The Message of Affirmative Action

Social Philosophy and Policy 8 (2):108-129 (1991)
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Affirmative action programs remain controversial, I suspect, partly because the familiar arguments for and against them start from significantly different moral perspectives. Thus I want to step back for a while from the details of debate about particular programs and give attention to the moral viewpoints presupposed in differenttypesof argument. My aim, more specifically, is to compare the “messages” expressed when affirmative action is defended from different moral perspectives. Exclusively forward-looking (for example, utilitarian) arguments, I suggest, tend to express the wrong message, but this is also true of exclusively backward-looking (for example, reparation-based) arguments. However, a moral outlook that focuses on cross-temporal narrative values (such as mutually respectful social relations) suggests a more appropriate account of what affirmative action should try to express. Assessment of the message, admittedly, is only one aspect of a complex issue, but it is a relatively neglected one. My discussion takes for granted some common-sense ideas about the communicative function of action, and so I begin with these.Actions, as the saying goes, oftenspeaklouder than words. There are times, too, when only actions can effectively communicate the message we want to convey and times when giving a message is a central part of the purpose of action. What our actions say to others depends largely, though not entirely, upon our avowed reasons for acting; and this is a matter for reflective decision, not something we discover later by looking back at what we did and its effects. The decision is important because “the same act” can have very different consequences, depending upon how we choose to justify it.



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Citations of this work

Intergenerational justice.Lukas Meyer - 2008 - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Affirmative action.Robert Fullinwider - 2008 - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Affirmative Action and the Choice of Amends.George Hull - 2015 - Philosophia 43 (1):113-134.
Reparations and symbolic restitution.Lukas H. Meyer - 2006 - Journal of Social Philosophy 37 (3):406–422.

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After Virtue.A. MacIntyre - 1981 - Tijdschrift Voor Filosofie 46 (1):169-171.
The Right and the Good.Some Problems in Ethics.W. D. Ross & H. W. B. Joseph - 1933 - Journal of Philosophy 30 (19):517-527.
Sexual perversion.Thomas Nagel - 1969 - Journal of Philosophy 66 (1):5-17.

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