Justice: What’s The Right Thing To Do? (Harvard)

Episode 9:

Arguing Affirmative Action /
What's the Purpose?

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Michael Sandel: Last time we were discussing the distinction that Rawls draws between two different types of claims, claims of moral desert on the one hand and of entitlements to legitimate expectations on the other. Rawls argued that it’s a mistake to think that distributive justice is a matter of moral desert, a matter of rewarding people according to their virtue.
Today we’re going to explore that question, of moral desert and it’s relation to distributive justice, not in connection with income and wealth but in its connection with opportunities, with hiring decisions and admission standards. And so we turn to the case of affirmative action. We read about the case of Sheryl Hockwood, she applied for admission to the University of Texas Law School, Sheryl Hockwood had worked her way through high school, she didn’t come from an affluent family, she put herself through community college and California State University at Sacramento. She achieved a 3.8 grade point average there, later moved to Texas, became a resident, took the law school admissions test, did pretty well on that and she applied to the University of Texas Law School. She was turned down, she was turned down at a time when the University of Texas was using an affirmative action admissions policy, a policy that took into account race and ethnic background. University of Texas said 40 percent of the population of Texas is made up of African American and Mexican Americans, it’s important that we, as a law school have a diverse student body and so we are going to take into account not only grades and test scores but also the demographic makeup of our class, including its race and ethnic profile. The result, and this is what Hockwood complained about, the result of that policy is that some applicants to the University of Texas Law School with a lower academic index, which includes grades and test scores, than hers were admitted and she was turned down. She said, she argued “I’m just being turned down because I’m white, if I weren’t, if I were a member of a minority group with my grades and test scores I would have been admitted.” And the statistics, the admissions statistics that came out in the trial confirmed that African American and Mexican American applicants that year who had her grades and test scores were admitted. It went to federal court. Now, put aside the law, let’s consider it from the stand point of justice and morality. Is it fair or is it unfair? Does Sheryl Hockwood have a case, a legitimate complaint? Were her rights violated by the admissions policy of the law school? How many say, how many would rule for the law school and say that it was just to consider race and ethnicity as a factor for admissions? How many would rule for Sheryl Hockwood and say her rights were violated? So here we have an even split. All right, now I want to hear from a defender of Sheryl Hockwood. Yes.


Bree: You’re basing something on that’s an arbitrary factor, you know Sheryl couldn’t control the fact that she was white or not in a minority and therefore you know it’s not as if it was like a test score that she worked hard to try and show that she could you know put that out there you know she had no control over her race.

Michael Sandel: Good and what’s your name?

Bree: Bree.

Michael Sandel: OK Bree stay right there. Now let’s find someone who, who has an answer for Bree. Yes.

Anesia: There are discrepancies in the educational system, a majority of the time, I know this in New York City, the schools that minorities go to are not as well funded, are not as well supplied as white schools and so there is going to be a discrepancy naturally between minorities and between whites if they go to better schools and they will not do as well on exams because they haven’t had as much help because of a worse school system.

Michael Sandel: Let me just interrupt you to just, tell me your name.

Anesia: Anesia.

Michael Sandel: Anesia. Anesia you’re pointing out that minority kids may have gone, in some cases, to schools that didn’t give them the same educational opportunity as kids from affluent families.

Anesia: Yes.

Michael Sandel: And so the test scores they got may actually not represent their true potential.

Anesia: Because they didn’t receive the same kind of help that they might have received had they gone to a school with better funding.

Michael Sandel: Good, all right. Anesia has raised the point that colleges still should choose for the greatest academic scholarly promise but in reading the test scores and grades they should take into account the different meaning those tests and grades have in the light of educational disadvantage in the background. So that’s one argument in defense of affirmative action, Anesia’s argument, correcting for the effects of unequal preparation, educational disadvantage. Now there are other arguments, suppose, just to identify whether there is a, is a competing principle here, suppose there are two candidates who did equally well on the tests and grades, both of whom went to first rate schools. Two candidates, among those candidates would it be unfair for the college or university or Harvard to say “we still want diversity along racial and ethnic dimensions, even where we are not correcting for the effects on test scores of educational disadvantage,” what about in that case Bree.

Bree: If it’s that one thing that puts someone over the edge then it’s, I guess that would be you know justifiable. If everything else about the individual first though, everything you consider about that person’s, you know talents, and where they come from, and who they are without these arbitrary factors. It’s the same.

