Open-Minded Approach, Not Right or Wrong, Benefits Affirmative Action Debate

Article excerpt


A debate, recently also hosted by the Cape Town-based Centre for Conflict Resolution, on the pros and cons of "affirmative action" (AA) has received a thorough airing in the media these past weeks. The question of logic, reason and emotion in this equity discussion has provided a challenging dimension.

As represented by Professor David Benatar, head of the University of Cape Town's department of philosophy, opposition to AA has it that the policy is neither the effective nor appropriate means to rectify past injustice. The argument is that in its controversial forms, the policy favours people of a designated "race", whereas rectification requires bestowing a compensatory benefit on those who have been treated unjustly regardless of race, class or other criteria.

Proponents of AA have been able to draw on a range of counter-arguments, just one of which, published on these pages not so long ago, is that the objective behind these policies is to address the long history of racialised differential access to opportunities, and its impact on the present. The past must thus be corrected before one can have hope in the present and the future.

This is the broad view presented and supported by Zimitri Erasmus, senior lecturer in UCT's department of sociology, when she debated with Benatar at the seminar "The Ethics of Affirmative Action", ably chaired by Charles Villa-Vicencio, executive director of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.

While Benatar has addressed AA at the level of logic and the importance of reason, his detractors have drawn on the need to take into account the historical and social context when talking about AA in the creation of a more equitable and less prejudiced future.

Benatar, starting his address, was mildly put out that the chair had been what he called "tendentious" in raising the issue of whether the exercise to be engaged in was "purely reason", or whether emotion had a role to play in this debate.

In other words, was the gathering going to be arguing in the "reasonable" sense of the word since "reason" was provided as some kind of conclusion by the chair?

Benatar hastened to add that he was not trying to suggest that emotions were not important when they so clearly are in the assessment of any ethical issue, and particularly in any issue as emotionally charged as AA.

Furthermore, if we were to make progress towards a right conclusion, then clear heads were needed for thinking as lucidly as possible, and this meant overcoming emotions in order to provide sound reasons for whatever viewpoint was being put forward.

In her article, "The Language of Race cannot be Discarded", published in the Cape Times on May 22, Erasmus challenges Benatar's approach, noting that the best arguments about political matters are located in "lived reality" rather than "abstract logic".

This was the point that Benatar took the opportunity to counter at the seminar. He was not engaging in the "pure logic" alluded to by Erasmus, Benatar said, but was, rather, applying logic or standards of reasoning to real, everyday issues, using the tools of reasoning employed by all who aspire to use them in grappling with such issues. …