Affirmative action, or the practice of choosing one candidate over another based on race, gender or other defining characteristic, is a very contentious topic. There are a number of differing views on the topic, and affirmative action delves into a number of areas that are very problematic, including race and gender divides. Hettinger (1997) and Pojman (1998) are divided on the issue, but both make very salient points insofar as the philosophical basis for affirmative action is concerned. Hettinger (1997) and Pojman (1998), while taking opposite stances on the issue of affirmative action, do not necessarily disagree with each other on every issue. There are some issues that both authors agree on; for instance, both agree that the idea of affirmative action as a backwards-looking, compensatory policy does not work. This means that if affirmative action is considered in the context of the past, it is not a relevant or an ethically-sound practice; one cannot expect the current generation, for instance, to atone for the mistakes of its forefathers (Pojman, 1998; Hettinger, 1997).
However, there are certainly places where the authors diverge from each other. Hettinger (1997) in his essay on affirmative action, postulates first that the motivation for affirmative action is important. As previously stated, Hettinger (1997) writes that affirmative action cannot be justified if it is considered in a backwards-looking context; this generation has no business paying for the racism and the mistakes of the previous generations, and when this type of thinking and philosophy is applied to the context of an affirmative action policy, it becomes a type of punishment-based policy, and this is unacceptable from a moral and ethical point of view. Hettinger (1997) also notes that affirmative action is decidedly not racism; the purpose of racism and affirmative action are completely at odds with each other, and completely mutually exclusive. While affirmative action attempts to integrate minorities and women into society, racism makes attempts to maintain the status quo for white males in their supreme, patriarchal position in society (Hettinger, 1997). In short, the motives of the policy matter, and the results of a racist policy versus an affirmative action policy vary widely (Hettinger, 1997).
There is a worry about excluding white males on the basis on involuntary characteristics of sex and race Hettinger (1997) gives this objection some weight, but also appeals to utilitarian intuition that this is a small price to pay, given the good affirmative action achieves (Hettinger, 1997). Hettinger (1997) notes that affirmative action is not necessarily unjust, especially when it comes to employment; some jobs are best done, Hettinger (1997) writes, by someone other than a white male. This in and of itself may be a problematic statement, and may lend itself to racism and sexism inherently; to what type of job is a female more suited than a male? When is a black man more suited to a job than a white man? Hettinger’s (1997) statement on suitability in employment does belie the fact that there may be an undercurrent of institutional racism in his policy, whether this is something he realizes or not.
When discussing affirmative action, one of the most common statements to hear is the idea that affirmative action is “not fair” and that it overlooks qualified candidates and chooses less-qualified candidates based on race or gender. There is a concern that young, white males may not be adequately compensated for the sacrifices they are unwittingly required to make in the name of fairness and equality; this is a very real concern for many. However, Hettinger (1997) suggests that this unfairness is a small price to pay, given all the good that affirmative action does in the long run. However, perhaps a better argument in favor of affirmative action would be that often, the candidate chose is not actually a “less qualified” candidate; often, the candidate is equally qualified, and also part of an underrepresented minority group (Plous, 1996). Obviously, this fact varies based on the industry; however, the differences in qualification for candidates are often slight.
Pojman (1998), when responding to the Hettinger (1997) essay, has a different idea of affirmative action. Pojman (1998) is adamant that affirmative action and similar policies are not only unethical and immoral, they are blatantly racist. Pojman (1998) suggests that in a fair environment, everyone, regardless of age, gender, or race, has an equal shot at obtaining a position. Individuals are then evaluated for their aptitude based on their native abilities and their effort rather than other characteristics like race, age, or gender (Pojman, 1998). Pojman (1998) suggests that this is the ideal way that an individual will be chosen for any given position.
At the same time, Pojman (1998) recognizes that racism is an extremely negative, powerful force in society. He also notes that this force should not be underestimated, and that affirmative action policies are often just an extension of racist policies, rather than a method for alleviating institutionalized racism, as Hettinger (1997) would have claimed. Pojman (1998) suggests that affirmative action may reinforce stereotypes rather than breaking them, and even if affirmative action did break down stereotypes, the desirability of breaking stereotypes should not ever trump considerations of individual merit (Pojman, 1998). Allowing the desirability of breaking stereotypes to trump the considerations of merit is, Pojman (1998) suggests, an insult to the idea of fighting against racist policies.
Lastly, Pojman (1998) makes the suggestion that there are many reasons that the workforce may be separated along racial or gender lines. These reasons may or may not be related to sexism or racism, and they deserve more consideration and more merit before attributing all differences in the workforce to sexism or racism. However, Pojman (1998) is being slightly disingenuous; there are divisions in the workforce, but the divisions along gender and racial lines are most commonly attributed to institutionalized racism and sexism in the workforce-- often known as the “glass ceiling” (Maddox, 2003). Attributing the separations in the workforce to “natural” separations is something that disregards the actual issues that plague women and minority racial group members on a daily basis.
There are many issues at play when discussing affirmative action, and both sides have and address important issues. However, the fact that there is still institutionalized racism and sexism in the workplace means that some kind of controls have to be put in place to protect hard-working women and minorities; if these controls are not put in place, the workforce gap between white men and all other members of the workforce will continue to grow or remain as-is, which is completely unacceptable in a society trying to move past racism and sexism.
Hettinger, E.c. (1997). What is wrong with reverse discrimination? In T. A. Mappes and J. S. Zembaty (Eds.), Social ethics: Morality and social policy (305-306). New York: MacGraw-Hill.
Maddox, M. (2003). Affirmative action equals discrimination. The Battalion. Retrieved April 26, 2004 from <http://www.thebatt.com/news/2003/06/25/0pinioniAffirmative.Action.Equals.Discrimination-513974.shtml>.
Plous, S. (1996). Ten myths about affirmative action. Journal of Social Issues, 4, 27.
Pojman, L. (1998). The case against affirmative action. International Journal of Philosophy, 12, 161-168