Michael Sandel: Without these arbitrary factors you call them but before you were suggesting Bree that race and ethnicity are arbitrary factors outside the control of the applicant.

Bree: True, I would agree with that.

Michael Sandel: And your general principle is that admissions shouldn’t reward arbitrary factors over which people have no control.

Bree: Right.

Michael Sandel: All right. Who else, who else would like to, thank you both, who else would like to get into this? What do you say?

David: Well first of all ahh I’m for affirmative action temporarily but ahh what for two reasons. First of all you have to look at the university’s purpose, it is to educate their students and umm I feel that different races, people from coming different races have different backgrounds and they contribute differently to you know the education, and second of all when you say that they have equal backgrounds they, that’s not true when you look at the broader picture and you look at slavery and these are, this is kind of a reparation, I think ahh affirmative action is a temporary solution to alleviate umm history and ahh the wrongs done to African Americans in particular.

Michael Sandel: And what’s your name?

David: David.

Michael Sandel: David, you say that affirmative action is justified at least for now as a way of compensating for past injustice, the legacy of slavery and segregation.

David: Right.

Michael Sandel: Who wants to take on that argument? We need now a critic of affirmative action. Yes, go ahead.

Kate: I think that what happened in the past has no bearing on what happens today and I think that discriminating based on race should always be wrong, whether you are discriminating against one group or another. Just because our ancestors did something doesn’t mean that that should have any effect on what happens with us today.

Michael Sandel: All right, good. I’m sorry, your name is?

Kate: Kate

Michael Sandel: Kate. All right who has an answer for Kate? Yes.

Monsauer: Umm, I just wanted to comment and say that

Michael Sandel: Tell us your name.

Monsauer: My name is Monsauer. Because of slavery, because of past injustices, today we have a higher proportion of African Americans who are in poverty, who face less, less opportunities than white people and so because of slavery two hundred years ago and because of Jim Crow and because of segregation, today we have injustice based on race.

Kate: Umm I think that there are differences, obviously, but the way to fix those differences is not by some artificial fixing of the result, you need to fix the problem, so we need to address differences in education and differences in umm upbringing with programs like Head Start and giving more funding to lower income schools rather than trying to just fix the result so it looks like it is equal when really it isn’t.

Michael Sandel: Yes.

Hannah: With regard to affirmative action based on race, I just wanna say that white people have had their own affirmative action in this country for more than 400 years, it’s called nepotism and quid pro quo. So there’s nothing wrong with correcting the injustice and discrimination that’s been done to black people for 400 years.

Michael Sandel: Good. Tell us, wait, tell us your name.

Hannah: Hannah.

Michael Sandel Hannah, all right who has an answer for Hannah? And just to add to Hannah’s point, because we need now someone to respond, Hannah you could have also mentioned legacy admissions.

Hannah: Exactly, I was going to say if you disagree with affirmative action than you should disagree with legacy admissions because it’s obvious from looking around here that there are more white legacies than black legacies in the history of Harvard University.

Michael Sandel: And explain what legacy admissions are.

Hannah: Well legacy admissions is giving an advantage to someone who has an arbitrary umm privilege of their parent having attended the university to which they are applying.

Michael Sandel: All right, so a reply to Hannah? Yes, in the balcony. Go ahead.

Danielle: First of all, if affirmative action is making up for past injustice, how do you explain minorities that were not historically discriminated against in the United States who get these advantages? In addition you could argue that affirmative action perpetuates divisions between the races rather than achieve the ultimate goal of race being an irrelevant factor in our society.

Michael Sandel: And what, tell us your name.

Danielle: Danielle.

Michael Sandel: Hannah.

Hannah: I disagree with that because I think that by promoting diversity in an institution like this you further educate all the students, especially the white students who grew up predominately white areas, it’s certainly a form of education to be exposed to people from different backgrounds and you put white students at an inherent disadvantage when you surround them only with their own kind.

Daniel: Why should race necessarily be equated with diversity? There is so many other forms, why should we assume that race makes people different? Again that’s perpetuating the idea of racial division within our universities and society.

Michael Sandel: Hannah.

Hannah: With regard to ahh African American people being given a special advantage, it’s obvious that they bring something special to the table because they have a unique perspective, just as someone from a different religion or socio-economic background would as well. As you say there are many different types of diversity, there is no reason that racial diversity should be eliminated from that criteria.

