Worked example of application of Ethical Knowledge to a real life situation.

This post links with a Grade 11 / DP1 Introduction to Ethics lesson.

Real Life Situation: Affirmative Action for US college entrance for ethnic minorities.

  • Possible Ethical Issues:
    Fairness – seeks to redress inequalities caused by prejudice and discrimination.
    Unfairness – gives some people an innate advantage over others regardless of other factors (e.g. ability, determination, utility etc).
    Unfairness – gives advantage to some because of one factor of structural disadvantage (e.g. Ethnicity) rather than another (e.g. Gender).
  • Equity – Treats people differently according to birth status.
    Equity – not all college’s implement affirmative action uniformly.

The list of ethical issues relating to affirmative action could be further extended, but the main ideas are covered above.

Let’s look at a Normative Ethical approach to Affirmative Action:

  1. Consequentialism.
    Consequentialists would argue that whether something is judged to be right or wrong depends upon the consequences of the behaviour rather than an absolute universal code. As such we can approach the consequences of affirmative action from a number of standpoints. We could look at the effects of affirmative action on the the students who do, or do not, get into college, as a result of the programme. Or we could think about the degree to which affirmative action supports, or undermines, meritocratic ideals in society (in which case we would be starting from that the standpoint that meritocracy is ethical). Further, we could look at the effects of affirmative action upon economic and social development of a society.

2. Deontology.

Deontologists argue that a moral action is if a person acts from Duties / Obligations, and therefore they place less emphasis on the consequences of behaviour than on the intentions of the actor.
If we apply this approach to affirmative action then we could look at the intentions of those who designed the programme, and the intentions of those who participate in the programme. We could also look at the perceived duties / obligations of those who designed and operate the programme.
We could look at Francis Kamm’s theory of Permissible Harm (which states that a degree of harm is permissible if it is part of a greater good). In this case an argument could be made that the harm experienced by those denied a place at college could be offset by the greater good of the social development which is stimulated by affirmative action.

3. Utilitarianism
Utilitarianism is the belief that an action is deemed ethical if it promotes the greatest utility (pleasure) for the greatest number of people. As such, when applied to Affirmative Action programmes we could look at whether more people experience utility during and after the programme as a consequence of the programme. It could be argued that promoting social mobility through affirmative action has a greater positive effect on the aggregate utility in society than maintaining social inequality (by removing affirmative action) has on aggregate utility.

4. Subjectivism
Subjectivism is the view that there are no absolute moral truths, everything is the subjective belief of an individual. Further, most ‘subjective beliefs’ are based on an individual’s emotional experience, rather than contrasting WoKs such as Reason. Therefore, if we applied subjectivism to affirmative action we would say that rather than debating the ethical dilemmas of the situation people are actually just articulating their emotional responses to the programme.

5. Virtue Ethics
Virtue Ethics is the belief that only those of virtuous character can act in an ethical, or morally righteous, manner. This obviously gives rise to the question – what is deemed to be ‘a virtuous character’. This was usually defined historically, and often in terms of religious beliefs. If we applied this to affirmative action we could look at whether those who designed the programme would be deemed ethical, and whether those who participate in the programme would be deemed ethical.

6. Universalism
Universalism is the idea that there are core ethical values that apply in every situation regardless of the individual context, the actors, or the consequences of action/inaction. Whether a universalist would consider affirmative action ethical very much depends upon what you consider these universal core ethical values to be. However, pure meritocratic ability based treatment, or equality of treatment would present significant challenges to the morality of affirmative action.





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