The Politics of Recognition by Charles Taylor — A Summary


Charles Taylor, “The Politics of Recognition [1992],” in Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition, Edited and Introduced by Amy Gutmann (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 25–75.


Sections in brown font are primary material intended for the slightly advanced reader and meant not so much to help her understand (they are too short to be of any actual use) but to excite her enough to dig deeper. They can be skipped. So can the sections in monotype, as per usual.


I

Today, a lot of importance is given to recognition and identity especially as they concern minorities. They are understood to be linked inasmuch as it is argued that our identity — that’s to say, our sense of who we are, of our fundamental defining characteristics as human beings — “is partly shaped by recognition or its absence, often by the misrecognition of others”. So that, if a person or group is recognised by other persons or groups as inferior in some way — as the colonised were recognised by the colonial masters — their sense of identity can suffer “real damage, real distortion”.

Such is the story told by certain feminists who argue that “women in patriarchal societies have been induced to adopt a depreciatory image of themselves. They have internalized a picture of their own inferiority, so that even when some of the objective obstacles to their advancement fall away, they may be incapable of taking advantage of the new opportunities.” Similar arguments have been made in the case of Blacks and Indigenous people.

But let us take a step back. This discussion on recognition and identity that seem so familiar to us now would have been incomprehensible two centuries ago. How did we get here?

We can distinguish two changes that together have made the modern preoccupation with identity and recognition inevitable. The first is the collapse of social hierarchies, which used to be the basis for honour. Honour not as something which everybody can have as when the Universal Declaration of the Human Rights says that “no one shall be subjected to … attacks upon his honour and reputation”; but honour as something only some people can have as when somebody is honoured with, say, the Légion d’Honneur in France, or made a Duke in the UK: clearly, if everybody has it, it is no longer an honour. In place of this sense of honour which is based on exemplary achievement or birth (i.e. which is based on particularity and inequality), we have the modern notion of dignity which is used in a universalist and egalitarian sense as when the UDHR asserts the “inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family”. The idea here is that this dignity is shared by everyone.

*******************************

Preamble

Whereas, recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world, …Now, Therefore the General Assembly proclaims this Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Article 12

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)

*******************************

Now, and this is the second change, the understanding of recognition — in the previous pararaph, we were concerned with recognition: when someone is honoured, this is done in recognition of his services, achievements, or, in the past, his pedigree, wealth, etc.; similarly, when it is asserted that all humans have dignity, what is being recognised is the universality of dignity — was being modified and intensified by the end of the 18th century by the development of an understanding of identity that emphasised authenticity. This word is being used to mean an “individualized identity, one that is particular to me, and that I discover in myself [by] being true to myself and my own particular way of being”.

The development of this notion owes to the idea that human beings possess a certain “moral sense, an intuitive feeling for what is right and wrong”. To the extent that this idea appeals to something to which we must connect in order to determine right and wrong, it is not new. This idea is present in Christianity and goes back to Plato. In the former, it is with God that we must connect. In Plato, it is the Idea of the Good.

*******************************

Therefore, say that what provides the truth to the things known and gives the power to the one who knows, is the idea of the good. And, as the cause of the knowledge and truth, you can understand it to be a thing known; but, as fair as these two are — knowledge and truth — if you believe that it is something different from them and still fairer than they, your belief will be right. As for knowledge and truth, just as in the other region it is right to hold light and sight sunlike, but to believe them to be sun is not right; so, too, here, to hold these two to be like the good is right, but to believe that either of them is the good is not right. The condition which characterizes the good must receive still greater honor. (emphasis added)

Plato, Republic, 508e–509a (translation by Allan Bloom [1991]).


Seek therefore the highest agreeableness. Do not go abroad. Return within yourself. In the inward man dwells truth. If you find that you are by nature mutable, transcend yourself. But remember in doing so that you must also transcend yourself even as a reasoning soul. Make for the place where the light of reason is kindled.

Augustine, On True Religion, §39 (translation by J. H. S. Burleigh [1956]).


Though it falls short of proof. I hope I have offered strong evidence in favor of the claim that no one before Augustine conceived of the self as a private inner space, by demonstrating that this concept arose as the solution to a quite specific problem that no one before Augustine is likely to have had. Augustine’s problem is how to locate God within the soul, without affirming the divinity of the soul. He wants (like Plotinus) to find the divine within the self, while affirming (as an orthodox Christian) that the divine is wholly other than the self. He solves this problem by locating God not only within the soul but above it (as its Creator) thus modifying Plotinus’ turn “into the inside” into a movement in then up — first entering within the soul and then looking above it. The concept of private inner space arises in consequence of this modification, for the place in which we find ourselves when we have entered within (and not yet looked up) is our very own space — an inner world of human memory and thought, not identical with the intelligible world of the divine Mind.

