Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Affirmative action (revisited)

Some readers have taken me to task for my post on affirmative action. They argue that I have not addressed the main point made by David Benatar in his paper on affirmative action. As Gerrit Brand, book editor of Die Burger, writes:

[Benatar’s] point is that when people are favoured for certain positions on the grounds of their race, it follows that the best candidate may in certain cases not be appointed simply because he or she has the wrong skin colour - which seems morally questionable.

The complaint seems to be that when we use race as a deciding factor in, say, the appointment of staff, it is ethically unacceptable because it is unfair to those (“better qualified”) white candidates excluded because of their race.

The point that I implicitly made in my post, was that it is not ethically responsible to talk about fairness and unfairness in an a-contextual manner, as if these concepts themselves are self-evident and neutral.

Why should it be self-evident that it is morally wrong to appoint people from a racial group who – as a group – continue to be victims of a culture steeped in racial prejudice? The unfairness is only self-evident from the vantage point of the dominant “western” or “white” culture – and exactly because that culture provides the “universal norms and standards” according to which fairness must be measured.

Many factors (apart from race) may explicitly or implicitly be deemed relevant for deciding who the best candidate for the job might be. But why are these factors hardly ever seen as deeply unfair to those who do not comply with them?

How many white people were appointed in the past to positions because they happen to have read the books deemed important or relevant, happen to know the cricket scores deemed relevant, happen to have attended a school or university deemed to be appropriate or happen to know the right people or speak the right home language? How many times are people appointed because – as Margaret Thatcher used to say – “ they are one of us”?

By using race as a criterion for appointment one would merely be making explicit what was always implicit in the selection of candidates – namely that criteria for selection are very seldom if ever completely “objective”. Because race – unlike many of the implicit criteria – disadvantages the powerful, the use of race as a criterion, unlike other criteria that implicitly would favour whites, is viewed as unfair.

I am therefore pleading for a contextual approach to fairness, which not only allows but actually requires race to be taken into account in order to achieve a more fair system of appointment. This is the kind of fairness embraced by South Africa’s Constitutional Court. What Prof Benatar and others propose is a completely a-contextual approach to “fairness” which is really nothing else than “fairness” for the powerful and the influential – the kind of “fairness” the world has always known and the rich and powerful have come to like and support.


Anonymous said...

Pierre, your assumption is that there can be no fair and objective criteria of merit that can apply to both "white" and "black". So one just has to choose which group one should discriminate in favour of. This is irredeemably race conscious. Isn't your argument also a little self-serving? Due to apartheid, which both protected and privileged you, you have not really ever had to compete with black people to get to your current position (as a Professor). Yet you are advocating that younger white South Africans, who have had a much rougher time of things, be discriminated against in perpetuity. So you have it both ways. You can claim to be "pro-black", and yet you don't actually have to give up any of your own "power" or "privilege".

Anonymous said...

Hey, great comment, anonymous.

Masgruva said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Masgruva said...

I think the fundamental flaw in your "contextual ethics" (which smacks rather strongly of Fletcherian "situational ethics" btw), no matter how much you cloak it, is that it still requires a "contextually neutral" vantage point from which to apply your "standard". It is disingenuous for the "intellectual/political elite" therefore to claim this point as their own. From such a self-defeating, almost relativist, position you couldn't condone nor condemn affirmative action without being self-serving.

Michael Osborne said...

Pierre De Vos asks (in the course of his academic-hiring affirmative action debate with David Benatar):

“[O]n what basis exactly will those in charge at an institution decide that one person who happens to be black is “less qualified” or “weaker” than another person who happens to be white?"

Let me answer Pierre directly: We derive our standards, our basis for deciding which candidate is “less qualified” or “weaker,” from the same set of value judgments that we invoked in condemning apartheid education. We all agreed (did we not?), that Bantu education was a terrible thing. English teachers could themselves not speak proper English. Student were not taught simple arithmetic. We called that “Bush” colleges “bad” because they did not teach elementary research skills. Law schools, lacking adequate law libraries, could not teach their students how to read and analyse reported cases. That too was a “bad” thing.

Of course, all of these value judgments are contestable. Identifying “proper” English entails privileging a particular, and very specific, set of assumptions; our conclusion that a particular teacher is not “qualified” to teach the subject involves a judgment about what exactly constitutes “English.” Insisting that a social scientist be comfortable enough with Maths to enable her to do some quantitative research likewise reflects a value judgment. The convention that sources be acknowledged and referenced is just that, a convention, not holy writ. And yes, the conclusion that a candidate with no grasp of the case method is not qualified to teach at our law school betrays a commitment to a historically and culturally contingent conception of the elusive thing that we call “Law.”

