The Morality of Using Affirmative Action

April 13, 2006 | 46 comments

We have had arguments before about whether college students (training for high-income professions) can morally take advantage of welfare.

Here’s my question today: under what circumstances could a Saint in the United States morally take advantage of affirmative action?

My father, for example, discovered after he had already gone to college that he had American Indian ancestors, enough to have gotten various kinds of scholarships and financial aid. But my father is as Anglo as they come. Could he have morally took advantage of those scholarships if he had found out sooner?

The New York Times has published an article on how DNA testing is revealing previously unsuspected ethnic ancestry in lots of middle-class Anglo Americans. Can they morally take advantage of affirmative action?

What about hispanic or African-American saints from privileged backgrounds?

My tentative take: BYU offers multicultural scholarships that, I think, ultimately have the purpose of helping with proselyting and conversion in ethnic groups the Church has a hard time reaching and getting leadership in. Given that, I believe that a person who will not be seen by members of that ethnic group as belonging to it should not take advantage of those scholarships, while privileged members of that group permissibly could. The analysis is probably different when it comes to government affirmative action, though, and frankly I’m at a loss.

46 Responses to The Morality of Using Affirmative Action

  1. DHofmann on April 13, 2006 at 2:54 am

    “Blame the process, not the person.” If a scholarship is based on race but doesn’t have any restrictions on racial purity, then it’s the fault of the organization funding the scholarship for not being specific, not the student for wanting to apply for it.

  2. Brad Kramer on April 13, 2006 at 3:01 am

    I have a friend whose mother is white South African. She (my friend) tried to take advantage of it by listing herself as African-American on her college and scholarship applications. It didn’t fly. I don’t have a problem with AA per se, but with a program as understandibly controversial as this, taking such advantage or trying to manipulate it is certainly morally questionable if not downright indefensible.

  3. Mark Butler on April 13, 2006 at 3:32 am

    Well, the simplest test for the college welfare question is whether the beneficiaries will more than amply pay back their drain on the public coffers in future taxes. It is hard to argue that the government is a particularly efficient dispenser of largess in any case – the forward looking marginal benefit of providing welfare to college students might well exceed the marginal benefit of additional grants to more conventional supplicants, if not the marginal benefit of not collecting the necessary taxes in the first place.

    Affirmative Action is much more problematic in a fighting fire with fire, live by the sword die by the sword sort of way. One who believes that comphrensive quota-style, race norming AA is inherently unjust must consider an attempt to game the system as unjust as well, if only because it expands its scope. In particular, if civil rights are properly located in individuals, and not groups, attempting to reverse-race norm the system doesn’t help at all, rather it perpetuates it.

  4. DKL on April 13, 2006 at 6:35 am

    I view affirmative action policies as the equivalent to tax policies–that is, one is foolish not to exploit every possible loophole to one’s own advantage.

  5. danithew on April 13, 2006 at 7:09 am

    I think DKL might be onto something.

  6. Lamonte on April 13, 2006 at 7:15 am

    Mark Butler – it’s unfair of me to say, only because I now know you, but your answer makes me ask if you are a lawyer – of course you are. I would offer that the price of a college education is rationalization enough to take advantage of any form of financial aid that is LEGALLY available to a person. If that education helps someone become a contributing member of the greater society, then so much the better.

  7. BrianJ on April 13, 2006 at 7:45 am

    “a person who will not be seen by members of that ethnic group as belonging to it should not take advantage of those scholarships.” So if someone does a DNA test or extensive geneology and determines that they are 1% native american, and a native american group decides that that is suffiicient to be included, then the student should not feel like they are “exploiting a loophole” if they take the scholarship. Sometimes scholarships are designed to benefit presumably disadvantaged students, other scholarships are rewards for excellence, still other scholarships are designed to increase awareness of a group or organization. It’s up to the issuing organization to determine who is eligible and they may have many different reasons for their decisions.

