The Great Debate IV: Affirmative Action, Diversity, and Ethics


So in response to recent comments by the 2012 Republican candidates (especially Rick Santorum), I want to post this explanation of affirmative action, diversity, and ethics. As opposed to Santorum’s view,* diversity matters.

Affirmative action policies must be on a case-by-case basis to promote all types of diversity. Diversity is also encouraged in education and the workplace since it should be held as a common goal and shared value in higher education. Universities should provide documentation of its efforts to promote diversity in the campus community and not just its race-conscious admission policy. Craig Johnson (2008) explains in his book, Meeting the Ethical Challenges of Leadership, that culture is, “Language, rituals, stories, buildings, beliefs, assumptions, power structures forms culture. Cultures are comprehensive, incorporating both the visible and the invisible as it is the total way of life of a people, composed of their learned and shared behavior patterns, values, norms, and material objects.” (pg. 120). It is created among the people, learned through traditions, incorporates shared values and customs, and stems from a dynamic, fluidic definition. Therefore, we want to be aware of each group’s and culture’s differences and unique experiences.

The policies of affirmative action are constantly questioned because of our democratic process to question the fairness and justice of our policies. From an ethical standpoint affirmative action may seem like a justifiable way to address the inequalities in higher education. All too often, “The traditional one-sided view of promoting diversity through college admissions focuses on equal access to educational opportunities for minority students. This approach suggests a zero-sum gain such that for every minority student accepted for admission, there is a lost opportunity for an equally, or even more qualified, non-minority student. Arguments in favor of diversity from this perspective tend to rely on ethical considerations of equality and social justice. However, social psychological research suggests that the benefits of a diverse student body are realized not by just the minority population, but by all students” (Carnegie Mellon University Diversity Advisory Council, 2000). Rawls’ (1957) justice of fairness ethical standards holds two principles that can be applied to affirmative action policies: “1) The principle of equal liberty where each person has an equal right to the same basic liberties that are compatible with similar liberties for all. 2) Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: a) They are to be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity. a) They are to provide the greatest benefit to the least advantaged members of society” (Johnson, 2008, p.144). In other words, everyone has equal rights regardless of background, race, socio-economic status, gender, sexual orientation. Yet, the principles also address the fact that inequalities exists so leaders must make sure that everyone has access to opportunities. A good example is rewarding schools that are academically rigorous while also diverse or a holistic review of applicants in the admission process. Johnson (2008) explains that “priority should be given to meeting the needs of the poor, immigrants, minorities, and other marginalized groups” (pgs. 144).

Since this ethical standard emphasizes the importance of equal liberty, equal opportunity, and the difference principle, it nurtures individuality so that talent can be developed but not at the expense of the good of the greater community. It is democratic in nature so that everyone is treated fairly. This is important since minority students have many talents and seek opportunities to pursue their goals. At the same time, higher education must be aware of its responsibilities to help all students in the same way. Educational leaders have a responsibility to guarantee basic rights to everyone including equal access. This might mean that special efforts are needed in order so that all populations are aware of the benefits and opportunities available. As Johnson explains that diversity is important because from an ethical standpoint it is the right thing to do and promotes justice. As many have stated, diversity can be a significantly challenging task. Many institutions create obstacles to diversity by maintaining practices that do not include values from other cultures. Educators must make sure that institutional discrimination does not hinder justice and diversity.

As moral agent and leader in the community, universities must uphold justice and fairness in their admission policies and also encourage others to have ethical standards concerning diversity. Affirmative action is a double-edged sword with pros and cons that must be weighed in admissions. Therefore, affirmative action must be analyzed by ethical standards such as Rawls’ (1957) Justice as Fairness theory. Burns’ (1978) definition of transformational leadership states, “Transformational leaders focus on terminal values such as liberty, equality, and justice. These values mobilize and energize followers, create an agenda for action, and appeal to larger audiences” (pg. 168). Transformational leaders are needed because they have higher ethical standards and performance since they show higher levels of moral reasoning. According to Gudykunst and Kim (2003) intercultural adaptation theory, leaders need to be mindful, open, have integrity, inclusion. Ethical leadership must take into account the potential, far-ranging consequences of every choice especially concerning diverse populations.