Michael Sandel: Yes, go ahead.

Ted: Racial discrimination is illegal in this country and I believe that it was African American leaders themselves, when Martin Luther King said he wanted to be judged not on the colour of his skin but by the content of his character, his merit, his achievements and I just this think that to do, to decide solely based on someone’s race is just inherently unfair I mean if you want to, want to correct based on disadvantaged backgrounds that’s fine but there also disadvantaged white people as well, it shouldn’t matter if you’re white or

Michael Sandel: Let me ask you, tell us your name.

Ted: Ted

Michael Sandel: Ted, think of Hockwood, it’s unfair to count race or I assume you would say ethnicity or religion?

Ted: Yes.

Michael Sandel: You think she has a right to be considered according to her grades and test scores alone?

Ted: No, there’s, there is more to it than that, you need to, universities need to promote diversity and

Michael Sandel: So you agree with the goal of promoting diversity?

Ted: There’s ways to promote diversity besides discriminating against people solely based on a factor that they cannot control.

Michael Sandel: All right so what makes it wrong is that she can’t control her race, she can’t control the fact that she’s white, that’s the, that’s the heart of the unfairness to her. Bree made a similar point, that basing admissions on factors that people can’t control is fundamentally unfair. What do you say?

Da: There’s a lot of things you can’t control and if you’re going go at it from based on merit, like just based on your test scores, a lot of what you can achieve has to do with like family background or raised, both of your parents were umm scholarly then you have more of a chances of actually being more scholarly yourself and getting those grades and you can’t control what kind of family you were born into, so I mean

Michael Sandel: All right, good. That’s, that’s a great rejoinder. What’s your name?

Da: Da

Michael Sandel: Da. Ted are against umm advantages that come from the family you were born into? What about legacy admissions?

Ted: I mean, I, I, I do believe that in terms of like a legacy admission, you shouldn’t have a special preference, I mean there is, a legacy admission you could argue is another part of diversity, you could say that it’s important to have a small percentage of people that have a, several generation family, family attendance at a place like Harvard. However, that should not be a factor, an advantage factor like race that should just be another part of promoting diversity.

Michael Sandel: Should it count at all?

Ted: I think that

Michael Sandel: Alumni status, should it count at all Ted?

Ted: Yes. It, it should count.