    “What about hispanic or African-American saints from privileged backgrounds?” Again, I think if that if the issuing organization cares about privelege then they can include that in their application requirements.

  8. Adam Greenwood on April 13, 2006 at 8:23 am

    I don’t understand why it should always be the responsibility of the institution to make sure its formal requirements match with its purpose, especially when the formal requirements would be very difficult to match to the purpose. This is a legalistic conception (and an alienating conception, since one sees oneself as apart from the institutions involved) that can be very damaging to people and institutions if broadly adopted. Take BYU, for instance. I think as Saints and as prospective members of the BYU community (which presumably all applicants for affirmative action are), I think we’d have a duty to see that the purpose of the affirmative action scholarships is helping the church in a specific way and avoid actions that hinder that purpose, even if technically permissible. On the other hand, I’m not sure that we have the same duty to government institutions, especially if we think affirmative action is injust. In that circumstance it might be all right to game the affirmative action rules as a way of subverting the unjust law, provided no laws or policies are technically broken.

    Or approach it another way–assume that the applications for affirmative action ask if you are of ‘native american heritage’ or ‘african american heritage.’ What does this mean? Well, it could mean something more than just a percentage of genes. On the other hand, it could be referring just to genetic heritage. Now, in the case of BYU and probably of other institutions, the first meaning is almost certainly the one intended. So are we engaging in a form of deception if we answer yes in the second sense? In some circumstances maybe its ok to answer questions formally accurately, but I have a hard time thinking that one would never have a duty to answer the question based on the questioner’s probable intent.

  9. Mark B. on April 13, 2006 at 8:45 am

    Lamonte–the Mark Butler who wrote comment no. 3 is not the Mark B. you met a few weeks ago in Brooklyn. Furthermore, I can’t imagine myself writing anything like that.

    I’m obviously going to have to come up with a new identity that clearly distinguishes me from him.

  10. danithew on April 13, 2006 at 9:28 am

    If a person needs a DNA test to show they have a minority status, then maybe they have a problem. I thought I heard once of a rule/regulation at an institution where a person had to be at least 1/8th a particular identity to claim it and any correlating benefits.

  11. Elisabeth on April 13, 2006 at 9:29 am

    Adam, these are good, thoughtful questions. I’m a bit confused by this statement, though:

    “In that circumstance it might be all right to game the affirmative action rules as a way of subverting the unjust law, provided no laws or policies are technically broken.”

    I guess I don’t see how we can support affirmative action programs sponsored by the Church, but then find affirmative action programs sponsored by the government “unjust�, and actively work to subvert them by, say, providing incorrect information (checking off the box on government forms for “black� when you’re really “white�).

  12. Matt Evans on April 13, 2006 at 10:06 am

    Adam, if it’s immoral for the government to discriminate on the basis of race, but appropriate for BYU to do so, what distinction between government and church makes the difference? It seems to me that neither of them should treat people as means, rather than ends, and see your argument in favor of BYU’s discriminating against people whose race won’t help the church broaden its appeal to a new demographic as treating applicants as means to the church’s missionary end. You might be arguing that using people as means isn’t dispositively immoral, but if so, I’m hoping you’ll spell it out.

  13. DKL on April 13, 2006 at 10:19 am

    danithew If a person needs a DNA test to show they have a minority status, then maybe they have a problem.

    You’ve got it all wrong, danithew. What the results of the DNA test prove is whether the person has suffered descrimination.. The fact that they’re also a minority is just an unlucky correlation.

  14. ESO on April 13, 2006 at 10:31 am

    I support Affirmative Action and while I tend to agree with DKL that all is fair in college-funding, it does seem questionable to claim a scholarship for which you might technically qualify even though you are presumed to be all things Anglo and thereby beat someone else out for it, someone who actually does experience discrimination.

    If the AA scholarships are unlimited, I have no problem with it, as long as you are honest (if, for example, you are asked if you were raised as a Cherokee and you were not, you should be forthcoming about that).