Nonetheless, ethical relativism is not the end result. There are shared commonalities with all people such as the Golden rule, ‘Treat others as you would want to be treated.” Sharon Welch (1990) in her book, A Feminist Ethic of Risk, gives recommendations for the type of multicultural campus community that State University should try to achieve. She argues that communicative ethics is, “to see the fundamental flaws in shared systems of values and behaviors requires difference, a thorough engagement with other communities, with other systems of knowing and acting” (pg. 15). The goal is community, solidarity, accountability, respect, to interact critically and honestly, and critical engagement. In other words, “we work with, not for, others” (pg. 127).

Welch (1990) discusses the ethics of risk to embrace difference as a part of policy-making. We can agree on shared values but we often differ on how to implement these new initiatives such as flexible race-conscious admission policies. This is the desired result. We want to encourage different thinking and recommendations in order to come closer to a more informed and better affirmative action policies. She states, “The goal of communicative ethics is not merely consensus but mutual critique leading to more adequate understandings of what is just and how particular forms of justice may be achieved. When such critique occurs we may well find that more than our definitions of what is just are challenged; the prerequisites of acting justly may be challenged as well.” (Welch, 1990, pg. 129). This is the beauty of the American government and court system; where, although free European American males have dominated for centuries, oppressed and marginalized groups such as racial minorities can have a say in affirmative action policy-making. Therefore, we need to make sure that all students are allowed access and opportunities in higher education.

As Welch (1990) continues to discuss that there needs to be an ethic of risk or radical reform where students can rethink what we know about knowledge, culture, and associations among people. Then political and social contestation, negotiation, and resistance make the ever-shifting boundaries and alliances of youth identity formation (Swanson et al., 2002; Vandiver & Cross, 2001; Vandiver et al, 2002; Welch, 1990, pg. 5). It means students will be encouraged to think in an interdisciplinary way about people, behaviors, and perceptions and linking them in the way we live. Welch (1990) states, “Listening and grieving, loving and raging, moral discernment occurs as we act and think together, accepting accountability for our people’s violations of the integrity of others, moving from grief at ‘all that has been lost’ to committed action, rebuilding, healing, and celebrating communities of resistance and solidarity” (pg. 151). Diversity is important because, personally, it has made my character, my education, and my community better.

In response to those worried about preferential treatment for minorities universities should implement institutional diversity plans. Welch (1990) states, “our stories, as whites and as elites, still need to be told, but from a new, chastened perspective” (pg. 139) Welch uses the women’s movement as an example of the difficulties in coming together. She looks at African American feminist literature and is able to engage an alternative viewpoint that would have been missing if she had not made an attempt to include it in the canon of American feminist literature. No longer can offices, boards or departments be unconsciously homogeneous. They must be consciously heterogeneous so that all viewpoints can be included in dialogue. Meetings will be longer since everyone must be heard and it will be much more challenging to reach decisions. However, solutions such as better affirmative action policies will be richer, complex, and much more applicable to diverse contexts. Welch (1990) states, “We can transcend the blinders of our own social location, not through becoming objective, but by recognizing the differences by which we ourselves are constituted and I would add to Foucalt, by actively seeking to be partially constituted by work with different groups. Thus the condition of overcoming ideology is difference, a mutually challenging and mutually transformative pluralism” (pg. 151). We cannot move beyond the status quo without acknowledging the differences among stakeholders. In other words, we cannot move beyond theory to practice without using multiculturalism as a resource. From this viewpoint, we have a tangible argument for diversity because it gives stakeholders a product (whether it’s policy, education, law, technology, medicine, research, business, social sciences, humanities, visual arts, performing arts, etc.) that can reach farther markets and make much more impact than just the majority population. For example, “individuals with different backgrounds and experiences will view the world differently and more importantly there is not one single model of expectations and methods” (Diversity Advisory Council, 2000). Therefore, we will have tools to address social injustices with diversity.

