Rethinking affirmative action

I’m an egalitarian. This means I strongly believe that the well being of every human being is equally important regardless of his or her gender, skin colour, ethnicity or any other feature he is not responsible for.

This conviction of mine leads me to have some ideas many proponents of political correctness and Progressives view as profoundly heretical.

I believe that the current notions of affirmative action and positive discrimination are flawed and unjust and should be redefined with respect to (low) life-standards solely.

In an article written in 2011, the British telegraph stated this on this topic.

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It will mean that employers can choose to hire candidates from under-represented groups provided that they are as qualified for the role as other applicants.

A manager will be able lawfully to hire a black man over a white man, a woman over a man, or homosexual man over a heterosexual man, if they have the same skill set.

It is not the same as filling quotas or giving someone a job just because they are a woman, disabled or from an ethnic minority – that would be unlawful.

Positive action is also not the same as positive discrimination, which gives applicants from disadvantaged and under-represented groups preferential treatment in the recruitment process, regardless of their ability to do the job.

An employer cannot offer the job to a woman, or someone from an ethnic background, purely to improve the company’s gender balance.

*****

I want to go into the sentence I emphasised.

Let us consider the following situation.

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Lawrence is a straight white man struggling with poverty to such an extent he can no longer afford paying the rent for his cheap flat despite his best efforts.

Laura is a straight white woman coming from a rich family and possessing two houses.

Lawrence and Laura have the same skills with respect to the job they’re applying for.

According to the principle of affirmative action, the employer shall say what follows to Lawrence:

“I’m afraid I cannot give you the job because a woman with the same abilities wants it as well and I’m morally obliged to privilege her. I’m well aware you’re extremely poorer than her. I know that if she doesn’t receive the position, she would still lead a very wealthy life whereas you would plunge into an unspeakable misery. But that doesn’t play any role at all. You must understand that (historically speaking) white males have oppressed females whereas the reverse isn’t true. Therefore, you should accept the fact you have to be discriminated by virtue of having the same gender as the oppressors.”

*****

This is obviously a thought experiment but I think it illustrates very well the problem of current notions of affirmative action.

I must say that in such a situation I can’t help but feel a profound moral indignation. It is hard not to conclude this is collective punishment, the idea that individuals ought to be punished for features they’re not responsible for.

To see how morally problematic this really is, let us just consider what a Hebrew (and brown-skinned) prophet (namely Ezekiel) wrote more than 2500 years ago.

The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them.
Ezekiel 18:20 preaching against the notion of an inherited guilt.

Western liberals and progressives like to pinpoint moral flaws in the Bible (and sometimes quite rightly so).

But in that specific case, their own morality is inferior to that of the ancient Hebrew prophet.

He spoke out for justice and emphasised the fact that children aren’t responsible for the sins of their parents and shouldn’t be punished or disadvantaged by virtue of their being their sons or daughters.

Western fans of political correctness think that someone ought to be disadvantaged by virtue of his or her having the same gender or skin colour as people having systematically committed wicked acts.

This isn’t moral progress, not even moral retardation but moral regression.

Rethinking the foundations of affirmative action

I don’t think, however, that the whole concept of affirmative action needs to be jettisoned. I just believe it ought to be redefined.

As a Christian, I do believe in self-sacrificing love and in the moral duty to care for the poor, disabled and excluded (see my post about the central message of Jesus).
Jesus and social justice.  Steve Maraboli: "Want to keep Christ in Christmas? Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, forgive the guilty, welcome the unwanted, care for the ill, love your enemies, and do unto others as you would have done unto you".
Jesus’ call has many challenging implications with respect to social justice.
Obviously,many non-Christians agree with these principles which resonate well with our deepest moral intuitions.
This leads me to the following definition of what positive discrimination ought to be.
PDLS (Positive Discrimination based on Life Standards): all things being equal, a person with a lower quality of life and well-being (he or she isn’t responsible for) ought to be privileged and advantaged.
I also think this ought to be related to the consequences of not being hired on well-being, as my example with Lawrence and Laura made it clear.
I even think that it may be moral to hire such a person even if he or she has slightly inferior skills in comparison to the other candidate.
It is worth noting that my own definition of positive discrimination would still lead African Americans (and Arabs in France) to benefit on average from more advantages because of crying inequalities resulting from history.
I strongly believe, however, that we are falling into a moral trap if we define this more favourable treatment in relation to skin colour, gender or sexual orientation in and of themselves, for the reasons I gave above.
So, if a black and a white man, a gay and a heterosexual, or a male and a female have the same level of well-being and quality of life and not receiving a particular job would have the same impact on them, I don’t see why one of them ought to be discriminated or advantaged.
 If, however, a black person not receiving this job would have far more difficulties than a white person to find another one (owing to lingering racism), then her well-being is certainly going to be more affected in the future.
Consequently, according to my own concept of affirmative action, she ought to be favoured.
But this is going to be context-dependent.

Conclusion: more political humility is needed

Politically speaking, I’m pretty left-wing and passionately reject wild (uncontrolled) capitalism while also defending the morality of Gay marriage.
But in that particular case, I just can’t follow the progressive crowd in good conscience.
Still, I do respect their right to disagree with me on that point.
It is a pity that many of them don’t have this attitude towards me and don’t try to engage any rational conversation but instead resort to emotional bullying, calling me a sexist pig or a white supremacist for holding my egalitarian views.

In many respects, politically correct Liberals can be as callous, self-righteous and arrogant as Conservatives.

On average, both camps seem far more interested in defending their cherished dogmas and making ideological points than in humbly seeking the truth and walking towards authentic justice and love.
Fortunately, I also got to know quite a few folks who respect other views and strive for a friendly dialogue.
It is my genuine hope that this blog post will provide people with food for thought, regardless of whether or not they’ll end up agreeing with me.
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2 thoughts on “Rethinking affirmative action

    • Thanks for the link!
      While I certainly agree that these lingering inequalities are awful, I disagree with the approach and think this ought to be decided on a case-by case basis with respect to the relative welfare of the specific two individuals having applied.

      For me, an ideal ethical employer should proceed like this:
      1) Do candidate A and B have the same skill set and good moral character?
      2) Do they currently have the same wealth and well-being?
      3) If they are rejected, will their well-being be equally affected by the consequences?

      As I wrote:

      “If, however, a black person not receiving this job would have far more difficulties than a white person to find another one (owing to lingering racism), then her well-being is certainly going to be more affected in the future.
      Consequently, according to my own concept of affirmative action, she ought to be favoured.
      But this is going to be context-dependent.”

      Now, it goes without saying that the three steps I described can never be perfectly applied in real life.
      But if I were an employer, I’d try to evaluate this as best I can.

      Cheers.

      P.S: where does “Vogelbeere” in your Twitter account stem from? 🙂

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