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The competing philosophies over affirmative action

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© St. Petersburg Times
published November 3, 2002

The divisive issue of affirmative action in higher education may finally be considered by the nation's high court. Two petitions ask the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the constitutionality of admissions policies for an undergraduate program at the University of Michigan and the university's law school. Both schools give a substantial advantage to applicants from racial and ethnic minority groups, except Asians. The court has not yet decided whether to accept the cases, but a clear split in the appeals courts has led many court-watchers to believe the justices can no longer duck the issue.

If there is a subject that has galvanized sides in America's culture wars, affirmative action is it. The left unapologetically believes that slavery and other past wrongs have to be rectified by artificially advantaging the racial heirs of those who suffered. The other side says it isn't fair to punish white and Asian students who never discriminated, by essentially keeping them from competing for a chunk of incoming class seats.

In the rhetorical battle, opponents of racial preferences point to advantages given children of black doctors over poor white students from Appalachia. Proponents say the disproportionate number of black students living in poverty and attending subpar schools is evidence of discrimination's vestiges, and redress is still needed.

But what this really all boils down to is a fundamental difference in world view.

In a brilliant lecture critiquing postmodernism, Stephen Hicks, chairman of the philosophy department at Rockford College, defines the competing principles at play. Hicks says those who support racial preferences embrace notions of collectivism, altruism, social determinism and equality, while those opposed are disposed to concepts of individualism, egoism, individual volition and liberty.

His views get to the nub of the dispute.

Collectivism vs. individualism is obvious. Affirmative action's supporters want people to be lumped into groups and treated as part of a whole. The prospect of certain policies being unfair to individuals doesn't register with collectivists, since their concern is how groups do relative to one another. Individualists believe everyone should be evaluated on their own merit regardless of skin color or other immutable characteristic. It simply doesn't matter -- is in fact irrelevant -- if members of certain groups tend not to perform as well.

As to altruism vs. egoism, affirmative action's altruism is apparent in the sensibility that says the historic repression of blacks has put them in a weakened position relative to whites. In a charitable society, the strong help the weak even if it involves some personal sacrifice by members of the dominant group. Egoists, on the other hand, reject forced altruism. They believe that one's individual achievement should control rewards, and everyone is entitled to what he or she has earned.

Hicks gives an example of how differently egoists and altruists would view the fairness of the following contest: Hicks plays a pickup game of one-on-one basketball with Michael Jordan. Both players follow the rules and Jordan wins 100-to-3. According to Hicks, egoists would view this as a fair result. Each man was awarded the points he earned. Altruists would say the contest wasn't at all fair because the weaker player didn't have any chance of success. "Altruism says that in order to equalize opportunities we must take from the strong and give to the weak, that is, we must engage in redistribution," Hicks says.

This also illustrates the difference between equality and liberty. The egalitarian would superimpose handicapping rules on competition, whether in play or the real world, to equalize the field and give everyone a viable opportunity. Libertarians would find any unearned advantage for weaker players or constraints on talent for the stronger ones to be a social wrong and a pox on freedom.

Finally, one of the most insightful points Hicks makes is the way supporters of affirmative action accept social determinism by asserting that the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow keeps blacks from advancing even today. Because "this generation's status is a result of what occurred in the previous generation, its members are constructed by that previous generation's circumstances," Hicks says. This is rejected by believers in individual volition, he says, who presume that people "have the power to choose which social influences they will accept."

Where you fall on this philosophical divide will determine your view of affirmative action and numerous other social policies. The bottom line, as Hicks describes, is whether you believe society should contrive equality, or leave people alone "to make of their lives what they will." I choose door No. 2.

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