Morality vs. Mandate: Affirmative Action in Employment

By Soni, Vidu | Public Personnel Management, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Morality vs. Mandate: Affirmative Action in Employment


Soni, Vidu, Public Personnel Management


Affirmative action, one of the most significant public policies of the 20th century, can be seen as an attempt to establish a more "inclusive moral convention,"[1] which aims at achieving fairness and equality for all members of society. In such a society everyone has the ability to compete for its goods and benefits.[2] Attempting to create a society, workplaces, and educational institutions in which individuals or groups are not stigmatized or excluded from opportunities on the basis of race/ethnicity or gender can be seen as the ethical foundation of affirmative action.[3] The moral basis for affirmative action is found in the tradition of American public administration, anti-discrimination laws, and the principles of organizational justice.[4] To public personnel practitioners, affirmative action has ethical significance from a variety of viewpoints, particularly as it relates to the "merit controversy" and organizational justice issues.

This article argues that affirmative action (AA) is as much a moral issue as it is an anti-discriminatory measure. The focus of this article is to examine the ethical aspects of AA rather than to discuss the anti-discrimination principles of AA as embodied in the Constitution, statutes, and legal precedents. Today, the increased national sensitivity to the rights of minorities does not rely on the moral imperatives that should underlie such a debate, but, rather, the fear of litigation or so-called "political correctness." Viewing AA from a purely legal perspective reduces it to an adversarial proposition with winners and losers. Furthermore, the doctrine of legal protection does not always discourage discriminatory behaviors. In spite of the available legal remedies, discrimination is often under-reported due to reasons such as fear of retaliation, complexities of the legal system, difficulty in supplying the necessary proof, and the psychological and financial costs involved.[5] Focusing attention on the ethical principles of affirmative action divert attention from contentious legal issues and reinforce its fundamental purpose. In addition, an ethical perspective can also help counter the backlash and resentment toward AA policies within organizations.[6]

Ethics of Affirmative Action

Even though AA has been in existence since 1964 in a legal sense, neither the scholars, courts, public officials, nor lay persons have arrived at a consensus about its fundamental purpose, its legitimacy as a public policy, or a reason for its continuation. In the 1990s, due to a widely assumed decline in discrimination,[7] political discourse on civil rights has lost its moral urgency and has simply taken on the rationalized tone of legal decision makers. As a result, policies and practices designed to promote equal opportunity and fair treatment in the workplace are not receiving the kind of attention needed for continued progress toward eliminating workplace discrimination.[8] Theoretically, AA policies were designed to help the system help the victim. In practice, however, the victims still find that they have to fight a system that does not want to help.

The current AA debate involves many ongoing, as well as new, arguments. The opponents argue: (1) AA is no longer needed as we have largely solved the problem of employment discrimination,(2) AA is unfair to white males because they are losing opportunities to women and minorities strictly based on their race and gender, and (3) it promotes inefficiencies in the workplace because minorities and women are hired and promoted to jobs for which they are not qualified. The proponents, on the other hand, argue: (1) discrimination is very much a current, as well as prevalent, issue (2) it is difficult to define merit and it is often used as a pretext to exclude minorities from jobs and higher education, and (3) current discrimination is a result of past historical and social practices and require color and gender conscious remedies to provide access to societal goods, i. …

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