  15. DKL on April 13, 2006 at 10:41 am

    One problem with deciding that other people are more “deserving” of affirmative action is the stigma that becomes associated with it. There is a problem with that nowadays when people speak derisively about affirmative action hires, or question the fact that Judge Thomas benefited from affirmative action though he does not tend to be friendly to it on a judicial level (which is quite a different thing from being friendly to it on a policy level). If you ask me, having more lilly white affirmative action hires would do a lot to dispell some of the negative stereotypes surrounding the taking advantage of affirmative action.

    My first hand experience in the workplace bears out the notion that having a diverse group of people in a work environment is a tremendous benefit. If we could score talent on a scale from 1 to 10, the I’d make the following estimate: a diverse group with an average score of 8 will run circles around a homogonous group that’s all 10s (this is an argument against always hiring the “most qualified person”). That said, I also consider hiring and admission strategies to be (within certain reasonable bounds) the perview of a company or institution. And its up to them whether they consider DNA results to be reflective of ethnicity according to the definition of diversity that they hope to achieve. If they use DNA as an indicator of that, and if that somehow causes a mismatch between their goals and their achievements, then that’s just so much the worse for them.

  16. john f. on April 13, 2006 at 10:41 am

    As a student of German history and society, I get really nervous any time social or public policy is based on race or genealogy. In case the reasons for this are not obvious, let me just allude to certain early twentieth-century practices in Germany in which genealogy and ancestry were used to determine the purity of bloodlines and policies were laid out about what a single Jew in a given ancestry and at what degree of separation could mean for a living individual.

    Policies that allow race or ethnicity to become the basis for preferential treatment — and which thereby contribute to the rise of an industry focused searching an individual’s DNA for traces of “preferred” blood — are misguided.

  17. Lamonte on April 13, 2006 at 10:46 am

    MarkB – Sorry for the mix-up. It won’t happen again! But your name is Mark Butler isn’t it?

  18. Mark B. on April 13, 2006 at 10:55 am

    Yes, it is. No need to apologize, Lamonte. Maybe “Mark Butler” should apologize for writing something that I wouldn’t have. :-) I’ll make sure he clears his comments with me from now on.

  19. Mark B. on April 13, 2006 at 11:03 am

    It’s time for you all to go read Puddnhead Wilson again.

    Or any recent biography of Jefferson that talks about his Hemings descendants–who were slaves during Jefferson’s life because they were the children of slave mothers, although they looked as “white” as Jefferson himself.

    Like the Nazi practices alluded to by John F., race-based classifications are problematic in all circumstances. And I don’t think that the appropriate solution is to game the system. Attack it head on, instead.

  20. Nate T. on April 13, 2006 at 11:33 am

    Having spent some time in Academia, I can tell you their pretensions of “diversity” are often hollow. One can do two things with this, work the system or try to change it. I personally lean towards working the system (ala DKL) and giving it a jab or two when possible, because taking advantage of it shows how ridiculous it really is (again, with the DNA test showing how oppressed you are, I got a good laugh out of that one).

    As long as one does not lie and stays within the bounds of a program or scholarship, there is no problem with it.

  21. Matt Evans on April 13, 2006 at 11:35 am

    “a diverse group with an average score of 8 will run circles around a homogonous group that’s all 10s”

    DKL, this is so counter-intuitive, I’m hoping you’ll explain. What dimension of diversity sustains this analysis? (A group of 10s, each with their own diverse first name, presumably doesn’t count.) I can’t imagine it’s race, either, as I doubt anyone thinks that an all-black NBA team would be better if only they’d trade in half their 10-talent players for 6-talent Irishmen, Indians and Samoans.

  22. Sarah on April 13, 2006 at 12:00 pm

    My argument is that I would have been Jewish enough for Hitler (*) and non-white enough to be discriminated against in the US before 1910, and that I therefore have enough moral authority to say that the whole notion of this sort of discrimination is stupid and dangerous, and that we ought to stick to giving scholarships to people who are smart and hardworking enough to get into college but not wealthy enough to pay for it, and never mind whatever excuse for racism is deemed socially acceptable at the present time. Come to think of it, I think I might just have the moral authority without the ancestry — the whole thing is really creepy and gross. Genetic tests for scholarships??

