Structural Injustice, Procedural Equality, and Diversity in Recruitment

April 1, 2011 at 11:10 (Philosophy, Politics)

A handful of news items and discussions lately have prompted me to think about the issues in the title of this post. I should clarify at the outset that the phrase “diversity in recruitment” here is meant to refer to, e.g., a university or workplace actively endeavouring to make admissions / hiring decisions in a way that increases the representation of visible minorities and other marginalized groups. I sometimes get the sense that, before the partisan debate is even joined, this is an issue that divides liberals, if only in the sense of quiet inner conflict.

Let’s start by considering this post, detailing a scholarship that a Texas non-profit is offering strictly to white men. Go ahead and have a read; skip the comments, as they’re distracting in this case. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

Done? Okay. Now, consider your initial gut reaction to the whole thing. It’s possible, I think, that people who are otherwise liberal will bristle at the disdain this scholarship has prompted – people who might say, “wait a sec, I’m not sure we have any grounds to oppose this” and/or “I’m not sure I understand how the people who oppose it aren’t hypocrites.” I would know: not so long ago, I was at least conflicted enough to quasi-count as one of them.

Equality First?

Here’s a line of reasoning that I might have put forward at the time: so, we’re liberals, right? That means we like equality (in contradistinction to those mean ol’ right-wingers, who seem to think that inequality is just swell and dandy). We like for people to have equal treatment. And we want to work towards a world in which social categories like race, gender, sexual orientation, et cetera, don’t really change your basic set of opportunities in life. No surprise, then, that the existence of  scholarships for black people or for women, but none for white men, raises our hackles. Maybe we shouldn’t just go with the party line standard-issue opposition here. It’s treading on a basic moral intuition about justice and fairness, right?

I must stress that at no point did I feel completely comfortable with this line of reasoning; as I said, I was conflicted, and the idea of a white-men-only scholarship would always have struck me as distasteful. On the other side of the coin, I would even now resist the idea that the above-mentioned moral intuition amounts to nothing whatsoever. I am willing to venture that most people, if perhaps only with their guard down, would be willing to admit that on some level it matters to them, as one concern amongst many, that we avoid situations where some individuals benefit from special treatment based purely on a trait or identity that nobody can choose to have or lack. Equal opportunity, it would seem, is one of the things we really do care about factoring in to the balance of concerns tracked by our moral/political intuitions.

Some Helpful Nuance

This is all by way of prefacing and framing the thinking that has since led me to largely repudiate the stance I just articulated. One way to start in on that repudiation is to recognize that there’s a difference between, one the one hand, treating people equally, and on the other hand, actually working to bring about a world where everyone can exist as equals. We can term this the difference between procedural equality versus substantive equality, or equality of process versus equality of outcome.

To illustrate with a silly example, if you must figure out how to divide four sandwiches between a pro football player and an average Joe, there are two ways you can divide them up “equally” – two to each person, which is procedurally equal, or three to the football player and one to the other guy, because one’s appetite is three times the other’s; that would be substantively equal. The idea that three sandwiches is just enough food to sate the football player and one sandwich is just right for the other fellow is a stipulation of the scenario here. Of course, the question gets considerably murkier if you don’t know what their relative appetites are. But in the case where you do have that information, it suddenly makes quite a bit of sense to “discriminate” against the individual in the scenario with lesser needs. He’ll be okay with one sandwich.

One way, then, to begin understanding how the ‘scholarship imbalance’ is justifiable – handwringing of the Former Majority Association for Equality notwithstanding – is to view it as sacrificing procedural equality (everyone gets the same scholarships) in order to bring about substantive equality (groups with greater average need for scholarships are accommodated accordingly). Not only does this address the immediate disparity in substantive equality, but it also works to undo the very conditions of structural injustice that create those inequalities in the first place. One important trait of a well-justified breach of procedural equality, then, is that it aspires and endeavours towards its own effacement – towards a day when it will no longer be needed.

Some Political Forks in the Road

Of course, one might wonder: well, that’s all fine and good, but why are we so quick to get rid of procedural equality? Did we not just finish considering how it matters to us? I suppose that the best answer I supply here is this: it depends on who you mean by “us.” It seems, at least from where I am sitting, that part of what it is to be a conservative (at least in North American political contexts) is to take it as amongst your first principles that procedural equality deserves to be heavily weighted against substantive equality as one goes about the task of fashioning a society and the policies that govern it. The conservative impulse is to make everything procedurally equal and let the chips fall where they may, for the most part. Hence the resistance to robust social safety nets: those are necessarily procedurally unequal, in that some people get special treatment when bad things happen to them.

Now, I don’t mean to moralize about this privileging of one kind of equality over another. It often seems unpalatable to me, but I cannot suppose that I have privileged access to some kind of extrapersonal moral truth on this matter: I just have my intuitions, and a healthy wariness for epistemic hubris. However, I will suggest that it is not simply owing to some shortcoming on my part that I have no idea what to make of someone who takes himself to be a liberal but largely favours procedural equality over substantive equality. I am going to go out on a limb and say that this person is confused, and/or does not grasp some basic fact about what it means to have politics that can be described as progressive or left-leaning. So, for some readers, it should now be clear why it is necessary to favour trading off procedural equality for equivalent (or even less-than-equivalent) gains in substantive equality.