Pierre’s relativism is an invigorating and necessary corrective to the “false necessities,” in which all institutions trade to legitimate and reproduce themselves. But the rejection of “standards” per se, like many other forms of thoroughly radical critique, rob us of our capacity for critique itself. As I have said, Pierre’s suggestion that standards are nothing but tools of exclusion is inconsistent with the unflinching absolutism that animated our attack upon apartheid education.

Pierre’s position enables him to evade the tragic choices that must sometimes be made between equal opportunity, on the one hand and what Benatar and his fuddy-duddy ilk call “quality,” on the other hand. It is easy to sympathise with Pierre in this debate. The practical pressures of transformation, and the abuse of “standards” as a rationale for racism, make such a denial very tempting.

I can offer no solution to this quandary. But I am convinced that, if Pierre is suggesting that (outside perhaps of the “hard” sciences), there exist no clear standards against which to measure quality, his position is incoherent, Like it or not, every discourse and practice is constituted by its implicit standards, the provenance of which are indeed always arbitrary, partial, unfair, exclusive - or reflect a colonial imposition. (Didn’t Foucault write that somewhere?)

That is not to say that all standards must not be interrogated. (Forgive the ghastly, but still trendy, term.) Indeed, in the best tradition of liberal pedagogy, unrelenting questioning of the most fundamental premises of a discipline must itself be part of that discipline. We are condemned to hack away at the branch upon which we stand -- yet hope the branch never gives way under our feet. Unless we have a gift for self-levitation, we have no choice but to keep some (but not too much), faith in our branch.

Michael Osborne

Gerrit Brand said...


I like the fact that you ask fundamental questions about criteria, but I also have the impression that you have now changed your tune.

As I understood it, your original point was that criteria of suitability and excellence are not obvious. In my reply I agreed with this point, but argued that it didn't really serve as a reply to Benatar's argument against affirmative action, because even if criteria were debatable (as you and I agree they are), once a committee sits to evaluate candidates for a position, some criteria will have be applied, and whatever these criteria may be, it would be unfair, indefensible, to set criteria and then not apply them because the person who happens to meet these criteria happens to be the wrong colour.

In you newest post you now seem to claim, not that criteria of excellence and suitability for a position are debatable, but that criteria of fairness are debatable (a point I agree with). In fact, you even seem to suggest that such criteria, and the concept of fairness as such, is entirely devoid of meaning, and merely a device for favouring one group over others, so that when the tables are turned, that is just as "fair" as when it worked the other way around (a point I certainly don't agree on).

There is also an inconsistency in your argument, for you seem (rightly) to dissaprove of the fact that, in the past, certain people were favoured for all sorts of irrelevant reasons ("being one of us" and all that), yet you use the fact that this happened in the past as an argument in favour of a new version of the same thing. As you put it, at least it is happening honestly now. From which, it seems, one may deduce that if whites were honestly favoured in the past, it would have been OK.

I am neither an absolutist nor a universalist, so I completely take your point that notions of fairness and criteria of excellence are far from obvious, that they can always be questioned, debated, modified, etc. But your argument seems now to have become completely relativist: It just is not the case that some people can do a job better than others, and all talk of fairness is mere rhetoric masking mindless racial privilege. It was OK for whites in the past to set standards of excellence and fairness that favoured them, and it is OK for blacks now to do the same, only more blatantly. Why? Because they can. And because might is right.

You have not yet addressed the central point in my original reply to you. My argument was that your very valid insight into the fact that criteria are human creations and can be argued about and modified, offers the key to a type of affirmative action that avoids favouring people purely on the grounds of their skin colour, yet succeeds in giving those who were unfairly (really!) disadvantaged in the past a better chance now: Set criteria that are really relevant to the task at hand, that are devoid of built-in pro-white prejudice, and that will effectively level the playing field.

I even gave an example. Currently, as in the past, proficiency in English nearly always functions as a criterion of excellence and suitability. This is unfair because it favours, generally speaking, the already privileged: The paler and wealthier you are, the better your chance of meeting this criterion. Yet this particular bit of cultural capital does not really add, in all cases, to a person's ability to do the required job well. In fact, proficiency in an African language may in many, even most, cases be a much more useful and valuable skill, and multilingual abilities even more so. By setting that as a criterion, you don't use an arbitrary marker like colour, but recognise a valuable skill that has not been adequately recognised so far. And it is a criterion that will favour precisely those who were systematically disadvantaged in the past.

Gerrit Brand

Pierre de Vos said...

Gerrit, try to respond to you in my latest post which will be posted tomorrow.