The argument against fairness

Posted January 14th, 2013 by
Category: Modern issues Tags: , , ,

Stephen T. Asma, Against Fairness (2012)Philosopher Stephen T. Asma is causing quite a stir these days with his new book, Against Fairness.

The crux of Asma’s argument is that favoritism, and not fairness or egalitarianism, ought to guide our morality and our civic life. His philosophy welcomes such modern, democratic values as compassion and the fight against prejudice, while urging us to reject liberalism’s belief in meritocracy and the equal worth of all persons. Instead, Asma would have us embrace our instinct to prefer, and to preferentially support, the members of our “tribes”—those we feel close to by reason of blood, social relationships, or such markers as religion, social class, or cultural affinity.

This philosophical approach represents a major challenge to those who believe that our society can, and should, work to overcome bias of all kinds, expanding the circles1 of those we consider “us” until we become, as Asma puts it, “one giant tribe.”

Naturally, the reaction against Asma’s book has been quite strong in many circles. His argument against fairness appears implausible to many people, and it certainly undermines critical aspects of modern democracy and liberal thought, including the idea that our lingering divisions into “us” versus “them”—whether on account of race, creed, socioeconomic status, or any other marker—are fading, and indeed, ought to fade.

Asma, however, believes that the benefits of fairness are largely illusory, and that favoritism actually drives much of our progress as a society. For instance, he argues that civil rights leaders such as Rosa Parks were not fighting against discrimination in the abstract, or for a widening of the circle of privilege to include people of color. Instead, Asma writes, these champions of equality “were not fighting for the equality of all people per se, but for the inclusion of their in-groups.”

Asma continues:

No one has ever fought for diversity, for universal, undiscriminating inclusion; rather, everyone fights for the inclusion of one’s own kind.

This is an intriguing argument about the nature of social progress, even if I find it a bit hard to relate to on a personal level, as a white person fighting for racial justice in our society. If Asma is right that we cannot infinitely extend our “affective communities,” those with whom we feel an emotional connection, then perhaps the best way to achieve equality and fairness in society is to encourage everyone to fight for one’s own kind.

However, this approach would mean abandoning a core tenet of liberalism, that we can actually break down barriers of prejudice to the point that we do not make meaningful distinctions on account of factors like race. And what of the mountain of evidence that our society’s racial divisions are not inevitable, but are historically contingent, having arisen out of the need to justify slavery and having remained because those divisions served the social, economic, and political interests of those in power? Would the long, slow eradication of meaningful racial distinctions merely cause the rise of other ways of distinguishing in-groups and out-groups, “us” versus “them”?

One interesting consequence of Asma’s philosophy is that it may actually strengthen the case for affirmative action, as Professor Stanley Fish hinted last week in an online column for the New York Times. After all, the strongest argument against affirmative action in a liberal democracy is based on fairness: in higher education, for instance, a black student may be admitted in place of a white student who would otherwise have received a spot; while this may help redress a broad injustice, the cost of that social justice falls disproportionately on the white student who, on a simple reading of merit, may have stronger qualifications.2 If we abandon the idea of fairness, of being neutral towards all persons without any distinction other than intrinsic merit, then it becomes easier to see broader arguments for using race as a factor in admissions, as Asma noted in an interview with Inside Higher Ed on Tuesday.

I don’t want to over-emphasize the potential points in favor of what Asma proposes in Against Fairness. His philosophy, for instance, emphasizes the old-fashioned virtues of loyalty, generosity, and gratitude. While Asma may be right that these virtues all have their merits, they have also been, historically, the basis for oppression and inequality, favoring, as they do, one’s own “kith and kin” over the majority or often, in more modern times, the majority over other, disfavored groups. How can people of color, for instance, hope to gain more access to employment opportunities, home loans, or higher education if these values reign in our society? What happens to the social safety net, much less the fight against excessive inequality, if we are all encouraged to target our generosity towards those like us, and to expect to rely primarily on the members of our own group? Asma may be right that this has been, and still is, a very common pattern, but does it represent our highest aspirations?

  1. See Peter Singer, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress (1981). []
  2. As those who have watched Traces of the Trade can appreciate, it may not be the white student who would otherwise barely receive admission who most directly benefits from the history of slavery and racism, but the white descendant of slave owners (or slave traders) whose privilege allows her to easily achieve entrance to the college of her choice. []

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