Michael Sandel: All right, I want to step back for a moment from these arguments. Thank you all for these contributions, we’re going to come back to you.
If you’ve listened carefully, I think you will have noticed three different arguments emerge from this discussion in defense of considering race and ethnicity as a factor in admissions. One argument has to do with correcting the effects, for the effects of educational disadvantage. That was Anesia’s argument. This is what we might call the corrective argument, correcting for differences in educational background, the kind of school people went to, the opportunities they had and so on. That’s one argument, what’s worth noticing though is that that argument is consistent in principle with the idea that only academic promise and scholarly potential should count in admissions, we just need to go beyond test scores and grades alone to get a true estimate of academic promise and scholarly ability. That’s the first argument. Then we heard a second argument that said affirmative action is justified even where there may not be the need to correct for educational disadvantage in a particular applicant’s case. It’s justified as a way of compensating for past wrongs, for historic injustices, so that’s a compensatory argument, compensating for past wrongs. Then we heard a third, a different argument for affirmative action, from Hannah and others, that argued in the name of diversity. Now the diversity argument is different from the compensatory argument because it makes a certain appeal to the social purpose or the social mission of the college of university. There are really two aspects to the diversity argument, one says it’s important to have a diverse student body for the sake of the educational experience for everyone, Hannah made that point, and the other talks about the wider society, this was the argument made by the University of Texas in the Hockwood case. We need to train lawyers and judges and leaders, public officials who will contribute to the strength, the civic strength of the state of Texas and the country as a whole. So there are two different aspects to the diversity argument but both are arguments in the name of the social purpose or the social mission or the common good served by the institution. Well about the force of these arguments? We’ve also heard objections to these arguments, the most powerful objection to the compensatory argument is, is it fair to ask Sheryl Hockwood today to make the sacrifice, to pay the compensation for an injustice that was admittedly committed and was egregious in the past but in which she was not implicated, is that fair? So that’s an important objection to the compensatory argument and in order to meet that objection we would have to investigate whether there is such a thing as group rights or collective responsibility that reaches over time. So having identified that issue let’s set it aside to turn to the diversity argument. The diversity argument doesn’t have to worry about that question, about collective responsibility for past wrongs because it says, for reasons Hannah and others pointed out, that the common good is served, is advanced if there is a racially and ethnically diverse student body, everyone benefits. And this indeed was the argument that Harvard made when it filed a friend-of-the-court-brief to the Supreme Court in the 1978 case, affirmative action case, the Bakke case. In the Harvard brief, the Harvard rationale was cited by Justice Powell who was the swing vote in the case upholding affirmative action, he cited that as providing the rationale that he thought was constitutionally acceptable. Harvard’s argument in its brief was this; we care about diversity, scholarly excellence alone has never been the criterion of admission, the sole criterion of admission to Harvard College. 15 years ago diversity meant students from California and New York and Massachusetts, city dwellers and farm boys, violinists, painters and football players, biologists, historians and classicists. The only difference now, Harvard argued, is that we’re adding racial and ethnic status to this long list of diversity considerations. When reviewing the large number of candidates able to do well in our classes, Harvard wrote, race may count as a plus just as coming from Iowa may count, or being a good middle line backer or pianist. A farm boy from Idaho can bring something to Harvard College that a Bostonian cannot offer, similarly a black student can usually bring something a white student cannot offer, the quality of the educational experience of all students depends in part on these differences in the background and outlook that students bring with them. That was Harvard’s argument. Now what about the diversity argument, is it persuasive? If it’s to be persuasive it has to meet one very powerful objection that we’ve heard voiced here by Ted, by Bree. Unless you are a utilitarian, you believe that individual rights can’t be violated and so the question is “Is there an individual right that is violated?” Is Sheryl Hockwood’s right violated? If she is used, so to speak, denied admission for the sake of the common good and the social mission that the University of Texas Law School has defined for itself. Does she have a right? Don’t we deserve to be considered according to our excellences, our achievements, our accomplishments, our hard work? Isn’t that the right at stake? Now we’ve already heard an answer to that argument. No she doesn’t have a right, nobody deserves to be admitted. Notice how this gets us back to the issue of desert versus entitlement. They’re arguing that there is no individual right at Hockwood has, she doesn’t deserve to be admitted according to any particular set of criteria that she believes to be important, including criteria that have only to do with her efforts and achievements. Why not? I think implicit in this argument is something like Rawls’ rejection of moral desert as the basis of distributive justice. Yes, once Harvard defines its mission and designs its admission policy in the light of its mission, people are entitled, who, who fit those criteria, they are entitled to be admitted. But according to this argument no one deserves that Harvard College define its mission and design its admission criteria in the first place in a way that prizes the qualities they happen to have in abundance, whether those qualities are test scores or grades or the ability to play the piano or to be a good middle linebacker or to come from Iowa or to come from a certain minority group. So you see how this debate about affirmative action, especially the diversity argument takes us back to the question of rights, which in turn takes back to the question of whether moral desert is or is not the basis for distributive justice. Think about that over the weekend and we’ll continue this discussion next time.

Michael Sandel: Suppose we’re distributing flutes, who should get the best ones? What’s Aristotle’s answer? Anyone? His answer is the best flutes should go to the best flute players because that’s what flutes are for.

Michael Sandel: When we ended last time we were considering arguments for and against affirmative action, counting race as a factor in admissions and in the course of the discussion three arguments emerged, three arguments for affirmative action. One of them was the idea that race and ethnic background should count as a way of correcting for the true meaning of test scores and grades, getting a more accurate measure of the academic potential those scores, those numbers represent. Second was what we called the compensatory argument, the idea of righting past wrongs, past injustice and the third was the diversity argument. And when Sheryl Hockwood in the 1990s challenged the University of Texas Law School’s affirmative action program in the federal courts, University of Texas made another version of the diversity argument, saying that the broader social purpose, the social mission of the University of Texas Law School is to produce leaders in the legal community, in the political community, among judges, lawyers, legislators and therefore it’s important that we produce leaders who reflect the background and the experience and the ethnic and the racial composition of the state of Texas, it’s important for serving our wider social mission, that was the University of Texas Law School’s argument. Then we considered an objection to the diversity argument which after all is an argument in the name of the social mission, the common good. We saw that Rawls does not simply believe that arguments of the common good or the general welfare should prevail if individual rights must be violated in the course of promoting the common good. You remember that was the question, the challenge to the diversity rationale that we were considering when we finished last time. And we began to discuss the question, well what right may be at stake? Maybe the right to be considered according to factors within one’s control, maybe this is the argument that Sheryl Hockwood implicitly was making, she can’t help the fact that she’s white. Why should her chance at getting into law school depend on a factor she can’t control? And then Hannah, who was advancing an argument last time, said “Harvard has the right to define its mission anyway it wants to, it’s a private institution” and it’s only once Harvard defines its mission that we can identify the qualities that count, so no rights are being violated. Now what about that argument? What I would like to do is to hear objections to that reply and then see whether others have an answer. Yes, and tell us your name.

