Two Ubiquitous Affirmative Action Fallacies – I’m tempted to say that if someone can show me a defense of preferential admissions that does not contain these fallacies I’ll give him or her an autographed copy of my next book … or ten cents in coin.
I discussed a typical example just two days ago, here. And now here’s another example of the same thing (See what I mean? It’s everywhere), from a review in today’s New York Times Book Review of The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values, by James Shulman and William G. Bowen:
“The Game of Life,” by James Shulman, a researcher and administrator at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and William Bowen, president of the foundation and formerly president of Princeton, marshals the evidence that high athletic ability — the kind that gets high school children onto the wish lists submitted by college coaches to admissions committees — confers advantage in the admissions scramble. Supporters of affirmative action cogently point out that this sort of “affirmative action” for athletes (as well as for alumni children) has never, at least until now, elicited cries of foul on the ground that it violates meritocratic principles. Somehow that kind of indignation seems to arise only in response to the putative advantages of minority candidates. (Emphasis added)
For some reason, every time this point is made — and it is made in virtually every defense of racial preferences — it is always made with a sort of breathless sense of discovery, as though the author had just come up with an unanswerable “gotcha!” that will drive the final nail into the coffin of racist or redneck or Republican (but, from a liberal point of view, I repeat myself) objections to affirmative action.
Here are the two fallacies on which that argument depends:
1. The Merit Fallacy
I’m sorely tempted to call this one The Meretricious Fallacy (Meretricious: “tawrdrily and falsely attractive”; “superficially significant” — Merriam-Webster Collegiate Online). Anyway, this is an argument that no one who accepts the legitimacy of criteria based on anything other than merit can make a principled criticism of racial preferences. It is a fallacy because it wrongly assumes that the only criticism of racial preferences is that they offend the merit principle. That is not true. They also offend, and more fundamentally, the principle that no person should be rewarded or punished based on race or religion. For example, merit is totally irrelevant to the illegitimacy of an admissions office in a public institution giving preferences to Presbyterians. (And preferences to Jews or Catholics or wiccans would have been equally illegitimate, even if the rationale were to compensate for past discrimination.)
2. The Fallacy of Fungible Discriminations
This is the argument that all discrimination is alike; if you can discriminate for one reason, you can discriminate for any reason. Thus if it’s acceptable to give preferences based on athletic or musical ability or the alumni status of parents, it’s also legitimate to give preferences based on race or religion. Preferences, in short, are preferences; if one is O.K., all are O.K.
In some respects No. 2 is simply the other side of the coin of No. 1. The Merit Fallacy says that if you accept any exception to merit you have no principled basis to criticize any discrimination, and The Fallacy of Fungible Discriminations says all discriminations are on the same moral plane. But they are not. Because of our history, and the core values that have emerged from it, race and religion are in a special, protected category. We allow, even require, the state to impose benefits and burdens on us based on a whole host of criteria — but not race or religion, which are or should be off limits to government control. As I wrote two days ago making this same point against the same fallacies, no Constitutional prohibition bars discrimination for or against tight ends or tuba players. That hardly means, as defenders of racial preferences must maintain, that discrimination based on race or religion is also acceptable.