Advice Goddess Blog
« Previous | Home | Next »

The Ethicist's Questionable Ethics
The New York Times' Randy Cohen, aka "The Ethicist," argues for affirmative discrimination (and made me feel like I needed a shower after reading his reply).

Personally, I don't believe you resolve discrimination by discriminating. Furthermore, "minority candidates" who are qualified must find it pretty insulting to be assumed to be "affirmative action" hires. Here's the question:

I teach at a state university that offers financial incentives to hire minority candidates. A department receives $1,000 for completing a tenure-track hire but $5,000 if it hires a minority candidate. I’m concerned that colleagues will make recommendations based on the financial reward rather than pursue the “best” candidate. Should the institution offer these bounties? — DR. MARK E. CHASE, SLIPPERY ROCK, PA.

And here's "The Ethicist's" reply:

There’s nothing discreditable or even unusual about using financial incentives to prompt estimable conduct. Governments use tax codes to promote desired activities. Businesses offer bonuses to encourage certain kinds of job performance. (Full disclosure: I have a “financial incentive” to write this column. It’s called a “paycheck.”) Be wary of skewing your argument with a loaded word like “bounties.”

It is admirable of your school to acknowledge that some minorities are underrepresented on campus, that this is unjust in itself and that it subverts the school’s mission: it is important for students to encounter professors (and fellow students) of diverse backgrounds and viewpoints. In pursuit of this goal, the school may try various things. There might be better ways to genuinely expand faculty diversity, but until such methods are on the table, and unless the danger you worry about actually emerges, financial incentives are worth a try.

Be comforted that hiring a new faculty member involves so many layers of scrutiny, so many opportunities for colleagues to weigh in, that the hazard you invoke is minimal. Remember: this tactic is not meant to lower hiring standards but to broaden the pool of people considered for the job.

For so long there has been so much social (if not legal) pressure arrayed against hiring such folks — in effect, incentives to hire white men — that it seems hypocritical to object only when incentives benefit minority candidates.

I don't know about you, but I prefer to judge people "by the content of their character," and their ability to do a particular job. Isn't the alternative racism? Even if it does benefit "minorities"?

Furthermore, aren't kids of all colors from families with financial hardship the ones who really have it rough?

Posted by aalkon at January 28, 2008 8:28 AM


As a society we usually try to avoid collective punishments. We also like to teach our kids that "two wrongs don't make a right."

Since he used to be married to Katha Pollitt it is no surprise he favors identity politics, victimization, and collective punishment.

I for one am glad the Ethicist is there to reeducate me.

Posted by: jerry at January 28, 2008 12:34 AM

I think that for a long time, affirmative action was a flawed but necessary remedy to long-standing policies of institutional racism. However, we've really come to a point where it's done what it can and it's doing more harm than good. That doesn't mean there isn't still racism, but we need to fight it in different ways. I remember Amy talking about a program (and please excuse me if I misrepresent) where she talks to kids about what she does, to give them an idea of what possibilities they might have. I think this will put a lot more kids in cool jobs than that payment plan.

Posted by: Clinky Author Profile Page at January 28, 2008 12:56 AM

And the "payment plan" will graduate idiots. You know what you call the lowest guy in his class to graduate from medical school? "Doctor." Oh, go line up to be treated by an AA-assisted clown.

Posted by: Radwaste at January 28, 2008 2:24 AM

And this is a fine "straw man": " seems hypocritical to object only when incentives benefit minority candidates."

That's not what I'm doing. I'm objecting to incentives which only benefit minority candidates. Nobility and competency is not endowed by how few of you there are.

Posted by: Radwaste at January 28, 2008 3:04 AM

That would be fine, if the schools were truly interested in diversity of viewpoint. But it is increasingly the case that if you are insufficiently "progressive" in your thinking, not only are you denied tenure, you are denied the opportunity to teach at all.

Posted by: brian Author Profile Page at January 28, 2008 5:04 AM

Right on. It's baffling that income disparity isn't seriously considered by these "Let's be fair" crusaders, when they spend so much time harping on the "gap" between rich and poor.

Posted by: Jennifer at January 28, 2008 5:19 AM

Since he used to be married to Katha Pollitt

That explains a lot!

The national features editors association has a minority journalism fellowship. You can only get a fellowship with them if you are a student who'sblack, Inuit, Latino, etc. I find this quite racist.