Da: Da.

Michael Sandel: Right, you spoke up last time. All right, how do you answer that argument?

Da: Well I think there are two things in there, one of them was that a private institution could define its mission however it wants but that doesn’t make however it defines it right. Like I could define my personal mission as I want to collect all the money in the world but does that make it even a good mission? So you can’t like, you can’t say that just because a, a college is a private institution it could just define it whatever it wants, you still have to think about whether the way it’s defining it is right. And in the case of affirmative action a lot of people have said that since there’s a lot of other factors involved we could, why not race? Like if we already know that the system isn’t perfect.

Michael Sandel: All right, lets, lets, I want to stick with you first point Da.

Da: OK

Michael Sandel: Here’s Da’s objection. Can a college or university define its social purpose anyway it wants to? And then define admissions criteria accordingly? What about the University of Texas Law School not today but in the 1950s, then there was another supreme court case against the admissions policy of the University of Texas Law School because it was segregated. It only admitted whites and when the case went to court back in the 50s the University of Texas Law School also invoked its mission. Our mission as a law school is to educate lawyers for the Texas bar, for Texas law firms, and no Texas law firm hires African Americans, so to fulfill our mission we only admit whites. Well consider Harvard in the 1930s when it had anti-Jewish quotas. President Lowell, President of Harvard in the 1930s said that he had nothing personally against Jews but he invoked the mission, the social purpose of Harvard he said which is not only to train intellectuals, part of the mission of Harvard is to train stock brokers for Wall Street, presidents and senators and there are very few Jews who go into those professions. Now here’s the challenge. Is there a principled distinction between the invocation of the social purpose of the college or the university today in the diversity rationale and the invocation of the social purpose or mission of the university by Texas in the 1950s or Harvard in the 1930s? Is there a difference in principle? What’s the reply? Hannah.

Hannah: Well I think that the principle that’s different here is umm basically the distinction between inclusion versus exclusion I think that it’s morally wrong of the university to say we’re going to exclude you on the basis of your religion or your race, that’s denial on the basis of arbitrary factors. What Harvard is trying to do today with its diversity initiatives is to include groups that were excluded in the past.

Michael Sandel: Good, let’s see if- stay there. Let’s see if someone would like to reply. Go ahead.

Stevie: Actually this is kind of in support of Hannah umm rather than a reply but

Michael Sandel: That’s all right.

Stevie: I was going to say another principled difference can be based on malice being the justif, or the motivation I guess for the historical segregation act, so it’s saying that we’re going to let blacks or Jews in because they’re worse as people or as a group.

Michael Sandel: Good, so the element of malice isn’t present and what’s your name?

Stevie: Stevie.