    (*) as far as I can tell, I’d be allowed to live under some restrictions, so long as I didn’t “act Jewish.” It’s the sort of thing that really puts a girl off of her lunch.

  23. Greg Call on April 13, 2006 at 12:07 pm

    “race-based classifications are problematic in all circumstances.”

    Is this hyperbole? Do you really think that the Voting Rights Act was a mistake, and that political discrimination in the South could have been addressed in a race blind manner?

  24. Matt Evans on April 13, 2006 at 12:25 pm

    Greg, I’m unfamiliar with the language of the Voting Rights Act, but I don’t understand why race-blind language would be insufficient to prevent racial discrimination.

  25. Mark B. on April 13, 2006 at 12:29 pm

    No, it’s not hyperbole. Saying that race-based classifications are problematic does not mean that they are worse than the alternative–such as Jim Crow laws or the overt racial discrimination in voting registration. But, once you’ve solved the specific ill that the race-based classification was meant to address, how do you move on?

    And, I don’t think that the Voting Rights Act was a mistake, even if Cynthia McKinney (W-Ga) is its ultimate manifestation.

  26. DKL on April 13, 2006 at 12:51 pm

    Matt, you’re right that diversity is a difficult thing to define, which is why it’s best left out of systems that require procedural definitions. Diversity is always relative to some baseline. For example, at the all male college that I attended after BYU threw me out, there was a small group of students who constantly clamored about introducing diversity by accepted women. The appropriate response to this is that the pool of available colleges for men would be less diverse if Wabash College did not remain all-male. As Nate mentions, pretensions to diversity are often hollow, and one reason is because it’s simply impossible to have diversity in everything at all levels.

    That said, what I meant by saying, “a diverse group with an average score of 8 will run circles around a homogonous group that’s all 10s” is this. Let’s take (on the one hand) a group of Christian white guys who grew up in middle class suburban America and went to private colleges who and are between 30 and 38 years old; we’ll call this our homogenous group. Let’s take (on the other hand) a group of men and women, some of whom are from other countries, some of whom are Jewish, some of whom are Muslim, some of whom use English as a second language, some of whom may have gone to state schools; we’ll call this our diverse group.

    What I’ve observed in the technology industry is that other things being equal (and even if on paper there is some gap in qualifications or talents), in an environment that requires collaboration, the diverse group is likely to work better. This is just my observation, and I’m surprised that you find it counter-intuitive. It’s not like it leads me to create some formula according to which I hire people of different ethnicities or religions. It’s that anytime anybody makes a smart hire in an environment that requires a lot of collaboration, they will always consider what that person will add to the team. For obvious reasons, this is a difficult thing to quantify based on qualifications alone; it ends up being partly instinctual and partly informed by past hiring experience (both successes and mistakes).

  27. Greg Call on April 13, 2006 at 1:00 pm

    The Voting Rights Act is explicitly race-based, and I can’t think how it could have been otherwise. By the 1960s, overt racial discrimination had been banned for a century. But the powers that be in the South had been using race-blind means to systematically disenfranchise the black population — literacy tests, good character affidavits, poll taxes, “private” primaries, gerrymandering. The explicitly race-based VRA allowed the Feds to get rid of these tactics and give Southern blacks an effective vote, and effective representation, for the first time since Reconstruction.

  28. Greg Call on April 13, 2006 at 1:02 pm

    That should read: “By the 1960s, overt racial discrimination in voter registration had been banned for a century.”

  29. gst on April 13, 2006 at 1:07 pm

    Greg Call, whatever the motivation behind the Voting Rights Act, it’s provisions are race-blind, aren’t they?

