Affirmative Action in the United States and India: A Comparative Perspective

By Thomas E. Weisskopf | Go to book overview
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The potential benefits and costs of positive discrimination

In Chapter 2 I discussed various arguments raised in the US and in India in support of or in opposition to policies of positive discrimination (PD). In this chapter I seek to organize these arguments systematically into a comprehensive list of arguments for and against positive discrimination. I begin by considering two common arguments that are based strictly on principles of justice; and then I turn to the many arguments that make the case for or against PD policies on the basis of their anticipated consequences. 1 These latter arguments involve claims that certain benefits or certain costs will result from PD policies. In the last section of the chapter I discuss the societal goals that underlie the benefits and costs anticipated from PD policies by their proponents and opponents.

Positive discrimination as due compensation or reverse discrimination?

For some participants in the ongoing debate over positive discrimination, the matter can and should be settled on the basis of moral principles alone. Thus many proponents contend that it is a matter of fundamental social justice. Members of under-represented ethnic groups (UREGs) have been victimized in many ways and, as a result, they find themselves on average in a relatively poor socio-economic position. To give them some degree of preference in processes of selection to desired positions in a society seems a small but eminently reasonable form of compensation for past injustice. On the other hand, many opponents of positive discrimination object that it results in the selection of applicants from the favored ethnic groups at the expense of other applicants who are more qualified or meritorious, thereby violating elementary procedural justice. From this perspective, preferential selection of UREG members appears to constitute reverse discrimination against the rest of the population-a form of discrimination against the latter just as arbitrary and morally unjustifiable as (negative) discrimination against the former.

These two irreconcilable arguments from basic principles of justice represent probably the most widely held-and certainly the most passionately held-positions on positive discrimination. Yet, as I will argue in this chapter,


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