. Pojman argues that weak affirmative action is morally required, and that strong affirmative action is morally reprehensible. He examines six arguments in favor of strong affirmative action and concludes that they all fail. He also argues in favor of three arguments against strong affirmative action. This essay will serve two main functions. The first is to criticize Pojman’s division between weak and strong affirmative action. The second will be to respond to his rebuttals to two arguments for strong affirmative action, specifically his remarks on the diversity argument and the “no one deserves their talent” argument, which I’ll shorten to the undeserved merit argument. I’ll begin by taking a deeper look at Pojman’s view on the differences between weak and strong affirmative action and argue that they are not particularly meaningful. Then I will overview the case for the argument for diversity, explain Pojman’s objections to those arguments, and interject my rebuttals. I will follow the same structure for the underserved merit argument.

I have already overviewed some differences that Pojman lays out between weak and strong affirmative action in the introduction. Further details include stipulations that weak affirmative action can include policies such as scholarships specifically for underprivileged classes, but that these should be based on socio-economic background and not race. He also characterizes strong affirmative action with examples such as, black female students being accepted into college over white male students with superior qualifications and provides similar examples applied to the professional domain. I think the main difference Pojman stakes out between the two types of affirmative action is succinctly captured in his statement, “the goal of weak affirmative action is equal opportunity to compete, not equal results” (Pojman 2). All the other examples he gives seem to align under this maxim. We should not favor one applicant over another on the basis of race in regard to college admissions because that would be tilting the scales at the result stage. We should, however, ensure that students from all backgrounds have equal access to the tools that might make them strong applicants for college.

The fundamental flaw with this criterion for differentiating policies that count as strong affirmative action with those that count as weak affirmative action is that there is no clear way to define what counts as an ‘opportunity’ and what counts as a ‘result’. Even more strongly, the situations which Pojman sees as illegitimately equalizing results, could be easily interpreted as an opportunity that could be legitimately equalized so that the agent could compete for some higher result. For example, in the situation of college admissions, Pojman believes it is unfair for certain groups of people to be advantaged over others. He views the result here as being accepted into the university in question and the opportunity as some baseline of schooling and resources that make a student a strong applicant. If you shift the window through which you are looking at this hypothetical applicant’s life, perhaps their real goal is being a doctor. Equal opportunity for the result of being a doctor would include admission into this college. If it is a prestigious school, an education at that institution would improve their likelihood of being accepted into and graduating from medical school. If other applicants who also want to be doctors are accepted into the school, then it seems like society is failing to guarantee the original student a fair opportunity to compete.

Of course, Pojman can respond by saying the type of opportunity he means is primary schooling. Access to all other opportunities after primary schooling can be regarded as a result that should not be equalized under his framework. However, it seems arbitrary to choose a moment in time when inequality in opportunity is suddenly permitted. Without a sufficient reason behind this cut off point, the distinction between these two tiers of affirmative action seems meaningless. As an extension, the moral distaste of strong affirmative action and the moral acceptance of the weak version are misplaced.

After formulating this distinction between weak and strong affirmative action, Pojman spends the next part of his essay discussing certain arguments for strong affirmative action. Despite my rejection of this delineation, I will address his responses to the arguments for strong affirmative action on its merits. One of the arguments he analyzes, he calls the argument for diversity. The argument for diversity states that there is value in encountering people from different backgrounds. People from different backgrounds can bring with them different ideas and values that they can expose other students to. Encountering a variety of perspectives can help someone to scrutinize their own views and refine their opinion with the aid of more complete context. A diverse student population will also share their culture. There is often “aesthetic and moral value” to diverse customs (Pojman 6). Additionally, in the pluralistic world that we live in, it is important to know how to get along with people of different ethnicities and races. The presence of students of different races gives other students the opportunity to practice how to interact with the diverse world they will graduate into.

Pojman rejects these benefits on the grounds that they do not seem substantial enough to override a principle of treating people with equal respect. Admitting students for the sake of educating other students about different cultures or exposing them to interactions with students of different races is treating minority students’ as a means to an end. He also argues that competence far outweighs diversity. He would much prefer that the surgeon who operates on him is skilled than that he adds to the diversity quotient of the hospital staff. He makes a similar argument about how basketball fans would much prefer a high performing team than one whose players accurately reflect the demographic makeup of the country they live in.

I’ll reply to each of these points in order. It does not seem that taking diversity into account interferes with the maxim that people should be treated with equal respect. For example, in the case of college admission, admissions officers are making decisions based on their preference of certain traits over others. This practice is not one that Pojman rejects in its entirety so I will assume that it still counts as treating people with equal respect. Adding diversity to the list of criteria that admissions officers are trying to maximize does not fundamentally change the type of task they are doing. If preferring an applicant who was a high school debater over one who was a mechanic’s apprentice is treating people with equal respect, so is preferring an applicant whose culture is not as well represented in the student body over one whose culture is. It would, therefore, maintain its status as a practice that treats people with equal respect

His second argument is that minority students would be treated as a means instead of an end. He does not explain why such a classification is so damaging to the argument for affirmative action. To revisit the example of college admissions, students are often admitted not just on the basis of their academic achievements insofar as they benefit the student. Their academic achievements are valued partially because of what their potential success in their field of choice could mean for the school’s reputation or endowment. Looking at potential students through such a lens is also treating them as a means to raise the reputation of the schoo. Examples of this type of potential student analysis extends past just calculations of possible future donations. For example excellent athletes are often advantaged in college admissions because they will benefit the performance of their team at the college. Other students might enjoy having a high performing team represent their school. A consideration of how a student’s presence on campus benefits people other than themselves is at least partially treating them as a means for an end that is not themselves. Students in the current state of college admissions are often treated as a means. A rejection of affirmative action on these grounds would have to be followed by a rejection of all such criteria in college admissions.

