Another Bad Argument Against Affirmative Action

In the debate linked in my last post, anti-Affirmative Action speaker Joseph Phillips offers a version of the “racial preferences hurt minorities” argument. He poses that AA programs designed to benefit African Americans send the message that this group “can’t compete” with white students without preferences. Of course this is supposed to insult blacks and offend everyone else.

But the “can’t” here is an odd jump: Could not the same logic be applied to any case in which one seeks to ameliorate a wrong? One reason for condemning slavery in the U.S. is that it thwarted the full and textured human flourishing of its victims. When we say that slavery should have been ended because it has this negative effect, are we saying that the victims of slavery “couldn’t” realize their potential so long as the institution remained? For surely to say so would be false: Frederick Douglass is as “realized” a human being as every lived, and did not need the abolition of slavery to do it. (He escaped its “potential-denying” tendencies “on his own” instead.) Nor does freeing you from an illegal, makeshift dungeon imply that you “can’t” get out on your own; for it is not impossible that you could escape.

But just as the imperative to correct a wrong—to end slavery, or free you from that dungeon—doesn’t mean its victims absolutely “can’t” succeed without the wrong being corrected, the fact that the victims “can” succeed without our corrective intervention doesn’t mean there isn’t an imperative to correct it.

For example, I could place a series of obstacles—potholes, fences, fires, hooligans—between you and your place of work. Whether or not you “can” or “can’t” negotiate these successfully enough to keep your job going is totally beside the question of whether it would be moral for me, or some other person, to remove these obstacles.

And why stick to the righting of wrongs? By Phillips’s reasoning, conversely, doesn’t not erecting these obstacles send the same ugly message that you can only compete in the absence of special obstacles? Doesn’t telling my wife I love her convey the insult that she “can’t” maintain a sense of self-esteem and wellbeing without my affection?

In brief, the reason we stop bad things and create good things is not because the beneficiaries “can’t” possibly succeed at anything without those measures. AA programs no more imply this than any other time we act morally for the benefit of “less than everyone.”

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