From reading previous studies that promote social integration and/or cultural competence, research incorporating both concepts is important. African American students like other minorities are a unique and multi-dimensional group that we cannot only offer one possible solution. A matrix plan must be able to address multiple factors, more importantly, multicultural competence and social integration. Several key elements such as the student’s identity or “self,” family, school, community, and government must be involved to build a strong foundation. Because of the multidimensional problems confronting African American students, the dynamic participation of all factors is important and necessary (Obiakor & Beachum, 2005; Nasim, Roberts, Harrell, Young, 2005).

There are many benefits to diversity on college campuses such as interdisciplinary thinking. McCarthy et al. (2003) observes that our society lacks the desire to collaborate or lack empathy. A possible reason is the dominant view that culture or identity are singular, static and/or rigid definitions of one’s cultural origin and/or background. However, collaboration and dialogue that highlights the roles of diversity, multiplicity, hybridity and multiculturalism can develop the necessary innovative technological advancements and interdisciplinary social policies for our society (Apple, 1993; Franklin & Moss, 2000; McCarthy et al., 2003; Omi & Winant, 1989; Phinney, 2008; Swanson et al., 2002; Vandiver et al., 2002). It can help spur an interdisciplinary approach to practice, research, policymaking, and the arts. Ideal dialogue would allow students to work in groups offering diverse perspectives, complex critical thinking and perspective-taking, and more student-to-student interaction (Engberg & Mayhew, 2007; Good, 2000; Hurtado, 2001; Jones & Abes, 2004; McCarthy et al., 2003; Tierney & Jun, 2001). There must be a safe space to confront issues of diversity and promote cross-cultural communication and negotiation to resolve conflicts. Essentially, it would be the best way to provide every student with the opportunity to gain skills and dispositions that are needed in today’s diverse democracy and global market.

Colleges/Universities highest goals will be well-served by raising the consciousness of the entire university community about the benefits of creating a more diverse educational experience. As President Cohon of Carnegie Mellon University said in his Statement on Diversity in October, 1999, ‘We must understand that, unlike many of our past successes in interdisciplinary problem-solving, this challenge will not be solved with dispassionate analysis alone. Meeting this challenge will require each of us to recognize our own biases and limitations, to see the University through the eyes of others, and to create an environment of mutual respect. If each of us is willing to do this, universities will be a better place—and it will be a leader’ ” (Ambrose et al., 2004). We must have common goals, core values, and code of ethics to develop multicultural competence.

An African American student’s race and culture are risk and protective factors (like other social categories); therefore, campus communities must be involved in addressing issues of college involvement and engagement; but, also administrators could address student composition, institutional characteristics, institutional resources, and institutional processes such as affirmative action that might directly and indirectly affect African American students college experiences while also promoting multicultural competence. (Fisher, 2007; Russell W. Rumberger and Scott L. Thomas, 2000; Roscigno & Ainsworth-Darnell, 1999).

*”Diversity creates conflict. If we celebrate diversity, we create conflict,” Santorum told an audience in Ottumwa, Iowa.


2 responses »

  1. You assert that “diversity matters” and I agree. What I don’t agree with is your premise that affirmative action (AA) policies must be used to promote it. I think your argument is weak on several key logical and ethical points; I’ve outlined these and where appropriate, supported my argument with a normative ethical perspective.