Phillip Cary, Augustine’s Invention of the Inner Self: The Legacy of a Christian Platonist (Oxford: Oxford Univeristy Press, 2000), p. 140.

*******************************

But what is new in the 18th century development is that this “something” to which we must connect is not God or the Good, but “is deep within us”, and that it is not something else other than our own selves. This change is brought about due to such philosophers as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Johann Gottfried von Herder. Rousseau speaks of morality as “following a voice of nature within us”. Securing authentic contact with this voice will lead to moral salvation: he calls this state the “sentiment of existence [sentiment de l’existence]”. “Herder put forward the idea that each of us has an original way of being human: each person has his or her own ‘measure [Maaß]’.”

*******************************

What is the source of our happiness in such a state? Nothing external to us, nothing apart from ourselves and our own existence; as long as this state lasts we are self-sufficient like God. The feeling of existence [sentiment de l’existence] unmixed with any other emotion is in itself a precious feeling of peace and contentment which would be enough to make this mode of being loved and cherished by anyone who could guard against all the earthly and sensual influences that are constantly distracting us from it in this life and troubling the joy it could give us.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Reveries of the Solitary Walker [1776–78], trans. Peter France, (London: Penguin Books, 2004), Fifth Walk.


Every man is ultimately a world, in external appearance indeed similar to others, but internally an individual being, with whom no other coincides.

Every man has a particular proportion [Maaß], a particular harmony as it were, between all his sensitive feelings, so that in extraordinary cases the most wonderful appearances frequently occur to show the state of an individual on this or that occasion.

Johann Gottfried von Herder, Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man[1784], trans. T. Churchill [1800] (Random Shack, 2016), Book 7, Section 1; Book 8, Section 1.

*******************************

The powerful idea here — and this has come down to us — is the importance that we give to originality that arises out of a certain contact with our own self. Moreover this is a contact which, it might be added, is constantly in danger of being lost not just due to external pressure, from society for instance, but also because we tend to take an instrumental view of our own selves. These ideas greatly influenced, for instance, John Stuart Mill.

*******************************

A person whose desires and impulses are his own — are the expression of his own nature, as it has been developed and modified by his own culture — is said to have a character.

In our times, from the highest class of society down to the lowest, every one lives as under the eye of a hostile and dreaded censorship. Not only in what concerns others, but in what concerns only themselves, the individual, or the family, do not ask themselves—what do I prefer? or, what would suit my character and disposition? or, what would allow the best and highest in me to have fair play, and enable it to grow and thrive? They ask themselves, what is suitable to my position? what is usually done by persons of my station and pecuniary circumstances? or (worse still) what is usually done by persons of a station and circumstances superior to mine? I do not mean that they choose what is customary, in preference to what suits their own inclination. It does not occur to them to have any inclination, except for what is customary.

If a person possesses any tolerable amount of common sense and experience, his own mode of laying out his existence is the best, not because it is the best in itself, but because it is his own mode.

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty [1859] (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), Chapter 3.

*******************************

“Being true to myself means being true to my own originality, which is something only I can articulate and discover. In articulating it, I am also defining myself. I am realizing a potentiality that is properly my own. This is the background understanding to the modern ideal of authenticity, and to the goals of self-fulfillment and self-realization in which the ideal is usually couched.”

These then are the two changes: the rise of a universal dignity that everyone is said to possess (as opposed to honour with only a few can possess) and the rise of an ideal of authentic identity that is one’s own (as opposed to an identity that one is born into or conferred by society). The idea of a universal dignity and the ideal of authenticity combined overturns the patterns of recognition which are based on honour where recognition is necessarily limited to a few and honour is in turn based on social goods such as wealth, birth, position, etc. The idea of universal dignity implies that recognition is to be accorded to everyone irrespective of their wealth, birth, position, etc. and this is given credence by an ideal of authenticity which insists on the moral worth of the each and everyone insofar as they are their own selves disregarding anything that is external, i.e. wealth, birth, position, etc.

Now, the problem with the ideal of authenticity — and this leads on to the problem of recognition (see below) — is that there is no such thing as “inward generation, monologically understood”. That’s to say, there is no such thing as an original or authentic self that one creates based on something deep within himself (inward generation) and without any reference to others (monological).

