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The Jewish Ethicist: Affirmative Action

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem

Are affirmative action programs ethical?

Q. Can I take advantage of an affirmative action program even if I'm not personally disadvantaged?

A. Affirmative action is one of the most controversial ethical issues of the last generation, as well as one of the most common topics of Jewish Ethicist queries. The basic idea is that since certain groups have in the past faced discrimination in access to positions of wealth and influence, members of these groups should now be compensated with favored status.

Against this claim are equally cogent arguments. One claim is that if discrimination is bad we should eliminate it, not perpetuate it. Another claim is that affirmative action is counterproductive, since it discouraged initiative among historically underprivileged groups and also stigmatizes minority professionals as underqualified, thus having a negative impact on those who are not in need of reverse discrimination.

An additional consideration is that a person may belong to a "disadvantaged" group without being disadvantaged -- like the author of the question, who was eligible for an affirmative action program despite coming from a family that experienced generations of affluence.

But these claims also have replies. Sometimes what seem to be "objective" hiring or acceptance criteria have subtle cultural biases which can only be reversed through a transition period of affirmative action, and sometimes belonging to a minority group is ipso facto a qualification, since diversity can sometimes by itself augment the breadth of outlook in a school or workplace. A multiracial police force may be perceived as more accessible to citizens. And even group members who are not personally disadvantaged can serve as examples or bellwethers for others.

I personally am skeptical about the ability of affirmative action programs to make a constructive impact, but I am also convinced that there is nothing unethical about them. If I think a tax cut is unwise I don't have an obligation to pay extra taxes, and if I think an affirmative action program is unwise that shouldn't stop me from taking advantage of one.

The objective of having equitable representation in critical public sectors is an old one. Rashi writes: "It is the custom for a king to appoint a tax collector from this household for one month and from this household for one month, and thus from all the households in the city." (1) This method may not bring the most qualified tax collectors, but it does create a perception of fairness and certain safeguards against abuse of public office; in any case, the Talmud and commentaries don't seem to mention any objections to taking part in the arrangement.

As a policy analyst, I am personally inclined to think that affirmative action has been largely ineffective or even counterproductive. But as an ethicist, I acknowledge that it is meant to attain an important policy objective and I think the voting public has a right to make reasonable use of it and that any eligible individual has the right to take advantage of its programs.

SOURCES: (1) Rashi commentary on Bava Batra 144b.

The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

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