Michael Sandel: Stevie says that in the, in the historic segregationist racist anti-Semitic quotas or prohibitions there was built into them a certain kind of malice, a certain kind of judgment that African Americans or Jews were somehow less worthy than everybody else, where as present day affirmative action programs don’t involve or imply any such judgment. What it amounts to saying is so long as a policy just uses people in a way as valuable to the social purpose of the institution it’s OK, provided it doesn’t judge them maliciously, as Stevie might add, as intrinsically less worthy. I’d like to raise a question. Doesn’t that concede that all of us when we compete for positions or for seats in colleges and universities, in a way are being used, not judged, but used in a way that has nothing to do with moral desert. Remember we got into this whole discussion of affirmative action when we were trying to figure out whether distributive justice should be tied to moral desert or not, and we were launched on that question by Rawls and his denial, his rejection of the idea that distributive justice, whether it’s positions or places in the class or income and wealth, is a is a matter of moral desert. Suppose that were the moral basis of Harvard’s admission policy. What letters would they have to write to people they rejected or accepted for that matter? Wouldn’t they have to right something like this; Dear unsuccessful applicant, we regret to inform you that your application for admission has been rejected. It’s not your fault that when you came along society happened not to need the qualities you have to offer. Those admitted instead of you are not themselves deserving of a place, nor worthy of praise for the factors that led to their admission we are in any case only using them and you as instruments of a wider social purpose. Better luck next time. What was the letter you actually when you were admitted? Perhaps it should have read something like this; Dear successful applicant, we are pleased to inform you that your application for admission has been accepted, it turns out, lucky for you, that you have the traits that that society needs at the moment, so we propose to exploit your assets for society’s advantage. You are to be congratulated, not in the sense that you deserve credit for having the qualities that led to your admission but only in the sense that the winner of a lottery is to be congratulated and if you choose to accept our offer you will ultimately be entitled to the benefits that attach to being used in this way. We look forward to seeing you in the fall. Now there is something a little odd, morally odd, if it’s true that those letters do reflect the theory, the philosophy underlying the policy. So here’s the question they pose, and it’s a question that takes us back to a big issue in in political philosophy. Is it possible and is it desirable to detach questions of distributive justice from questions of moral desert and questions of virtue? In many ways this is an issue that separates modern political philosophy from ancient political thought. What’s at stake in the question of whether we can put desert, moral desert aside? It seems when we were reading Rawls that the incentive, the reason he had for detaching distributive justice from moral desert was an egalitarian one. That if we set desert to one side there’s greater scope for the exercise of egalitarian considerations, the veil of ignorance, the two principles, the difference principle, helping the least well off, redistribution and all that. But what’s interesting is if you look at a range of thinkers we’ve been considering there does seem to be a reason they want to detach justice from desert that goes well beyond any concern for equality. Libertarian rights oriented theorists of the kind we’ve been studying, as well as egalitarian rights oriented theorists, including Rawls and for that matter also including Kant, all agree despite their disagreements over distributive justice and the welfare state and all of that, they all agree that justice is not a matter of rewarding or honoring virtue or or moral desert. Now why do they all think that? It can’t just be for egalitarian reasons, not all of them are egalitarians. This gets us to the big philosophical question we have to try to sort out. Somehow they think tying justice to moral merit or virtue is going to lead away from freedom, from respect for persons as free beings. Well in order to see what they consider to be at stake and in order to assess their shared assumption we need to turn to a thinker, to a philosopher who disagrees with them, who explicitly ties justice to honor, honoring virtue and merit and moral dessert and that thinker is Aristotle.
Now in many ways Aristotle’s idea of justice is intuitively very powerful, in some ways it’s strange. I want to bring out both its power, its possibility and its strangeness so that we can see what’s at stake in this whole debate about justice and whether it’s tied to desert and virtue. So, what is Aristotle’s answer to the question about justice? For Aristotle, justice is about giving people what they deserve, giving people their due, it’s a matter of figuring out the proper fit between persons, with their virtues, and their appropriate social roles. Well what does this picture of justice look like and how does it differ from the conception that seems to be shared among libertarian and egalitarian rights oriented theorists alike? Justice means giving each person his or her due, giving people what they deserve. But what is a person’s due? What are the relevant grounds of merit or desert? Aristotle says that depends on the sort of things being distributed. Justice involves two factors, things and the persons to whom the things are assigned. In general we say, Aristotle writes, that persons who are equal should have equal things assigned to them but here there arises a hard question. Equals in what respects? Aristotle says that depends on the sort of thing we are distributing. Suppose we’re distributing flutes. What is the relevant merit or basis of desert for flutes? Who should get the best ones? What’s Aristotle’s answer? Anyone? The best, the best flute players, right. Those who are best in the relevant sense, the best flute players. Is it just to discriminate in allocating flutes? Yes, all justice involves discrimination, Aristotle