To insist on the generation of an authentic self in this manner is to ignore an essential fact of the human condition: human life is fundamentally dialogical in character. “We become full human agents, capable of understanding ourselves, and hence of defining our identity, through our acquisition of rich human languages of expression.” We do not acquire these languages — and by “language” is meant “not only the words we speak but also other modes of expression whereby we define ourselves, including the ‘languages’ of art, of gesture, of love, and the like” — on our own but out of our interaction with others, especially with people who matter to us, our “significant others”. In short, we create a sense of our own selves only through dialogue with others.

*******************************

[COMMENT: Taylor suggests that the phrase “significant others” was used by George Herbert Mead. The phrase does not occur in Mead’s work that Taylor cites, namely, Mind, Self, and Society. But the idea that we define ourselves in relation to others — and the term “other” is what Mead uses — is very much present in Mead. As for the expression “significant other”, it was coined by Harry Stack Sullivan. END OF COMMENT]

The self, as that which can be an object to itself, is essentially a social structure, and it arises in social experience. After a self has arisen, it in a certain sense provides for itself its social experiences, and so we can conceive of an absolutely solitary self. But it is impossible to conceive of a self arising outside of social experience. When it has arisen we can think of a person in solitary confinement for the rest of his life, but who still has himself as a companion, and is able to think and to converse with himself as he had communicated with others.

The principle which I have suggested as basic to human social organization is that of communication involving participation in the other. This requires the appearance of the other in the self, the identification of the other with the self, the reaching of self-consciousness through the other.

George Herbert, Mead, Mind, Self, and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist[1934], Edited and with an introduction by Charles W. Morris, 18th Reprint (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972), Chapter 18, p. 140; Chapter 33, p. 253.


When you are staring through your microscope, you don’t see much except what comes through that channel. So with the self dynamism. It has a tendency to focus attention on performances with the significant other person which get approbation or disfavor. … The facilitations and deprivations by the parents and significant others are the source of the material which is built into the self dynamism. 

Harry Stack Sullivan, “Conceptions of Modern Psychiatry,” Psychiatry 3, no. 1 (1940), 10. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00332747.1940.11022272

*******************************

And this is not just about genesis, about how we define our own identity. Our own identity is not something we define once and for all and after which we make whatever use of it. It is continually defined. “We define our identity always in dialogue with, sometimes in struggle against, the things our significant others want to see in us. Even after we outgrow some of these others — our parents, for instance — and they disappear from our lives, the conversation with them continues within us as long as we live.”

The monological ideal, the idea that we can define our identity complelely on our own, is attractive to many. Such people say: “We should strive to define ourselves on our own to the fullest extent possible, coming as best we can to understand and thus get some control over the influence of our parents, and avoiding falling into any more such dependent relationships. We need relationships to fulfill, but not to define, ourselves.”

“[But this] monological ideal seriously underestimates the place of the dialogical in human life. It wants to confine it as much as possible to the genesis. It forgets how our understanding of the good things in life can be transformed by our enjoying them in common with people we love; how some goods become accessible to us only through such common enjoyment. Because of this, it would take a great deal of effort, and probably many wrenching break-ups, to prevent our identity’s being formed by the people we love. Consider what we mean by identity. It is who we are, ‘where we’re coming from’. As such it is the background against which our tastes and desires and opinions and aspirations make sense. If some of the things I value most are accessible to me only in relation to the person I love, then she becomes part of my identity.”

This could be seen as a limitation from which one should free oneself. The case of hermits and solitary artists could be understood in terms of this impulse for freedom. But then, their lives do not become a life unto itself without any dialogicality: in the former, the other is God and in the latter, the other is “the work itself is addressed to a future audience, perhaps still to be created by the work”. The point here is that however we choose to see it, “the making and sustaining of our identity … remains dialogical throughout our lives”. And such dependence on “others” has always been and will always be there.

If we combine the irreducibly dialogical character of identity, of selfhood, with the rise of an ideal of authenticity that everyone possesses (and can potentially develop), we get the problem of recognition. Because, once we have an ideal of authenticity, recognition is no longer based on categories that are given and taken for granted as was the case in the time before the ideal of authenticity came to be articulated, when recognition was based on social positions and other categories that everyone took for granted; these were categories that were not questioned, categories that were, we might say, not problematised.

