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Now that we’re comfortable with John Rawls’ veil of ignorance theory and difference principle, let’s examine an issue that has become a major source of sociopolitical conflict: affirmative action.
Webster defines affirmative action as “an effort to promote the rights or progress of other disadvantaged persons.” In education, affirmative action is found in school admissions procedures that use race as a factor in determining a prospective student’s competitiveness and value to the school. Over the last few decades, liberal lawmakers and judges have supported the right of schools to use affirmative action. Conservatives challenge it as discriminatory.
I think most of the arguments surrounding affirmative action are distracting or destructive. Beneath them there are two fundamental issues: what is fair and what promotes the social good. Let’s use the veil of ignorance to explore the first and the difference principle to explore the second.
First, let’s consider the fairness argument. Proponents often tout affirmative action as a necessary compensatory solution to the historic mistreatment of certain minorities. Give minorities an advantage now to make up for their disadvantage historically, they say.
Opponents then argue that the beneficiaries of affirmative action are often affluent African and Hispanic Americans. Poor whites get the shaft. Why should an affluent minority student have an advantage in admissions over a similarly affluent white student – or, for that matter, a less affluent white? If affirmative action exists as a compensatory tool to level the socioeconomic playing field, then income, not race, is the fairest factor.
This back and forth is pretty circular, and, in my mind, both proponents and opponents of affirmative action are right. From behind the veil of ignorance, it is hard to argue for or against affirmative action. The compensatory argument isn’t – or, at least, shouldn’t be – the central reason for admissions decisions.
The second reason for affirmative action ties in closely with Rawls’ difference principle, and it is this: schools want diversity. Schools aren’t choosing affirmative action for compensatory social reasons; they’re choosing affirmative action because they know that diversity in race, gender, class, religion, etc. improves the academic and social student experience. Schools want affirmative action.
This argument is compelling. Affirmative action isn’t a government program; it is a choice by school admissions officers who realize that diversity is essential to success in the classroom.
Conservatives argue that in some instances, affirmative action sets up minority students to fail by putting them in rigorous academic environments in which they are not prepared to succeed. Ultimately the minority student, the school, and the white student over whom the minority student was accepted, all lose. Here affirmative action fails the difference principle test because it doesn’t end up benefiting the disadvantaged, nor do they benefit society overall.
However, schools know best. And many schools use affirmative action. Why? Because schools use it to admit students based on potential and not performance. For example, a minority student who overcame significant socioeconomic disadvantages to earn a 3.6 GPA may have more potential than a white student who enjoyed every socioeconomic advantage and ended up with a 3.7. The latter student performed better previously, but the former student has the potential to perform better next time if their relative advantages and disadvantages are erased – which they will be. Schools want kids with potential, and they want diversity in classroom discussions and social settings. Hence affirmative action.
Rawls’ difference principle supports affirmative action in these instances because it produces true equality of opportunity, produces diversity within the student body, and benefits the disadvantaged. I personally am comfortable with this, knowing that as a middle class white man I am likely to lose out on some opportunities. Is affirmative action unfair to me? Maybe. But is it best for society? Absolutely.
In short, the debate should not center on if we use affirmative action, but how we use it to most advance the social good accordance with the difference principle. Conservatives are right: we don’t want to set minority students to fail. But this doesn’t mean we abandon affirmative action as conservatives suggest. Instead, we should allow school administrators – who, after all, know best how to recruit, admit, and create student classes – to use affirmative action to help minority students with under-realized potential to succeed and maximize the social good.
I have found Rawls’ veil of ignorance theory and difference principle enormously helpful in thinking about affirmative action. These philosophical tools also help us construct solution-oriented models for considering other sociopolitical issues such as welfare, gun rights, immigration policy, and environmental advocacy. Let’s use them.