His final argument is that the competence of students should heavily outweigh what they add to the overall diversity of the school. I have two responses for this point. First, I think that this argument does not refute affirmative action policies. It is often the case that people accepted through affirmative action are quite well qualified anyway. Even if they are not as well credentialed as other applicants the competence trade off seems small, though this claim is an empirical one. In either case, an acceptance of diversity as a possible criteria to choose one applicant, even if weighed lightly, over the other is an intrinsic acceptance of some level of equalizing of results.

Second, the definition of competence that Pojman uses is unclear. If competence is defined as the amalgamation of the necessary traits that would benefit a person in performing at a certain job, it seems obvious that competence is the only quality that one should be maximizing. In this case, I would argue that an applicant’s potential contribution to diversity would be included in this overall competence metric for the reasons outlined in the positive arguments above. If competence is a more specific quality, having to do with intelligence and hard skills applied to whatever the occupation is, then the amount to which that quality contributes to overall potential job performance varies from position to position.

In the case of a surgeon perhaps it is relatively more important that they are competent. For other positions, however, like being a student at a certain college, competence of this definition seems to constitute a lower proportion of their overall quality as a candidate. Qualities such as friendliness, speaking skills, ambition might contribute significantly to one’s candidacy. Since it is the case that competence contributes different amounts to the quality of a candidate, it is wrong to say that competence always heavily outweighs contribution to diversity. Pojman’s attacks on diversity fail in several ways. Any acceptance of diversity as a possible criteria for accepting a candidate into a position is an example of taking race into account in the results stage, and is an acceptance of strong affirmative action.

The final argument for strong affirmative action that Pojman looks at is what I’m calling the underserved merit argument. The argument revolves around the idea that all the qualities which we currently possess were bestowed upon us at birth, as a part of the genetic lottery. While it is the case that a person who is currently a professional ballerina was probably incapable of performing pirouettes at birth, her potential to become an extremely good dancer was the result of some natural gift for dexterity in her limbs or work ethic. This argument presupposes the idea that all skills or qualities we currently possess can be traced to some trait we had or were destined to have from birth. Since it was purely chance that we ended up the way we currently exist, as it was the result of chance that we were given the traits we were at birth, we have not truly earned any of our achievements. Since we do not deserve our credentials, we don’t have a legitimate claim to any position. Therefore, society can distribute positions in any way the society desires; the process of distribution can include strong affirmative action.

Pojman gives a formal formulation of the argument which he will use to dispute its validity. The argument is constructed as follows: 1. Society ought to distribute positions on the basis of whether or not an individual has a claim to that position, 2. In order to have a claim to something, one must have earned it, 3. Individuals have not earned their natural intellect, work ethic, industriousness, or any other quality that leads to superior qualifications 4. People who have not earned what produces something, have not earned the result. 5. People with superior qualifications do not deserve positions over less qualified individuals (Pojman 10).

Pojman argues against the undeserved merit argument by disputing the 4th premise. He believes it can be the case that people deserve the products of tools which they did not deserve. He gives an example of two people who are given a gift of $100. Person A chooses to save the money by burying it in a box underground. Person B chooses to invest the money into stocks. After 10 years, person A digs up his box and still has $100, while person B sells his stocks, which has increased in value over time, and has $200. Pojman argues that it would be unreasonable for person A to be entitled to the gains from person B’s initial investment into the stock market. Despite the fact that person B did not deserve the initial $100, as it was a gift, he can still deserve the extra $100 that the initial $100 produced.

The issue is that the scenario does not accurately recreate the stipulations of the premise. Pojman argues that person B should be rewarded for making the better financial decision to invest the gift. He is implicitly creating two separate categories for analysis. The first is the gift, which represents undeserved merit and the second is the decision to invest, which constitutes deserved merit. The words ‘gift’ and ‘decision’ are meant to appeal to the reader’s sense of which source usually serves as a reasonable basis for deserving something. However, it seems wrong to create such a contrast. Person B’s decision to invest the money could be the result of some savvy business sense or some propensity for long-term thinking. A proponent of the undeserved merit argument would claim that such traits can be traced to some genetic gift that person B did not deserve. In this case both the gift of money and the decision to invest are both representative of undeserved merit. One reasonable reframing of the scenario with these observations in mind would be: person A is undeservedly given a gift of $100 and person B is undeservedly given a gift of $200. The $200 is meant to represent the financial worth of the original $100 added to whatever undeserved skills person B utilized in making the decision to invest the money. In this case, it seems much less clear that Person B is deserving of the extra $100. Since the example Pojman uses to refute the 4th premise of the undeserved merit argument, does not accurately reflect the situation, it fails to refute the point. As a result, the undeserved merit argument is still a valid argument in favor of strong affirmative action.

Ultimately Pojman fails to create a meaningful distinction between weak and strong affirmative action. His refutations against the argument for diversity and the undeserved merit argument, have serious flaws, such as failing to address how diversity of backgrounds is fundamentally different than any other acceptance criteria, and unsuccessfully refuting the 4th premise of the undeserved merit argument.