Ariadne's Thread is designed to help you work out and defend your
own views on the subject of affirmative action, chiefly as it
applies to race or color in the United States.
Affirmative action can mean many things; but moral, political,
and legal controversy tends to arise when it includes some form
of preference given to blacks (or women) when applying for jobs
or professional schools. The kind of preference and the extent
of the preference can vary greatly, but the central question remains
Is there a moral justification for giving preferential treatment
to black applicants for jobs, training, and schools? If so, what
is it? If not, why not? Is such treatment morally obligatory or
merely permissible? Why?
This question itself leads to many others, some of which are mentioned
on the following pages. Comment
If preferential treatment is justified as a form of compensation
for past discrimination against blacks, or past exploitation of
their labor, what exactly is the moral principle of compensation
that should be used? Is there a right to compensation for past
injustice? How is it defined? How does it apply to blacks and
whites (or women) in America?
What concrete implications do different principles have for social
policy? What form should compensation take? Who should be eligible?
Does the principle apply to other groups as well as blacks, for
example, to women, or to the poor in general? Does it apply to
white ethnic groups that are not as well off as others? Or
is there something different in the experience of black Americans
that makes their case unique? Comment
Can affirmative action be justified as a means to certain worthy
social goals other than compensation? What if it is seen as a
means to reduce poverty, or create a more equal distribution of
wealth, or to make the American economy more competitive? What
if it is seen as a way to achieve a greater ethnic diversity in
schools and professions?
Most of us would agree that these goals have some value. Is that
value sufficient to justify 'preferential' treatment? How do we
decide such questions? Is there a moral arithmetic to assist us?
Is there a cost-benefit analysis that will help? Do people have
rights that should not be interfered with in order to pursue desirable
social goals? Are any of those rights relevant to the affirmative
action debate? Comment
One way to examine affirmative action policies is to ask whether they violate anyone's moral rights. For example, does a policy of preferential treatment for blacks in hiring violate a white applicant's right to equal treatment? What does it mean to say that every applicant has a right to equal treatment? How do we know when people are treated equally?
Does each applicant have a right to be judged without regard to
race or sex or color? Why or why not? Does each applicant have
a right to be judged simply on the ability to do the job? If so,
why? If not, why not? Should private schools and employers have the right to enroll or hire on whatever basis they wish? Why or why not?
Do these rights conflict with a right to compensation? What if
they do? Comment
These are only some of the moral questions that you will look
at as you work through this program. Once again, the program is
not intended to argue for or against affirmative action. It is
designed to introduce issues, to help you to explore them, and
to develop your own critical skills.
As you read through the 'conversation' on Ariadne's Thread, think
carefully about the different arguments. Examine your own beliefs.
Bear in mind that intelligent, knowledgeable, humane people disagree
on these issues. Try to develop an argument for your own position.
Affirmative action raises broader questions that you should consider
as you follow the thread and develop your own views.
To some extent, our society has been moving away from one in which
the advantages of being white and male were taken for granted
and toward one in which power, wealth, income, and education are
more evenly distributed. We do not know how far this trend will
We must decide, individually and collectively, what we mean by
"equal opportunity," "equal access," and "equal
rights." We must decide how important it is to achieve these
goals and what we are willing to give up (or not give up) in order
to achieve them. We must also decide which means to these goals
are legitimate, which are the best, and which are to be avoided
at all costs. Where should affirmative action fit in, if at all,
We are also in the process of reconsidering the proper role of
government and the proper definition of public and private affairs.
What was once a private act, such as hiring or firing an employee,
is no longer treated as such by the law. On the other hand, there
has been considerable political pressure to reduce the scope of
government, especially at the federal level. Policies that are
seen by some as helping the disadvantaged are seen by others as
intrusive or as violations of property rights.
Attempts to solve political and economic problems connected with race and gender in America have made use of government in ways that would have been startling even 50 years ago. They raise fundamental questions about the proper boundaries of government action and the rights of individuals. Can we agree on a principled basis for both government action and individual rights? If so, what is that basis? If not, why not? Most important of all: What do you think and what arguments or reasons can you offer to support your view?