  2. Your case-by-case approach to AA contradicts its very definition. Scholes (2013) states that AA policies seek to better the position of those groups (who have been disadvantaged) by affirming support for them through according preference or offering support in other ways. Richards (1993) puts forward a clear argument against your view; if the idea is to compensate an individual and not a whole group, then the idea becomes not one of AA, but instead one of support for underprivileged people in general, not support for, say women, because they have been treated unfairly in business hiring practices.
    While reference is made to moral reasoning, moral theory isn’t used to support your opinions. As Fish (2007) highlights, there is a difference between striving to achieve results which society would generally consider to be positive and acting consistently with a moral “law”. Consideration for others is a concept which is asserted by many of the common normative ethical theories. The basis of Kantian theory, for example, is that we have to respect the fact that all people are rational, autonomous beings and treat them as having value in themselves, not as a means to an end; policies which benefit one person at the cost of another are inconsistent with this view. Further to this, the first formulation of Kant’s categorical imperative requires us to act in such a way that the maxim of our action can be willed as a universal law. Using Richards’ (1993) view that AA is synonymous with reverse racism, a form of discrimination, can we say that it is always okay to discriminate against a group that has previously been discriminated against? If this was the case then society would be in a permanent cycle of discriminating and correcting that discrimination through more discrimination; this maxim is contradictory. It can therefore be concluded that discrimination, including reverse racism and AA is morally wrong, regardless of the good intentions behind it and its possible outcomes, because it violates our basic moral rights in that it treats people unequally and cannot be willed as a universal law.
    You advocate governance and regulation as the way to control AA policies. I don’t see legislation as the best way to promote diversity and agree with Justice Roberts’ 2007 opinion on Grutter v Bollinger “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race”. A country’s constitution and laws, such as the Civil Rights Act in the States or Human Rights Act in New Zealand, should support equal opportunity and prohibit discrimination. Individuals need to be encouraged and empowered to accept their rights, accept the concept of universal moral rights and act morally responsibly in relation to these; this view is supported by Gewirth (1978) and Wellman (1996) who points out that moral rights should be enforced by governing bodies if people are not fulfilling their moral duty to respect other’s freedoms. Using the Kantian view to assess this perspective, one can conclude that the concept of rights is acceptable in that it would support us to fulfil our moral duties. Whether there’s AA or rights-based legislation or a combination, it appears that at best society can only strive to do the best we can to get things right. The view of human responsibility I advocate here is the one which I believe represents the best way for us to do that.
    While debating the merits of AA you have not included consideration of what these policies could mean for the targeted groups they ostensibly claim to help. Richards’ (1993) view is that AA cannot be viewed as compensation for righting past wrongs, because it’s not possible to compensate a group by giving benefits to only certain members. She makes a further point that the members who tend to be identified for benefits also tend to be the ones who are the most privileged. A great example of this is can be found in the fact that the blonde haired, blue eyed son of successful pop star Robin Thicke will be viewed as black for AA purposes in the States, because he is classified as 25% black!
    You have also not considered the impact AA can have on someone’s self-esteem or society’s view of the group assisted into a role by AA. If you had a complicated medical condition would you rather be seen by the best qualified doctor or the doctor who qualified because she was a member of a group targeted for AA? Personally, I would go for the best doctor every time; an April 2014 poll run by the South Jersey Times shows that 87% of respondents would make the same choice. Policies which are more lenient to a certain group based on nothing more than ethnicity, gender etc. cannot enhance society’s opinion of the group in a profession.
    In conclusion, I can’t find good reason to support your stance that AA needs to be used as a policy to ethically promote diversity. Instead, by stipulating rules on how diversity is to be achieved I believe it is likely that we would be supporting a morally wrong activity or be infringing on someone else’s right to equal opportunity. As Rodney Hide (2012) pointed out when he compared AA policies in the professions to All Black (current rugby world champions) selection; “Imagine (them) selecting the All Blacks. We would have our first-ever Chinese All Black. But who they would drop? And who would they put in? One thing’s for sure: we would no longer have the best team. I guess we’re lucky. They’re selecting only lawyers, doctors and engineers, not the All Blacks.”

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