says, what matters is that the discrimination be according to the relevant excellence, according to the virtue appropriate to having flutes. He says it would be unjust to discriminate on some other basis in giving out the flutes; say wealth just giving the best flutes to the people who can pay the highest price, or nobility of birth, just giving flutes to aristocrats, or physical beauty, giving the best flutes to the most handsome or chance, having a lottery. Aristotle says birth and beauty may be greater goods than the ability to play the flute and those who possess them may surpass the flute player more in these qualities then he surpasses them in his flute playing but the fact remains that he is the person who ought to get the best flute. It’s a strange idea this comparison, by the way, that, I mean could you say “Am I more handsome then she is a good lacrosse player,” it’s a strange kind of comparison but putting that aside, Aristotle says we’re not looking for the best overall, whatever that might mean, we’re looking for the best musician. Now why? This is important you see, why should the best flutes go the best flute players? Well why do you think? Anybody? What? They’ll produce the best music. Well and everybody will enjoy it more. That’s not Aristotle’s answer. Aristotle is not a utilitarian, he’s not just saying that way there will be better music and everyone will enjoy it and everyone will be better off. His answer is the best flutes should go to the best flute players because that’s what flutes are for. To be played well. The purpose of flute playing, the purpose is to produce excellent music and those who can best perfect that purpose ought properly to have the best ones. Now it may also be true, as a welcome side effect that everyone will enjoy listening to that music. So that answer is true enough as far as it goes, but it’s important to see that Aristotle’s reason is not a utilitarian reason. It’s a reason that looks, here’s where you might think it’s a little bit strange, it looks to the purpose, the point, the goal of flute playing. Another way of describing this, looking to the goal to determine what the just allocation, the Greek for goal or end, was Telos. So Aristotle says, you have to consider the point, the end, the goal, the Telos of the thing, in this case of flute playing, and that’s how you define a just allocation, a just discrimination. So, this idea of reasoning from the goal, from the Telos, is called teleological reasoning, teleological moral reasoning. And that’s Aristotle’s way, reasoning from the goal, from the end, Now this may seem, as I said, a strange idea, that we’re supposed to reason from the purpose, but it is, does have a certain intuitive plausibility. Consider the allocation, let’s say, at Harvard of the best tennis courts or squash courts. How should they be allocated? Who should have priority in playing on, on the best courts? Well, you might say those who can best afford them. Set up a fee system, charge money for them. Aristotle would say no. You might say, well, Harvard big shots, the most influential people at Harvard, who would they be? The senior faculty should have priority in playing on the best tennis courts. No, Aristotle would reject that. Some scientist may be a greater scientist than some varsity tennis player is a tennis player, but still the tennis player is the one who should have priority for the best, playing on the best tennis court. There is a certain intuitive plausibility to this idea. Now, one of the things that makes it strange, is that in Aristotle’s world, in the ancient world. It wasn’t only social practices that were governed, in Aristotle’s view, by teleological reasoning and teleological explanation, all of nature was understood to be a meaningful order, and what it meant, to understand nature, to grasp nature, find our place in the nature, was to inquire into and read out the purposes or the Telos of nature. And with the advent of modern science, it’s been difficult to think of the world that way, and so it makes it harder, perhaps, to think of justice in a teleological way, but there is a certain naturalness to thinking about even the natural world as teleological ordered, the purpose of whole. In fact, children have to be educated out of this way of looking at the world. I realized this when my kids were very young and I was reading them a book, Winnie the Pooh. And Winnie the Pooh gives you a great idea of how, there is a certain natural, child-like way of looking at the world in a teleological way. You, you may remember a story of Winnie the Pooh walking in the forest one day, he came to a place in the forest, and from the top of the tree there came a loud buzzing noise. Winnie the Pooh sat at the foot of the tree and put his head between his paws and began to think. Here’s what he said to himself, that buzzing noise means something. You don’t get a buzzing noise like that, just buzzing and buzzing, without its meaning something. If there’s a buzzing noise, somebody’s making a buzzing noise. And the only reason for making a buzzing noise that I know of, is because you’re a bee. Then he thought for another long time and said, the only reason for being a bee that I know of, is making honey. And then he got up, and he said, and the only reason for making honey is so I can eat it. And so he began to climb the tree. This is an example of teleological reasoning. It isn’t, it isn’t so implausible after all. Now, we grew up and we’re talked out of this way of thinking about the world, but here’s the question, even if teleological explanations don’t fit with modern science, even if we’ve outgrown them in understanding nature, isn’t there something still intuitively and morally plausible, even powerful, about Aristotle’s idea that the only way to think about justice is to reason from the purpose, the goal, the Telos of the social practice, and isn’t that precisely what we were doing when we were disagreeing about affirmative action? You could almost recast that disagreement as, as one about what the proper, appropriate purpose or end of a university education consists in. Reasoning from the purpose, or from the Telos, or from the end, Aristotle says, that’s indispensable to thinking about justice. Is he right? Think about that question as you turn to Aristotle’s politics.

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