Consider a slightly different angle on it: we have limited organizing resources, so every choice we make reflects our priorities, our choices amongst alternatives. Choosing to focus on scholarships for white men holds up the supposed plight of an on-average highly privileged group as though it is a commanding priority. And we all know it is simply not; caucasian males are doing better, on the whole, in most ways, than everybody else. (I am going to take that as a premise for the discussion here, at least. You might have an objection on the tip of your tongue, but patience – I’ll return to this.) Equality in scholarship opportunities is, of course, a nice goal, but to pretend it stands out as more important than correcting the gross and structurally-generated social injustices that every non-privileged social category in our society deals with …? That is either ignorance or callousness at work. Either way, it prompts us to ask: this is what you are doing with your money and time, FMAE? When there are so many other problems that no reasonable, good-faith participant in the debate could straight-facedly deny are more serious? Never mind that an initiative like this actually reinforces the structural inequalities in neglect of which it is being pursued.

Now, there is an inevitable objection lurking here, and it is one I might have voiced myself back when the original ‘pro’ argument made sense to me. Namely this: surely there are poor white males out there who can’t afford an education! How can you say that their predicament is not worth alleviating! To which I now respond: I do think it is worth alleviating. What I challenge is the implicit assumption that it is their membership within privileged social categories that is the relevant point of focus here, as opposed to their almost-guaranteed membership in marginalized social categories; my imaginary interlocutor has already stipulated that these unfortunate kids are poor, and I think scholarships for poor people (that are blind with respect to race, gender, etc) are a fabulous idea. And I am willing to bet that a non-trivial portion of the group that’s supposed to be providing a counterexample here is also one of: disabled, from a single-parent household, overweight, homosexual or transgender, et cetera, et cetera. All of these are ways of getting the short end of society’s stick that are worth fixing. If we want to level the playing field, these are the factors to pay attention to as we try to figure out to whom we should give a leg up.

What About Policy?

So, does this mean I’m in favor of affirmative action policies for workplaces and universities?

For one thing, I find that such initiatives are often worded in a rather inane way: basically, “when choosing between equally qualified candidates, choose the one from the disadvantaged social category.” Fundamentally, though, I am just disinclined to believe in the existence of such things as equally qualified candidates. I consider this a rather question-evading way to frame the idea.

If all a given firm cares about is hiring the very best applicant, broader social inequalities be damned, then … well, I am going to withhold judgment on the question of whether a statute ought to force them to do otherwise. However, that is hardly the end of the discussion. To begin with, although it is all too easy to spout pablum on the topic of diversity, it really does matter to have people with different perspectives born of various cultural backgrounds and social categories in a group. A room full of all and only people of the same race, gender, religion, social class, et cetera, “best” candidates though they may have been, making a decision is just necessarily going to be blind to certain aspects of, perspectives on, and potential ramifications stemming from their array of options. This is one way, for instance, that disastrous results in healthcare research and interventions can come about. People come into a foreign culture, tell locals what their problems are, how they are going to fix them, make a mess of things, take all the credit for only the successful actions, and so on.

But as a more basic point: when making hiring decisions, or admissions decisions, it is so easy to think that the whole process and outcome happen in a vacuum with respect to broader societal issues. But that simply is not the case; these choices do not just affect your company or your university. By choosing who to extend opportunities to, an admission director or hiring executive impacts, in a very concrete way, the state of structural inequality in the community, country, and world. So, yes: a policy of affirmative action might mean that one finds oneself obligated to make the suboptimal choice for one’s own little provincial interests. But to do so is to commit to hard, good, morally edifying work: the work of rectifying deep-seated social inequality.

I recently read an interview with philosopher John Searle, someone who, on many philosophical topics – not to mention his early work on anti-McCarthyist causes – I respect very much. At the end of this interview, though, he absolutely lamented the effect that affirmative action had on UC Berkeley several decades ago. It was frustrating to hear him essentially say, “oh god, it was disastrous, you had all these people coming in who weren’t up to snuff, who weren’t qualified!”  If you will permit me, briefly, to resort to responding with contemptuous snark: my gosh, buddy, I can only imagine it’s so hard to educate those dumb-as-bricks minorities! What a terrible, terrible fate to have to suffer. Poor John Searle, held back in his quest for an uncomplicated undergraduate teaching experience by the chaff from society’s underclasses!

A Closing Thought

I mentioned a few paragraphs back that I would refrain from presuming that procedural equality is Really and Capital-T Truly less of a big deal that substantive equality. However, as I leave off on this topic, I will offer a short, hopefully discussion-catalytic musing: here as elsewhere, I am inclined to ask of appeals to the fundamental importance of procedural equality, “cui bono?”- who benefits? If the answer is “nobody,” as I suspect it is, then defending procedural equality puts one in a position that reminds me, more than anything, of Immanuel Kant when he was stuck defending the idea that you must not tell lies ever, even to an axe murderer inquiring after the whereabouts of your family. In both cases, I find it difficult to frame the insistent defense as anything other than: “yes, if I cling to my precious principles on this issue, loads of demonstrably awful things will result, but damn it, they’re my principles! Don’t you have any idea how much more important they are than the actual suffering of real people?”


1 Comment

  1. Kathy Lollock said,

    Wonderful read, Roland. Are you sure you do not want to pursue Sociology? My take is that the philosophical diversity that comes from the less represented in this society is of immeasurable value for our burgeoning national and international “villages.” You pointed out the question of hiring the best and brightest for a job. It would seem to me that person #1 who is hired as the “best” and who happens to be white and male may actually have less to offer than person #2 whose IQ may not be as high but whose cultural or biological makeup is far more diverse, thereby bringing a savvy and sophistication to the workplace.

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