Affirmative Action

It's the end of the term for the U.S. Supreme Court, which means that as early as tomorrow some of the most important cases in recent memory will be decided. In this article I look at affirmative action, which is one issue the court is considering. Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin involves a white woman, Abigail Fisher, who was rejected admission in 2008. She is suing the university over its use of racial quotas in admissions decisions, which she claims is unfair. Here are some of my thoughts.

My favourite movies are ones that involve woodshedding. 'Woodshedding' comes from jazz and blues music, whereby a player who's trying to improve spends lots of time alone practicing, until after a period of seclusion he emerges to show off his skill. Blues and jazz musicians didn't historically have access to fancy practice spaces, so they would use their sheds.

Woodshedding isn't limited to musicians, however. Batman Begins is so good because we get to see Bruce Wayne's transformation, which involves months of training in a remote mountain hideout in Asia before he returns to Gotham to fight crime. And Christian Bale had to woodshed himself to get ready for that part, as did Adrian Brody for The Pianist (and Edward Norton for Fight Club, etc.). The Fighter is pretty much woodshedding beginning to end. In A Beautiful Mind, John Nash, played by Russell Crowe, spends years toiling away at mathematics in the library at Princeton before making an important breakthrough. My favourite woodshedding anecdote is Andrew Wiles, who worked on solving Fermat's last theorem in almost total secrecy for six years before finding a proof.

We like these stories because they demonstrate that success is possible with ambition and determination. Wiles deserved to solve Fermat's last theorem; Nash deserves his Nobel Prize. Neither got what they deserved merely because of innate ability, which is certainly a large part of it, but because of hard work and dedication. (They definitely did nothing to deserve their talents.) But although some things are zero-sum (that is, only one person can win to the detriment of everyone else), lots of success stories aren't. We all benefit from the Nash Equilibrium, or seeing Bale's amazing body, er, artistic talent. Of course, even if a situation isn't zero-sum it can be wrong for someone to benefit undeservedly.

College admissions are zero sum: if one person gets admitted another person can't be. We think therefore that the admissions criteria ought to be fair and equal—the standards for acceptance should be the same for everyone, regardless of race, sex, or class. That's why people are against affirmative action. It gives an advantage to someone based on a factor that shouldn't matter. It's one's grades, aptitude test scores, and personal essays that should matter, not race or sex. Each application should be treated equally. It's a matter of fairness.

I think that story is wrong. It's not just wrong about how it attempts to promote equality (by having the same standards for everyone). It's wrong for going after equality as an end in the first place. One problem with equality is that, at least on its own, it promotes the wrong goods: it says that if one person is better off than another it's equally good to lower the better off person to the level of the worse off person as it is to raise the worse off person to the level of the better off. Equality only cares about people being at the same level; it doesn't care what that level is. That's why I don't think equality is worth pursuing for its own sake.

More importantly, equality doesn't consider what people deserve. Treating people equally is not always the right thing to do. For example, if in the process of poisoning someone a villain accidentally poisons himself, and I have only enough antidote for one of them, I ought to give it to the victim, not the villain. Flipping a coin to decide between them is the wrong thing to do, because the innocent person deserves my help more.

Opponents to affirmative action claim that people shouldn't be given an advantage for an arbitrary quality such as race. We know that oppressed groups do worse on the usual criteria involved in college admission, but these factors do not accurately reflect their ability. Instead, it shows that people with less access to resources will do worse off. A black woman from a poor neighbourhood, through no fault of her own, is less likely to succeed in school. She did nothing to deserve being worse off. In contrast, a child born to rich parents has many more opportunities for success, but these advantages, insofar as they're because of his upbringing, are also undeserved.

Of course, there's no perfect way to measure what one achieves because of luck and what one achieves by choice. Affirmative action is a coarse way of solving the problem, but it's probably the best we have. Lightly skimming any one of Malcolm Gladwell's books demonstrates just how dependent on luck success is, and luck is always undeserved. Put differently, we should want an equal playing field so that those who succeed do so purely because they deserve it. That's the value of equality, but it's only an instrumental good.

Importantly for my view, affirmative action isn't just about race and sex. It's to help the disadvantaged, not to rectify historical wrongs or promote diversity. (Although those might be valuable too, I'm less confident about them.) The point is that some disadvantages are the result of race and sex. Hiring discrimination toward women is exactly of this type.

So what should we say to Abigail Fisher? She deserved her spot only insofar as it was a fair contest. But it wasn't: others didn't deserve the disadvantages they faced to get into university, and that's why it shouldn't be about grades only.