  30. An on April 13, 2006 at 1:11 pm

    I’m certainly hoping for some race-based help for college for my African-American children. I don’t know how in the world else we’re ever going to afford it, seeing as how just bringing them home (the adoption process) takes every darn penny we can muster.

  31. Matt Evans on April 13, 2006 at 1:23 pm


    I agree that what a “person will add to the team” can be as important as their talent, I just don’t see how “diversity,” as that word is understood, serves as a substitute or proxy for that idea. Just like on a basketball teams, when a team is desperate for a ball handler it might be best to get a 6-talent point guard rather than get an unnecessary 10-talent center. But that dimension isn’t typically used in diversity discussions; no one arguing that talent-is-king, as I am here, means one should fill a slot for point guard with a Nobel-winng physicist. It means getting the best point guard you can get.

    What I hear you saying is that a technology company stocked with brilliant white and asian Stanford grads would be better off filling an open Java position with a Brazillian woman with 6-talent Java skills rather than “yet-another” brilliant Stanford grad with 10-talent Java skills. That idea is certainly counter-intuitive and unconventional. Do you think this idea would hold true for a sports team which also must collaborate closely, or if not, why not?

  32. Matt Evans on April 13, 2006 at 1:25 pm

    Greg, what is the “explicitly race-based” language in the Voting Rights Act? That’s what I’m unfamiliar with and can’t see a need for.

  33. Kimball Hunt on April 13, 2006 at 1:36 pm

    Hey Mark B.:

    What (if anything) do you make of Nationalisms?

    E.g.: People of some set-amount of Irish enthicity being allowed to claim citizenship in the Republic of Ireland (and, thereby, even the entire E.C.!). People who speak German and whose ancestors did as well, ditto, for Germany. People who are Greek-speaking Christian, for Greece. Turkish-speaking Muslim, for Turkey. Ad “infinitim.” — People who are NOT Christian or Muslim, et cetera, and whose “halachically correct” ancestry is Jewish (or else who’ve converted to Orthodox Judaism from whatever former ethnicity), to Isreal? Whereas, unfortunately, someone of ancestry from the lands which BECAME Israel cannot! Oh and even here in the U.S. we recognize tribal allegiance to Native American “Indian” nations. And all of this norm of present nation states despite 2000 years of so many interpretations of Jesus’s “Messianic” mandate “to all nations and peoples” — His coming to both Jew and Gentile.

    Is there yet a place for communities as defined by ethnicity, by whatever definition? As, well, I just don’t know how to unravel the threads to the question of “tribalisms: “good” or tribalisms: “bad.”

  34. Greg Call on April 13, 2006 at 2:15 pm

    The language of the act itself may not make racial classification, but the tools and techniques it gave to the Justice Department are definitely based on racial classifications. For example, covered jurisdictions cannot “dilute” minority voting power (e.g., by having multi-member districts), and is some circumstances race must be considered in gerrymandering (though, per the Supreme Court, it cannot be the predominant factor).

  35. DKL on April 13, 2006 at 2:49 pm

    Matt, I think that you’re hung up on the word “diversity.” I’m no expert on how it’s traditionally understood, which is why I’ve tried to provide an example to clarify. Moreover, your hypotheticals introduce disparities in talent that are a full 50% greater than the ones that I worked with. Please, Matt, try to stay within the specified range.

    I’ll also decline to state my case in terms of a sports team. Comparisons between sports and businesses are poorly chosen (though one hears them a lot–is this something they teach MBAs?). Running a sports team has almost nothing to do with running a business, and hence there’s no reason to expect a successful coach to be a successful businessman. The sports team satisfies a series of discrete short term goals. Though the total output of those short term goals is used as a measure for post-season rewards, almost nothing that a team does in any single game impacts anything done in any other game (notable exceptions would include injuries and fine-able or suspend-able actions). The rules are expressly enumerated and seldom change, the tools and equipment are well defined and generally static, and the competition for labor is completely contrived. I could go on and on, but I think that you get the point. Even so, there good reasons in sports to avoid even the most talented players in favor of less talented players or even nobody at all.