Posted by: Amy Alkon Author Profile Page at January 28, 2008 5:42 AM

This is why my female engineer boss has to prove herself more than the men, because there is always the suspicion that she got where she is thx to being "XX" instead of "XY".

This is also why I don't trust female or minority doctors. Yes, it is terrible, but when I know that at this point in history, a white male has to put up with more, pay more and gets no free passes to go to med school (or engineering, or whatever), I know that there is less of a chance that he is incompetent.

Don't blame me, it isn't my system.

Posted by: Smarty at January 28, 2008 5:48 AM

My question to supporters of AA is at what point do programs such as these become unnecessary?

"Until racism disappears" is not an answer. What MEASURABLE statistical threshold must be crossed for you to be satisfied?

If this question cannot be answered then AA programs become nothing but a racial spoils system.

Posted by: winston at January 28, 2008 6:57 AM

Winston, I think you've asked an important question. I've often asked how "patriarchy" is measured. I can imagine measuring racism and sexism, but I have been assured repeatedly that patriarchy is not just mere sexism but something far more insidious. And yet, apparently it cannot be measured....

Posted by: jerry at January 28, 2008 7:15 AM

You don't have to measure it, you only have to "feel" it.

Posted by: Smarty at January 28, 2008 7:18 AM

I love the idea that the law will correct the idea that life isn't fair.

Posted by: Amy Alkon Author Profile Page at January 28, 2008 7:28 AM

The rule in the system where I taught was less potentially damaging than the financial incentive mentioned here, which encourages blatant skewing of the hiring process. In our university, affirmative action preferences kicked in only if candidates were, on balance, equal in training and experience. We approved of that rule, and I am confident we never hired "second best" because of it.

There was another cost, however. I served on several search and screen committees, and we always found the AA documentation requirements extremely onerous. The extra work detracted from our teaching.

Posted by: Axman at January 28, 2008 7:31 AM

Good piece on what's wrong with The Ethicist's thinking here:

Posted by: Amy Alkon Author Profile Page at January 28, 2008 7:36 AM

Oops, where I said "We approved of that rule," I was thinking about the members of the English Department only. I can't say about other departments, or the University as a whole, except to say that everybody grumbled about the Affirmative Action paperwork except people in the Affirmative Action office.

Posted by: Axman Author Profile Page at January 28, 2008 7:39 AM

anyone remeber this MAD TV bit on AA

And jerry we love collective punishments just look at any K-12 classroom

Posted by: lujlp at January 28, 2008 8:07 AM

Sorry Axman, but implicit in your "rule" is the assumption that the employee is everything that he/she will ever be at the moment they're hired. That's only true if you have exceedingly low expectations. Each employee needs to be pushed, some more that others, to achieve their potential. The biggest travesty of AA happens after the employee joins the workforce. Many AA hires never reach their potential because they're treated differently from the masses. They get special treatment (the existence of an AA Office is testimony to that) and they, and their co-workers, know it. Unfortunately, that special treatment is frequently detrimental to their career development.

While they might not start out as "second best" they may find themselves competing for the "AA Promotion Quotas" in short order.

Posted by: Curly Smith at January 28, 2008 8:14 AM

Thank you, Amy. Yes, it is. Grants for education should be based on need, not color. When one group is favored over another group, point blank, it is discrimination no matter how it is justified.

Lot of good things said here already. Standards shouldn't be lowered in granting a degree to make it easier for a minority or female to pass. If, even where affirmative action is in place, the standards to enter and to earn that degree were the same (I'm shocked to find out they aren't), the perception wouldn't exist that you're taking your chances with a female or minority whereas the white male has to prove himself. Everyone, especially when they wind up having other people's lives in their hands, should have to measure up.

I'm not sure what the answer is but racial profiling of any sort isn't it.

Posted by: Donna at January 28, 2008 8:21 AM

Curly Smith says "Many AA hires never reach their potential because they're treated differently from the masses. They get special treatment (the existence of an AA Office is testimony to that). . . ."

Good point, C. S. And when AA hires *are* held to the same standard as everyone else and fail to measure up, it costs extra to get rid of them. Our department and at least one other I know of got sued for failing to renew contracts of underachieving teachers--a female adjunct in our case, an African-American tenure-track assistant professor in the other. Those lawsuits could be filed only because the AA rules existed. Both departments prevailed, but only at great cost to taxpayers.

