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.