Issues in Philosophy Teaching Affirmative Action

Teaching Affirmative Action

By Steven M. Cahn

The philosophical literature on affirmative action is extensive (see my collection The Affirmative Action Debate, 2nd ed., Routledge, 2002), and the issue remains heated. Teaching it presents special challenges because opponents often appear to be arguing past each other. My aim here is not to take sides but to offer distinctions and examples that should motivate and help focus class discussion.

To begin with, the term affirmative actionrefers to two entirely different policies. One that Ill call procedural affirmative action is intended to guarantee that applicants for positions are judged on their merits rather than their identities. Steps to ensure procedural affirmative action include open announcements of opportunities, blind reviewing, and a variety of efforts to eliminate any policies that harbor prejudice, however vestigial.

In another sense of the term, which Ill labelpreferential affirmative action,special efforts are made to recruit individuals who meet institutional goals related to identities. Doing so requires attending to the same criteria that procedural affirmative action treats as irrelevant. While procedural affirmative action is uncontroversial, preferential affirmative action is not, and henceforth my use of the term affirmative actionshould be understood as referring to preferential affirmative action.

What is the point of affirmative action? Is it to offset past discrimination, counteract present unfairness, or achieve future equality? The first is often referred to as compensation,the second as a level playing field,and the third diversity.

Note that each of these aims can be defended independently of the others. Compensation for past wrongs may be owed, even if at present the playing field is level and future diversity is not sought. Or the playing field at present may not be level, although compensation for past wrongs is not owed and future diversity is not sought. Or future diversity may be sought, although compensation for past wrongs is not owed and presently the playing field is level.

Of course, all three factors might be relevant, but each requires a different justification and calls for a different remedy. For example, past wrongs would be offset if suitable compensation were made, but once provided to the appropriate recipients, no other steps would be needed. Present wrongs would be corrected if actions were taken that would level the playing field, but doing so would be consistent with unequal outcomes. Future equality would require continuing attention to ensure that appropriate diversity, once achieved, would never be lost.

As to diversity, the concept itself, if unmodified, is unhelpful. Consider, for example, a sample of the innumerable respects in which people can differ: age, religion, nationality, regional background, wealth, military experience, physical soundness, sexual orientation, marital status, political commitments, and so forth. The crucial question is: which sorts of diversity should be sought?

Suppose the suggestion is made that the diversity to be emphasized should focus on groups that have suffered discrimination. A problem with this approach is clearly put by John Kekes: 

It is true that American blacks, Native Americans, Hispanics, and women have suffered injustices as a group. But so have homosexuals, epileptics, the urban and the rural poor, the physically ugly, those whose careers were ruined by McCarthyism, prostitutes, the obese, and so forthInjustice occurs in many forms, and those who value justice will surely object to all of them. (See his essay in Affirmative Action and the University, ed. Steven M. Cahn, Temple University Press, 1993, p. 151.)

In addition, consider a hypothetical department in which most of the faculty members were women. If diversity by gender is of value, then such a department, when making its next appointment, should prefer a man. Yet men as a group have not been victims of discrimination. On the other hand, Jews and Asians have historically been victims of discrimination but do not presently suffer from minimal representation.

Another issue worth discussion is that every affirmative action plan calls for giving preference to members of certain groups (AA candidates), but the concept of preference itself is unclear. One possibility is to prefer any outstanding AA candidate, regardless of how many others are of equal strength. Another is to prefer any strong AA candidate, regardless of whether other candidates appear stronger. Yet another approach is to prefer any qualified AA candidate, even if rather weak. A theoretical possibility is to prefer even an unqualified AA candidate, although I know of no one who would support that policy, so let us set it aside. What remains are three different models of preference.

Furthermore, should the departments policy regarding preference be made available to candidates, so that those who are members of the groups in question and those who are not can plan accordingly? As Tom L. Beauchamp writes, The… moral embarrassment… is that we academics fear making public what we believe to be morally commendable and mandatory in our recruiting efforts.” (See his essay in Cahn, op. cit., p. 215).

Thus far I have focused on faculty appointments, but different considerations may arise in justifying affirmative action in undergraduate student admissions. After all, colleges traditionally take account of a high school applicants athletic prowess, community service, personal relationships to alumni, and geographic home. Such criteria, however, are not considered in a faculty search. The two decisions are different in kind, and the same arguments may not apply to both. 

Additionally, circumstances matter. Consider a department that has never appointed a woman and, when given a promising opportunity, refuses to interview one. Suppose the dean insists that in the next search process some women should be interviewed, and if a woman with a superlative record is found, she should be appointed. Surely few, if any, opponents of affirmative action would argue that the dean has abandoned merit.

On the other hand, consider a department that announces its intention to achieve a goal of 50% women, and in its next search prefers a minimally qualified women to a man agreed by all to be more promising as a researcher and teacher. If the dean insists that the man is appointed, surely few, if any, proponents of affirmative action would consider the deans action unjust.

Both these cases are admittedly extreme, although not entirely unrealistic. The lesson, however, is that context matters.

So does setting. The same arguments for and against affirmative action may not apply in public and private schools, undergraduate and graduate admissions, academic and non-academic institutions, and so on.

In sum, the complexities inherent in affirmative action need to be recognized, and guiding a class to become aware of them provides students with a powerful example of how philosophy can shed light on a highly contested social issue.


Steven M. Cahn is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Most recently, he is the author of Teaching Philosophy: A Guide (Routledge, 2018). This article is excerpted from an essay to appear in a forthcoming issue of the Newsletter on Teaching Philosophy.


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