Posted by: Axman Author Profile Page at January 28, 2008 9:03 AM

I think AA, historically, was important and, presently, unnecessary. I believe it would have been better for people to (have) know(n) that a position was achieved through AA, made public even. If these people as a result feel the need to work harder to prove themselves, so be it. That's life. The real problem I've seen is that some people think this person got that job because of AA; and, the person with the job believes it was merit alone. Few people know 100% whether the position was awarded or achieved. That causes the same type of resentments and confusions that have always characterized racism. Symbolically speaking, however, I think AA helped to prove to all Americans that freedom and equality are the ideal and goal of America. It's too bad the idea was flawed from the get go.

Posted by: kg at January 28, 2008 10:30 AM

Interesting how it is assumed that "white people" form some homogenous, indistinguishable block. It is racist to assume that someone of color adds "diversity" (unless you are only interested in skin).

The concept of "diversity" has been rendered meaningless, anyway. Today, an all-male firm suffers from a lack of diversity, but an all female firm does not. Huh?

Posted by: Jay R at January 28, 2008 1:27 PM

I think all of this "what race are you" is BS. We should not ask on any forms what race. This is rascist as far as I am concerned. You know in Canada they are not allowed to ask "race". Aren't we the ones here in America that are "equal" and "free"? Noone should have to disclose race for a job. It is so backward to what we are supposed to be here.

Posted by: Melody at January 28, 2008 2:12 PM

Via Helen

I also challenge his usage of sub rosa
in the second part. Somebody turn him in to Safire.

Posted by: CaptDMO at January 28, 2008 3:08 PM

Amy -

I love the idea that the law will correct the idea that life isn't fair.

So did Vonnegut in a short that's in Welcome to the Monkey House. I think that AA is definitely a step in that direction. Though I am not afraid that "the man" will start putting actual physical impediments on people in the interest of equalizing, AA seems to do a bang up job of throwing legal blockades that effectively do the same.

My dad was a MIOSHA construction safety inspector. He was up for promotion, with seventeen years of experience and continuing education. He also had the respect of his colleagues and the contractors he inspected, even ones he had imposed fines on. His own supervisors, a couple rungs up the ladder, asked him to apply for the promotion. They desperately wanted someone with his experience to take the position, as it would require training of new inspectors. But then the perfect candidate came along. A black women, with the bare minimum educational qualifications and not a lick of experience.

When King John decided to offer an early retirement to certain state employees, about six weeks after this happened, my dad jumped on it. This was not because he got passed over for the promotion, it was because his new boss was utterly incompetent. She regularly sent the inspectors out of their respective territories. A great example of this, is the one that cemented the old man's decision. She tried to send him on back to back inspections, first at Barrien Springs, the next in Grand Rapids (about an hour and forty minute drive) - both after lunch with one to go before the end of the day.

I just don't like AA. I think it is critical to provide kids with the base education that they need to become successful adults. I am all for going to pretty great lengths to ensure that every kid has the opportunity to get the education they will need to get there. But after that, it is up to them. Beyond that, there should be no special legs up, for getting into college or getting a job. If anything, said helps should be based on income, not race.

Posted by: DuWayne at January 28, 2008 3:39 PM

Anyone who has done a lot of hiring for professional positions (like I have) knows that a substantial portion of the applicants for any job know about the opening from your current employees.

Who do your present employees refer? Usually people very much like themselves, similiar age, similar background, etc. I had a guy who worked at my old firm who had at least one frat brother apply for every opening we had!

If you would like to expand you applicant pool by age, type of education, demographic background (here I mean ethnic OR economic background - many business specifically seek to hire people who are the first college graduate in their family or first professional degree holder in their family) then sometimes you need to give your current employees incentive to dig a little deeper into their acquaintance pool for referrals.

To Smarty, who only goes to white, male doctors: You'd best hope your doctor wasn't a legacy admit (affirmative action for the white and/or wealthy) to med school because his dad is also a white, male doctor.

Posted by: oslo at January 28, 2008 7:50 PM

Of course, in the actual hiring, the best person for the job should get the job.

The problem is in recruiting the applicant pool. In the professions, which are still dominated by a narrow demographic, it is hard to get a pool of applicants which is representative of the demographics of the profession.

Minority and female professionals or those from modest backgrounds often believe their best chances for employment are in the public or non-profit sector. Businesses that want to let them know that they want to hire the best available candidate; not just the brother-in-law of the guy down the hall, need to have tools to expand their applicant pool.