    Since you bring up Java, and since I know a bit about how to manage software development cycles, I’ll elaborate on that. Software development is a creative function that requires more than simply coding skills–the difference between a senior and an intermediate programmer has nothing to do with their ability to churn out high quality code. Software projects contain a mix of short and long term goals, and a strong complex interdependency among these goals, such that decisions made at any point in the development cycle can have a strong, direct impact on decisions made at any other point in the development cycle.

    Plus the metrics for success are complex. For example, a project that makes its deadline but requires weeks to fix bugs is generally going to be considered less successful than a project that misses its deadline, drops a couple requirements, but can allow very short turnaround time for bug fixes (a good QA department will track this). And no long term cycle will succeed unless those involved in the project can maintain a strong situational awareness and a good feel for unforeseen contingencies, along with enough business sense to prioritize them appropriately. Moreover, this is true of any business process that requires a substantial amount of collaboration.

    In short, software projects are generally much stronger for embodying a wide range of problem solving approaches. I’m not saying that choosing a mix of American and Indian and Chineese programmers is the silver bullet for making good hires, but in my experience (just to choose an easy example) incorporating people with different types of backgrounds does broaden the range of problem solving approaches that are brought to the table.

  36. JR on April 13, 2006 at 7:43 pm

    As a current student at the University of Michigan (the target of the recent lawsuit to overturn “diversity” criteria in admissions), I am particularly interested in this topic. (Though I’m a business student, not a law student). After one year of studies, I have changed my mind on the topic of diversity.

    There is no doubt in my mind that my education is better because my class is diverse. When talking about outsourcing to India, there is an Indian who can talk about how it is transforming the economy of his hometown. There are more examples than I can count where the diverse backgrounds and experiences of my classmates have contributed to a better classroom education. I think that makes my education better than if my classmates were all slightly more academically qualified men with identical backgrounds to mine. When dealing with a large applicant pool, all of very similar academic credentials, seeking diversity makes sense.

    However, I am more convinced than ever that racial diversity, in and of itself, is irrelevant. What matters more are the resumes, life experiences, and places of origin. While there may be a correlation between these elements and one’s race, it is lazy to use race as a proxy for diversity of experience and thought. A white man who grew up in the inner city might very well add more diversity to my classroom experience than a black man who grew up in the suburbs.

    Affirmative action may seek to promote diversity and help the underprivileged (both goals with which I agree), but it tends to do it in a sloppy and prejudicial way that ignores the content of one’s character in favor of the color of one’s skin.

  37. BrianJ on April 13, 2006 at 9:32 pm

    JR–I think the rulings on the Michigan cases are relevant here. The Law School’s policy was acceptable to the Court (5-4), because it used race as a factor in deciding between candidates who were closely matched in all other areas. In practice, this might only apply to applicants with low academic scores to begin with. The Undergraduate School’s policy was struck down (6-3), because they automatically assigned a point value to race. The Court didn’t like it because it “quantified” race.

    (P.S. If anyone doesn’t like how I tried to summarized two very long and complex Court decisions, then they can sue me.)

    Adam Greenwood, post 8: I think it’s the issuing organizations responsibility because it’s the organization’s idea in the first place. If I qualify for a scholarship, why should I second guess the organizers? “Well, I don’t think they really meant anyone who has blank.” If one were really concerned then one should contact the scholarship committee, but I just assume that committees have thought things through, sought advice from lawyers (aka master loophole detectors), and they have writtten the requirements the way they intend them.

    As far as “a duty to see that the purpose of the affirmative action scholarships is helping the church in a specific way….” Again, even if I don’t see what they get out of me accepting their scholarship, I assume that they do see a benefit. After all, when the application is reviewed, they will know a lot more about me than I them. Perhaps after accepting the offer and becoming part of the organization, then I will understand what was my contribution. Also, I will likely feel obligated to make a greater contribution.

