Assignment Essay Topic:
Do you think that some form of affirmative action program for disadvantaged groups should be implemented at educational institutions such as colleges and universities? Why?
Your essay must follow the following outline:
(i) State the relevant moral considerations pertinent to this question.
(ii) Critically examine and evaluate the position of at least one of the authors in this week’s reading list.
(iii) State your own position and justify it.
I expect a professionally written essay that follows the above outline.
Instructions for essay:
Short writing assignments must be no less than two hundred (200) of your own words. This means that quotations do not count against the two hundred words. I will not even read assignments shorter than the required minimum of 200 words (I use a program to monitor word-count) and you will automatically receive zero (0) points for any such assignments. I expect a professionally written essay that is well formulated, without spelling and grammatical errors. I will deduct points for sloppily written essays (see the rubric below). In your essay you should address the question posed directly and thoroughly. You do not need to waste too much space on background unless the question of the essay specifically demands such background.
Notes on Assignment from Instructor:
Instructor’s Supplementary Notes:
Pojman (2007); Dworkin (2007); Harris and Narayan(2007).
1. Affirmative action is a very complicated and difficult subject. It induces strong emotions and invariably leads to heated discussions. Throughout our treatment of this subject I expect a reasoned and professional attitude from all students.
2. The subject of affirmative action (henceforth, AA) has three layers:
(I) Policy Layer: In the past this country has adopted several robust AA policies at the Federal, State, as well as local and institutional levels. The effectiveness of such past policies is a contested issue to date. In some form, AA policies have been implemented by educational institutions throughout the country. The fundamental policy question regarding AA policies is this:
Are AA policies at any level efficacious in achieving their principal goal of advancing the economic conditions of members of the target group?
(II) Legal (Constitutional) Layer: Since the aim of AA policies is to afford certain advantages to members of a selected group (such as race, ethnic, gender, etc.,) in matters of job and educational opportunities, such policies appear to require structural preferential treatment of members of one group over members of other groups. The legal question is this:
Do AA policies that offer structural advantages to members of selected groups in matters of job and educational opportunities violate the Constitution of the US?
(III) Moral Layer: AA policies express the moral consciousness of a nation by (a) acknowledging past systematic moral wrongdoings done to members of a group; and (b) taking responsibility for these wrongdoings by attempting either to make up for such wrongdoings or remedy their present effects. It is important to emphasize that an acknowledgment of past wrongdoing does not in itself imply taking moral responsibility for it. If moral responsibility can be attached only to those who perpetrated the moral wrongdoing and it is not inheritable by their descendants, then generations subsequent to the wrongdoing are not themselves morally responsible for their ancestors’ actions. Hence, it is advisable to carefully distinguish clauses (a) and (b). We shall understand clause (a) as acknowledging wrongdoing of past generations without thereby assuming moral responsibility for them.
By contrast, clause (b) explicitly assumes responsibility for past wrongdoings by the current generation and aims to resolve it by means of implementing AA remedies that offer preferential treatment to the target groups. There are two moral questions raised by clause (b) so understood:
Question (A): Does it make sense for present individuals to embrace moral responsibility for conduct of past individuals?
Question (B): Does it make sense to maintain that preferential benefits are morally due to a group of individuals merely in virtue of their historical affiliation to individuals of the same ethnic, racial, or gender background who as a group were wronged in the past?
3. It is important to emphasize that the justification for AA policies may rest upon considerations that do not require a positive answer to Questions (A) and (B); e.g., see Dworkin’s utilitarian position on this matter on our reading list. However, it is an open question whether such utilitarian considerations are (or are not) overruled by competing moral principles that rely upon rights.
B. Pojman (2007)
1. Pojman’s thesis is clear and simple: Certain kinds of AA policies that benefit disadvantaged groups are morally unjustified because their implementation necessitates reverse discrimination against members of other groups (e.g., white males, Asians, etc.)