Posted by: oslo at January 28, 2008 8:21 PM

I can understand Smarty's reluctance about going to foreign doctors. I know in India, going to medical school is not a result of your test scores and hard work, it's a benefit of being in the right caste. I met a 24 year old Indian girl who was telling me she was two courses away from getting her doctorate in nutrition. This girl wasn't educated enough to run the french frier at Mcdonalds. In some poor countries, the requirments to be called a doctor are about one tenth of what they are here. Then they come to the US as a 'doctor' and they aren't worth a rat's ass. In LA, you here a lot of news stories about these 'doctors' doing some atrocious crap. There was even one who was using automotive sealant silicone to do some cosmetic surgery. There have been deaths due to liposuction and some relatively routine procedures because these people have little or no training or experience.

Posted by: Bikerken at January 28, 2008 9:58 PM

So did Vonnegut in a short that's in Welcome to the Monkey House

Harrison Bergeron - where, for example, smart people have to wear radios in their ears that play a sharp noise to keep them from fully using their brains.

Posted by: Amy Alkon Author Profile Page at January 29, 2008 12:15 AM

Harrison Bergeron was prescient.

I attended a "diversity" workshop at my university some years ago. The facilitator gave a presentation explaining why minorities received more points in the admission system.

During the question and answer session I asked if he would be OK with deducting points from white applicants instead of adding points to minority applicants. He indignantly responded, "That would be unfair! I don't support that."

The rube didn't grasp that the two approaches are equivalent.

Let's state plainly what affirmative action is: positive discrimination against white people to redress wrongs committed by their white ancestors.

That's bullshit.

Posted by: Jeff at January 29, 2008 7:08 AM

Let's state plainly what affirmative action is: positive discrimination against white people to redress wrongs committed by their white ancestors.

That's bullshit.

Absolutely it is! Why are we not practicing positive discrimination against those black people whose black ancestors sold their fellow tribesmen into slavery?

Posted by: Flynne at January 29, 2008 7:16 AM

Regarding Harrison Berergeron, who prefered the story and who prefered the movie?

Posted by: lujlp at January 29, 2008 9:18 AM

Why are so many posters equating seeking to expand the applicant pool to include minority applicants with hiring unqualified people?

It is in everyone's best interest for hiring to be done from the broadest range of qualified people, not just the friends of the guys who already work for your organization.

P.S. Smarty was not just rejecting foreign-trained doctors based on their perceived inferiority, but also female and non-white male U.S. med school graduates. My close friend is a (U.S. trained) physician, and he tells me that the licensing exam for foreign educated M.D.'s is more rigorous than the licensing exam for graduates of U.S. med schools

Posted by: oslo Author Profile Page at January 29, 2008 6:19 PM

Olso said:
>Why are so many posters equating seeking to >expand the applicant pool to include minority >applicants with hiring unqualified people?

> It is in everyone's best interest for hiring to > be done from the broadest range of qualified
> people, not just the friends of the guys who
> already work for your organization.

It isn't a matter of "qualified" "unqualified." Neither is it a matter of seeking to "expand the applicant pool." No one objects to reaching out widely to seek more applicants. We object to discriminating against applicants of a certain race or gender because of that race or gender. That is manifestly unjust. As a country, we decided that 40 or 50 years ago.

Oslo, quit parotting your HR department. All your cliched excuses for AA are--at best--disingenuous. I hope that you are merely naive rather than dishonest.

For example, the "preferences" given to legacies at universities are a small fraction of the weight given to minorities.

Another example: At my highly competitive undergrad university, children of alumni had average SAT scores perhaps 30 points less than the overall average. Minority admissions were more like 150 points below the overall average.

In my profession--I have a PhD in a social science--the profession has a well known and understood process for hiring. You don't get a job because your uncle is in the union. There is no need for "outreach." Everyone knows where to go to find a job.

Despite this, every organization also practices discrimination in favor or minorities and women.

Posted by: Chris at January 29, 2008 7:08 PM

Sure Olso, that's why a russian doctor isn't qualified to be a nurse here.

Or why rich folks from around the world come here for treatment.

but even here, they are afraid to flunk women and minorities in any high-tech or medical program.

Posted by: Smarty at January 31, 2008 5:39 PM

Leave a comment