Affirmative Action in University Admission: Liberal Theory
Respect for the autonomy of a person rejects distributive justice in higher education admission
‘All justice involves discrimination’1
Aristotle’s teleological view on justice focuses on the goal of an action rather than its initial fairness. As it is the outcome that matters, discrimination on the way is inevitable in order to achieve equality in a society. The case of Cheryl Hopwood’s rejection to the University of Texas due to affirmative action yields the discussion about distributive justice and whether discrimination in order to achieve an equal society is just. Despite having the same grades as fellow applicants from ethnic minorities, she was denied access to the university on the grounds of her skin color, as the college claimed to favor a diverse student body. In the light of liberalist theory, this issue poses a great paradox by touching not only upon the question of liberty vs. equality, but also concerning the kind of moral action and intention that is applicable in order to maintain equality in society. Predominantly, however, it yields the conflict between pledges in favor of the phenomenon diversity against the autonomy of a person in social policy. Opposing classical Aristotelian theory, it will be argued that despite three justifications of affirmative action, the liberal principle of personal autonomy should outweigh diversity motivated discrimination in university admissions. The main theoretical justification to this will be an extension of Kantian philosophy, which focuses upon the fact that people should never be used as means to an end but rather an end themselves. This will be extended by Robert Nozick’s principle of the ‘separateness of persons’. Despite acknowledging the importance of equality in a society, Cheryl Hopwood’s rejection to higher education on the grounds of ethnicity needs to be rejected, as equality means equal opportunities rather than equal outcomes and equal starts rather than equal finish. Lastly, it will be discussed that the issue of affirmative action calls for an alternative, autonomy-oriented solution in distributive justice: By respecting property rights, distributive justice should work on the origin of the problem of disadvantaged minorities, rather than creating injustice by fixing the result of inequality through affirmative action.
Affirmative action in University admission is a widely discussed liberal policy, which aims to cherish diversity in higher education. The University of Texas has this social mission to guarantee better educational experience and benefit society as a whole, by admitting people from diverse ethnic backgrounds. However, this case reflects a more general point of discussion in liberal theory as in the two opposing interpretations of personal autonomy and diversity. Whereas diversity oriented liberals would agree to affirmative action, Kant would object, as it interferes with personal liberty. Overruling weighing this principle of liberty, affirmative action is generally justified by two additional arguments to the diversity aspect. Firstly, the corrective approach2, which aims to get a true estimate of the situation by looking beyond grades, which is the educational disadvantages of people from minority backgrounds. Secondly, affirmative action aims to compensate3 for past wrongs, predominantly slavery and race discrimination. By admitting minorities, they aim to reconcile for this past injustice on the way to a more equal society.
In favor of these arguments, one can refer to Richard Dworkin’s claim that liberals tend to prioritize equality over liberty and autonomy of the person. Accordingly, diversity oriented liberals argue that it is morally just and fair to correct the unequal distribution of wealth, family background and status. Accordingly, John Rawls argues with his difference principle that measures should be taken according to make the least advantaged...
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