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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

More Michigan

Stanley Fish, in a Times Select article entitled Revising Affirmative Action, With Help From Kant gives the following interpretation of Kant's political theory, as applied to affirmative action:

Kant says that correct political thinking must begin by affirming two propositions: 1) Â?the freedom of every member of society as a human being,Â? and 2) Â?the equality of each with all the others as a subject.Â? This emphasis on freedom and equality has led some of my students to conclude that Kant would have been in favor of affirmative action because, they reasoned, it was the denial of freedom and equality to African Americans that produced the injustices affirmative action is intended to redress.

That, I tell my students, is the wrong answer, because it confuses and conflates two aspirations Kant was concerned to keep separate: the achieving of results that many would think good, and acting in conformity with the moral law. In some philosophies Â? utilitarianism in some of its versions would be an example Â? morality and the bringing about of a desired social outcome (a more equal distribution of wealth, proportionate representation of minorities in positions of influence and power) would be one and the same. But Kant is, at least philosophically, indifferent to outcomes, in part because, as he puts it, Â?men have different views on the empirical end of happinessÂ? Â? that is, different views about what society should look like and therefore different views about the policies that should be pursued.

A state dedicated to morality rather than to happiness will not take sides and choose one end before the others; rather it will protect the right of every man to choose the end he prefers, provided that he in turn accords the same right to his fellows. Â?Each may seek his happiness in whatever way he sees fit, so long as he does not infringe upon the freedom of others to pursue a similar end which can be reconciled with the freedom of others.Â? It is the abstract right rather than Â?the object in relation to whichÂ? it might be exercised, and the condition of freedom rather than any action freely performed, that Kant values. His interest is not in the particular life plan an autonomous citizen might wish to pursue, but in the ability of that citizen to pursue it without having the plan preferred by others imposed on him or realized at his expense.

Stanley Fish is a distinguished professor of law, has published ten books and has taught at some of the elite educational institutions in the country. I am going to accept that he understands Kant better than I do. Personally, I seem to recall Kant advocating a number of political mechanisms that are in stark contrast to the above view - the death penalty, for example - and justifying them with reference to a distinction between individual action and state or collective action. But let's assume that the above is a correct and consistent interpretation of Kant. It seems the problem that Fish ought to be concerned with isn't the use of affirmative action in admissions, it seems like the problem Fish ought to find principally unacceptable is that the University of Michigan exists at all. The taking of funds by the state from individuals is a clear transgression upon individual's use of those same funds for the realization of inchoate aspirations.

This is largely, however, what I believe to be a misapplication of moral philosophy. The common filter through which to view racial conflict is one closely akin to torts; if a white person harms a black person, the black person is entitled to remuneration of some sort, therefore, if a group of white people (eg. much of the country in pre-1970 America) harms a group of black people, that group is entitled to a remedy in the form of affirmative action. This is typically the form the dialogue has taken since affirmative action began, and it's useful as a model. The decision in Brown vs. Board of Education painted integration with this brush, and it makes racial equality a matter of justice rather than more squishy concepts like 'social good' or 'altriusim'.

The analogy is fatally inexact, however. In the case of single individuals (or even an insular and easily identifiable group), guilt can be precicely pinpointed and blame assigned. Affirmative action isn't that.

As I mentioned in my previous post, Affirmative Action is a good program because racial inequality is a huge problem in America. Apart from our historical difficulties with discrimination, the racial tension that is created by having a de facto underclass has real consequences. The riots in France, while unlikely in America, are a pretty cogent example of what happens to societies that have these sorts of fissures. Crime, political disenfranchisement (even self-perpetuating), and if nothing else, economic inefficiency are outgrowths of stratification, and they're a very real problem. As long as race inbalance exists, it's in the public interest to use public institutions (like universities) to attempt to rectify it.

Kant has nothing to do with this process. It's not a moral question, it's a practical one.

cranked out at 2:15 PM | |

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