2. Pojman supports his thesis by distinguishing between
(a) Week Affirmative Action: by Weak AA Pojman means “policies that will increase the opportunities of disadvantaged people to attain social goods and offices.” (Pojman, p. 474)
(b) Strong Affirmative Action: by Strong AA Pojman means “preferential treatment on the basis of race, ethnicity, or gender (or some other morally irrelevant criterion), discriminating in favor of underrepresented groups against overrepresented groups, aiming at roughly equal results.” (Pojman, p. 474)
3. Pojman maintains that while weak AA has significant moral merit, strong AA has none. He thinks that strong AA is reverse discrimination and, hence, it is morally wrong. The rest of Pojman’s paper is dedicated to criticizing strong AA and various arguments on its behalf. I will let you review these arguments on your own and evaluate their merit.
C. Dworkin. (2007)
1. Dworkin is a fierce advocate of strong AA policies (in Pojman’s terminology). However, unlike some other advocates of AA, Dworkin does not defend AA policies on the ground that members of certain groups (racial, ethnic, gender) are morally entitled or deserve special treatment because of past wrongdoings, not to themselves, but to their ancestors. Perhaps, Dworkin avoid such defense because it faces considerable difficulties hinted at in section A above.
2. Dworkin’s argument is fundamentally a utilitarian argument. He thinks our society faces very severe problems, chief among them are serious economic, educational, social and political inequalities. Moreover, these inequalities divide our society along (primarily) racial lines so that while white males enjoy privileged economic, political, and social status, African Americans enjoy very little.
3. Dworkin concedes that these inequalities may be causally related to the historical conditions of slavery, systematic discrimination, and the past treatment of American Indians. However, he thinks that a defense of AA programs based on such wrongdoings is a mistake: “the (AA) programs are not based on the idea that those who are aided are entitled to aid, but only on the strategic hypothesis that helping them is now an effective way of attacking a national problem.” (Dworkin, p. 488)
4. I leave it up to you to critically examine and evaluate whether Dworkin’s defense of AA programs along utilitarian grounds is cogent.
D. Harris & Narayan. (2007)
1. The principal position of Harris & Narayan (henceforth, HN) is that AA policies must be characterized (and, hence, defended) not as “bestowing benefits” upon members of certain groups, but rather as equalizing opportunities. (HN, p. 492)
2. HN challenge several aspects of the debate about AA policies:
(i) The Scope of AA Policies: HN argue against a misconception that the principal beneficiaries of AA policies are African Americans. They point out that AA policies were initially designed to benefit several other disadvantaged groups such as Latino or Asian Americans.
(ii) Rationale for AA Policies: HN challenge several misunderstandings about the purpose of AA policies. One of these misunderstandings is that AA policies are designed to confer “preferential treatment” upon various target groups. HN maintain that the principal purpose of AA policies is to bring about conditions that equalize the opportunities for members of certain disadvantaged groups.
3. One way of understanding HN’s argument is the following. The debate about AA policies focuses on the distinction between equal outcomes vs. equal opportunities. The opponents of AA policies frequently argue that the aim of such policies is to bring about equality of outcome (in the economic conditions) between minority and majority groups. They maintain that the only legitimate purpose for any institutional program is to insure equality of opportunities.
4. One viable objection against this argument (which may not be specifically HN’s argument) may go as follows. Favoring programs that merely guarantee equal opportunity to everyone makes sense only if the initial conditions with which everyone begins are roughly the same. However, because of past systematic and continuous discrimination against certain disadvantaged groups, the descendants of these groups do not enjoy the initial conditions which members of the Caucasian group, for instance, enjoy. Thus, even if there really were equal opportunity to all, those who enjoy favorable initial conditions (e.g., white males) are for the most part in a much better condition to take advantage of opportunities presented to them than those with unfavorable initial conditions (e.g., African American Males). The only way to remedy this situation is to guarantee that members of disadvantaged groups take advantage of programs that equalize their initial conditions, at least to some extent. AA policies, particularly in the area of education, are designed to achieve this goal.
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