Suppose I’m a black woman who’s just been denied a job, or accommodation, or whatever, because I’m a black woman, notwithstanding that most of my black brothers and sisters are not being denied these things, at least in the community in which I live. Have I or have I not suffered an injustice? Most people, I think, would grant that I have. And what this shows, I submit, is that whereas frequency of discrimination might be a measure of social justice, injustice itself is suffered by individuals.

One important corollary of this is that one needn’t be a member of a minority to suffer an injustice. Under Apartheid ‘blecks’ were discriminated against notwithstanding they were in the majority. Likewise Indians under British colonialism. So being in the minority rather than the majority, and being the victims of an injustice rather than its perpetrators, are entirely orthogonal distinctions. Now put that on the back burner for a moment.

Unlike some of my ‘fellow travellers’, I have no problem with affirmative action policies designed to ameliorate the disadvantage of people who’ve been disadvantaged by their group membership. And by ‘disadvantaged’ here I include conditions having nothing to do with some history of discrimination. For example, imagine a very recent plague that has retarded the development of all and only people of Scottish extraction. No history of discrimination, at least not here in Canada, but they might nonetheless be entitled to a leg up to bring them back up to speed with the rest of us. In fact isn’t this precisely why we have state-sponsored physiotherapy for people who’ve been in a car accident? 

That said, we don’t think that people who’ve been disadvantaged through no fault of others have an automatic right to a leg up, whereas we’ve decided – and rightly so, I think – that people who’ve been disadvantaged by the discriminatory practices of others do have a right to a leg up. Now let’s put that on the other back burner.

Affirmative action polities are, by definition, discriminatory. But that doesn’t make them immoral. Nor, at least in Canada, illegal. The core intuition, then, is that if you’ve been discriminated against, and suffered the consequences thereof, and if, for whatever reason, you’ve been denied a leg up by such programs that otherwise should provide it, another can, with moral impunity, provide that leg up himself.

Now let’s bring those two burners to the front. Imagine, then, that there’s been an affirmative action hiring program that precludes all and only white males from being considered. Imagine now there’s a job ad that makes no such stipulation, and that I’m on that committee. Can I or can I not shortlist white male applicants only? It would seem, from what’s been decided above, that I can, and perhaps even should.

What follows from this? Lawyers are not allowed to serve on a jury. And for good reason. Something similar, I suspect, should be said of philosophers serving on a hiring committee. And, it now seems, for the same good reason.

Categories: Everything You Wanted to Know About What's Going On in the World But Were Afraid to Ask, Social and Political Philosophy, Why My Colleagues Are Idiots

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3 replies

  1. Given: the recent plague retards the development of all and only Scots-Canadians. All those clever engineers and gifted bag-pipers, laid low and stunted.

    We should like to help them recover or at least live decently if the disability could not be ameliorated so a leg-up or a cheque seems just. And from the given follows that all and only Scots need the leg-up. But how do you tell who the Scots are when they show up at the service wicket? Do you let them self-identify? Do you peer at them suspiciously and say, “Funny, you don’t *look* Scottish.”? Do you require registration after satisfying some test, with a card and photo and bar-code? Or do you instead have a test for the relevant disability, not the ethnic origin? This provides benefit to all the affected and to none of the non-affected, thus delivering a just allocation even if the given turns out to be not 100% true, as of course it would not be in real life. Nearly all those receiving the benefit will be Scottish, but the public already knows it as the “Scottish disease” so no cause for torches and pitchforks, (unless contagious of course.)

    Note how mere membership in the group “Scots-Canadians” is not the cause of the disability. It’s only because the artificial nature of the given makes it appear so. “Being” Scottish probably has nothing to do with it except for the effect of certain “founder” genes which compete ever more weakly (as outbreeding continues here) with other influences on disease. The “root causes” lie deeper. And I suspect that resentment about reverse discrimination simmers over what those root causes actually are and to what degree a self-identified member can claim, qua membership, to be entitled to the leg-up. I don’t have the disability but I’m Scottish—prove I’m not—so where’s my cheque?

    Here I pause for a ruling from the referee. Is it fair in argument to accept a given but then change one’s mind part way along and attempt to refute the given? Or is this moving the goalposts just an admission of invalidity in one’s argument?)


    • Suppose the Nazis were only trying to wipe out the allele for Tay Sachs, and suppose only Ashkenazi Jews carry the allele.. It’s true that trying to kill all the Jews was a bit of an overkill, and in fact in this case, given the given, the cure was worse than the disease. But this extreme example aside, in the much more realistic case of the Scottish virus, I think we should go for some metonymous test. Does the applicant, or does she not, have the smell of haggis on her breath? Just as an aside, though I take Leslie’s concerns here seriously, I think there may be some special pleading at play. MacMillan sounds awfully Scottish to me!


    • Gifted bag-piper is an oxymoron! Hey, I’m just sayin’.


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