    “I have a hard time thinking that one would never have a duty to answer the question based on the questioner’s probable intent.” I am not saying that one should ignore the perceived intentions of others. If someone is purposefully looking for loopholes, I think it is clear that they are acting dishonestly. Again, when in serious doubt, contact the organization.

  38. Adam Greenwood on April 13, 2006 at 9:41 pm

    It is not at all clear that the Michigan Law School only used race as a tiebreaker. It was the quantification that’s the problem. I also don’t have your faith in the ability of institutions to cost-effectively create standards that only reward the applicants that precisely meet their objectives. Nor do I feel the kind of separation that you do from institutions, where I am helpless to determine what the institutions’ objectives are or ought to be, or under no obligation to cooperate in achieving those objectives.

  39. BrianJ on April 13, 2006 at 9:49 pm

    Sarah, 22: I think you will agree that there is a difference between the purposes of Hitler’s programs and those of scholarship programs. The two main reasons for minority scholarships in my school (explained to me by someone on the admissions committee) are: 1) Increase the diversity of the class so that the class as a whole is benefited by exposure to more ideas, and 2) Aid underpriveleged students who likely possess greater minds than their scores show, due to coming from a disadvantaged background.

    And now for an anecdote:

    An hispanic student, who was admitted to the Medical School despite lower than average scores, was the impetus for the creation of a “Spanish for Doctors” course, which helps medical students to communicate with many more of their patients. The student continues to struggle with coursework, but his contribution is immeasureable.

  40. Adam Greenwood on April 13, 2006 at 9:51 pm

    Matt Evans,

    You asked why I think BYU could morally give admissions or scholarship bonuses to students from ethnicities or groups that the Church wants to reach. You suggested, Kant-wise, that this was using people as a means to an end, not an end in themselves, and that using people as a means is immoral.

    Now, it turns out that I’m not much of an abstract reasoner, so let me just describe some situations that seem analagous to me and that are acceptable, and you distinguish them for me. First, BYU distinguishes between applicants on the basis of their grades and test scores, and I’m pretty sure that, like most universities, they do it partly because it makes the school look better, gives it more prestige, and this helps the church. Second, BYU hires people on the basis of their percieved ability–they are being hired on the basis of what they can do for BYU and not because BYU is interested in their welfare (though I imagine it is, just as I imagine BYU is interested in the kids who get ethnic scholarships). The Church does the same. So does everybody. In other words, I see most contract relationships as involving the same sort of means-ends problem that you percieve with the scholarships.

  41. Adam Greenwood on April 13, 2006 at 9:58 pm

    “Nor do I feel the kind of separation that you do from institutions, where I am helpless to determine what the institutions’ objectives are or ought to be, or under no obligation to cooperate in achieving those objectives.”

    Let me clarify that we’re obviously talking about a continuum of institutions, from the family at one end to, say, the tax code at the other. One’s ability to understand the goals of the institution and one’s duty to promote them will obviously vary. But I am puzzled by Brian J.’s claim that the goals of an affirmative action institution are opaque while he ably and clearly expounds the University of Michigan’s goals.

    Side note: I doubt very much that the contributions of the struggling student are immeasurable. They seem to me real but limited. Also, one questions the ethic of admitting students who struggle on the grounds that it helps others.

  42. Mark Butler on April 13, 2006 at 10:22 pm

    Lamonte (6), I am not a lawyer, although I am certainly interested in the law. Perhaps you meant another Mark Butler?

    The question of whether it is legitimate to game the same the system is a pretty general question of social ethics. There are several issues that have to be resolved.

    1. Is Law in general worth respecting?
    2. What was the legislative intent behind the law?
    3. Does the intent behind the law correspond to an objective worth achieving?
    4. How accurately does the law reflect that intent?
    5. Does mere compliance with the law achieve the objective or lead to its achievement? Or is honoring the intent or spirit of the law required as well?
    6. Alternatively, is compliance with either the letter or spirit of the law hopelessly ineffective with regard to the desired result?
    7. Or is the letter of the law largely ineffective, but following the spirit of the law worthwhile?

    In this case my answers would be: 1. Yes 3. Yes 4. So so. 5. No, Sort of. 6. No. 7. Yes.

    Assuming one agrees that honoring the letter of the law (i.e. simple compliance) is a public duty, the first question with regard to gaming the system (i.e. exploiting artifacts of the law contrary either to the objective of the law or the “design principles” of the system created to achieve that objective) is what are the likely consequences of doing so, especially if everyone else does the same? There are of course other factors one might consider as well – duty, obligation, example, commitment, and so forth…

  43. Mark Butler on April 13, 2006 at 10:44 pm

    The upside of “Mark B.” not being able to imagine writing anything written by me, it that at least we will be able to tell our own posts apart.

  44. BrianJ on April 13, 2006 at 11:23 pm

    Adam Greenwood: I did not use the word “opaque,” so I hope you are not purposefully picking at words or this discussion is pointless. If I seem to have some insight into Michigan’s goals (though by your tone, I think you meant that sarcastically), it is because Michigan’s schools, unlike most programs, had their goals dissected and analyzed by the Supreme Court. I have applied for a few awards, and the information I usually get regarding their goals tends to be about one or two sentences. Keep in mind, that these same applications have required that I write 2-10 page letters explaining my plans, goals, etc, in addition to the letters of recommendation, grades, etc. So if someone reviews an application and thinks, “Well, I might be what they want, but I’m not 100% sure” then I don’t think you should fault them for applying. Importantly, there are many awards for which I qualified to apply but chose not to because I knew that my intentions did not match those of the organization, even though my application would not have revealed that.

    Re your side note, “immeasureable” means “so far-reaching that they are without measure; vast, limitless.” If the school has been assisting this student in the form of scholarships or tutors, then I am saying that they are gettting their money’s worth, not because he is likely to gain individual prestige like the top students, but because he is already showing his value to the class as a whole. Perhaps he will go on to become a so-so physician, but will continue to make important contributions in other aspects of medicine. This anecdote, therefore, challenges the idea that only students with great test scores should be given scholarships, and it supports the idea that minorities can offer something valuable precisely because they are minorities.

    As for questioning the ethics of my university, I think you are just trying to find fault. The medical school has a class of 100 students. There will always be some that struggle to keep up with the rest. This student is one of them. In a lower-tier school, he might have been top in his class. What is unethical about allowing him to continue pursuing a degree that he wants (and is on track to achieve) where he wants?

    Adam wrote, “One’s ability to understand the goals of the institution and one’s duty to promote them will obviously vary.” Yes, I agree with that. I just get the impression that Adam expects applicants to err on the side of not applying, whereas I think they should err on the side of assuming that the applications mean what they say. (And I stated more than once, if there is real doubt, then the honest thing to do is to contact the institution–or one could make that clear in the application itself.)

  45. Stephen M (Ethesis) on April 14, 2006 at 10:22 pm

    My wife is an eighth or so American Indian. However, she is blond. She did not attempt to make use of affiliation.

    She has some nephews and a sister who look much more Indian (in fact, they really don’t look related some times). They have made use of affiliation (especially since the nephews are also almost 50% mestiso). I think they are entitled to it.

    I do not expect my daughters to make any effort at affiliation (you can get a general idea of how they look by the pictures at — my kids are all pretty interchangable in appearance).

    To each their own.

  46. cc on May 6, 2006 at 12:51 am

    I worked in admissions for an elite university, so I saw first hand the attributes and benefits of affirmative action. True education occurs in higher education in an environment that exposes students to beliefs, ideas, and perspectives that are different from their own. For example, we could all learn much more from this thread if there were actual responses from minorities. I doubt a student of color would be so flippant as to encourage people to take advantage of affirmative action, but its easy to make that statement if you are in a privileged position.


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