But with the rise of an ideal of authenticity, recognition has to be fought for by everyone on the basis of their own originality. And not everyone wins. Recognition becomes a problem. This is obvious at the personal level where the interaction with “significant others” is crucial in determining what we see our own selves as. But at the social level, this provides the space for the rise of the politics of recognition where it begins to be asserted that every group is owed equal recongition, that such recognition is the basis of a healthy democratic society, and also that the refusal of equal recognition or worse the projection of a demeaning image can, as indicated at the outset, not merely distort but actually inflict real harm. It is this second aspect that this essay seeks to examine.

Again, Rousseau seems to be a pivotal figure in helping bring about this state of affairs. He notes the fateful point at which inequality and vice arise in human society: this is the point at which people begin to demand esteem and honor. He also remarks that unity and health is present when attention and recognition is accorded to all: he recommends for instance that in public festivals, spectators be allowed to become or act as actors themselves so that they can share in the limelight.

*******************************

He who sang or danced best; the handsomest, the strongest, the most dexterous, or the most eloquent, came to be the most respected: this was the first step towards inequality, and at the same time towards vice. From these first distinctions there arose on one side vanity and contempt, on the other envy and shame; and the fermentation raised by these new leavens at length produced combinations fatal to happiness and innocence.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin and Foundations
of Inequality Among Mankind [1755], in The Social Contract and The First and Second Discourses, Edited and with an introduction by Susan Dunn (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), Second Part, p. 127.


But what then will be the objects of these entertainments? What will be shown in them? Nothing, if you please. With liberty, wherever abundance reigns, well-being also reigns. Plant a stake crowned with flowers in the middle of a square; gather the people together there, and you will have a festival. Do better yet; let the spectators become an entertainment to themselves; make them actors themselves; do it so that each sees and loves himself in the others so that all will be better united.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Letter to M. d’Alembert on the Theater[1758], Translated with notes and an introduction by Allan Bloom (Agora Books, 1959), Section XI, p. 126.

*******************************

II

The politics of recognition has come to mean two different things. First, the exclusive and inegalitarian notion of honour has been usurped by a politics that embraces the universality of dignity. “What is to be avoided at all costs is the existence of ‘first-class’ and ‘second-class’ citizens.” In what respects and concerning what goods — wealth? rights? dignity? — this universalism or equality shall be established is of course an open question and has been applied variously. Let us call this the politics of dignity.

Second, and this in contrast to the previous, the rise of the ideal of authenticity has given rise not to a politics of equality of recognition based on the idea of a universal dignity but of a politics of difference based on the idea of the distinctness and worth of every group. There is a universalism here inasmuch as everyone must be recognised for his/her own individuality and originality. But what is recognised as unique can only be based on its uniqueness, that’s to say its distinctness or difference from others. The idea that drives arguments in favour of minority identities is that it is precisely this distinctness which has been denied, insulted, effaced or otherwise assimilated into a majority identity. Let us call what emerges the politics of difference.


The politics of difference grows organically out of the politics of universal dignity through one of those shifts with which we are long familiar, where a new understanding of the human social condition imparts a radically new meaning to an old principle. Just as a view of human beings as conditioned by their socioeconomic plight changed the understanding of second-class citizenship, so that this category came to include, for example, people in inherited poverty traps, so here the understanding of identity as formed in interchange, and as possibly so malformed, introduces a new form of second-class status into our purview.


The politics of recognition thus becomes two different strands, completely at odds with one another. The politics of dignity is based on a funamental premise: that all human beings are equally worthy of respect. What is it that all humans have that make them worthy of respect? According to the most influential answer given, that of Immanuel Kant, this is the fact that “humans are rational agents, capable of directing our lives through principles”. Here it is the potential to direct our lives that’s of relevance irrespective of what use that potential has been put and to what effects.

*******************************

Reason thus refers every maxim of the will as universally legislative to every other will and also to every action toward itself, and this not for the sake of any other practical motive or future advantage, but from the idea of the dignity of a rational being that obeys no law except that which at the same time it gives itself.

And precisely in this lies the paradox that merely the dignity of humanity as rational nature, without any other end or advantage to be attained through it, hence the respect for a mere idea, ought nevertheless to serve as an unremitting precept of the will, and that the sublimity of the maxim consists in just its independence of all incentives, and the dignity of every rational subject consists in being a legislative member in the realm of ends; for otherwise it would have to be represented as subject only to the natural law of its needs.

Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals [1797], Edited and translated by Allen W. Wood (New Haven: Yale Unversity Press, 2002), pp. 52; 56–57 [emphases added].

*******************************

In the politics of difference, while this universal potential serves as the basis, what becomes salient is not the potential but rather all the various ways in which that potential has been actualised in various societies. And the demand is that equal respect be accorded to “actually evolved cultures”. In making such a demand, the possibility that “a certain culture while having the same potential for culture formation as anyone else, might nevertheless have come up with a culture that is less valuable than others is ruled out from the start”. To even suggest this possibility, as Saul Bellow does when he allegedly said: “When the Zulus produce a Tolstoy we will read him,” is to trample on the principle of human equality.


[COMMENT: Charles Taylor admits that the is not sure whether Saul Bellow or anybody else made this statement in that form. He is using it merely as an example of a widespread attitude. This remains somewhat of a mystery to this day. See this article “Show me the Zulu Tolstoy”, (pp. 261–64) for more on the story of this statement. See Saul Bellow’s Op-Ed “Papuans and Zulus” for his clarification. END OF COMMENT]


This stronger demand for respect which does not stop at the acknowledgment of human potential but extends to what has been made of that potential creates serious problems. According to the politics of dignity, we are asked to be blind to differences. But in the politics of difference, we are aked to be receptive to and respectful of differences. While the first alleges that the second violates the prinicple of human equality, the second alleges that the first negates the distinctness of identities by forcing them into one homogeneous identity. This would be bad enough if this homogenous idenitity didn’t belong to anyone or any culture in particular. But the stronger demands claims further that it is not even a neutral identity. “The claim is that the supposedly neutral set of difference-blind principles of the politics of equal dignity is in fact a reflection of one hegemonic culture.” This claim is particularly disruptive and upsetting. For it amounts to the claim that the very idea of the principle of equality is nothing more than a specific cultural idea that cannot be applied to all cultures.


And the worrying thought is that this bias might not just be a contingent weakness of all hitherto proposed theories, that the very idea of such a liberalism may be a kind of pragmatic contradiction, a particularism masquerading as the universal.


III

The politics of dignity has emerged in two ways which are closely connected to their standard-bearers: Rousseau and Kant.

First, Rousseau. It is him who first begins to assert the importance of equal respect and its indispensability for freedom. This freedom-in-equality that he stresses is opposed to a sort of slavery-in-inequality in which the slave is one who is dependent on others inasmuch as he craves for their esteem, and this because of an inherent hierarchy (i.e. inequality) between him and others who deny him respect.

One might think here that the need for esteem need not be connected to a condition of hierarchy in any necessary manner: that’s to say, one might crave for esteem even in a condition of equality. But for Rousseau, this esteem is inherently a positional good tied to the traditional system of honour that ties respect, recognition and dignity to positions in the social order. It is not merely a matter of brute power. So that this system of honour makes the condition of mankind in which honour finds pride of place a paradoxical one; for in it we are all unequal in power but yet all dependent on others (for esteem): even the master is dependent on his slaves.

*******************************

Many a one believes himself the master of others, and yet he is a greater slave than they.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract [1962], in The Social Contract and The First and Second Discourses, Edited and with an introduction by Susan Dunn (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), Book 1, Chapter 1, p. 156.


There are two sorts of dependence: dependence on things, which is from nature; dependence on men, which is from society. Dependence on things, since it has no morality, is in no way detrimental to freedom and engenders no vices. Dependence on men, since it is without order, engenders all the vices, and by it, master and slave are mutually corrupted.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile: or On Education, Introduction, translation, and notes by Allan Bloom (Basic Books, 1979 [1762]), Book 2, p. 85.

*******************************

When Rousseau presents this analysis, he seems like is going the Stoic way. The Stoics had argued that one should pay no heed to what others say of us. They advise us to step outside “this dimension of human life, in which reputations are sought, gained, and unmade”. It has already been indicated how, for Rousseau, the depraved condition of human is depraved insofar as everyone craves for esteem.

*******************************

Do not waste what remains of your life in forming impressions about others, unless you are doing so with reference to the common good. For you are depriving yourself of the opportunity for some other action which may be of real benefit, to imagine instead what so-and-so is doing and to what end, and what he is saying or thinking or planning, and give yourself over to other impressions of that kind which serve only to divert you from paying proper attention to your own ruling centre.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 3.4 (from Meditations with selected correspondence, translated by Robin Hard with an introduction and notes by Christopher Gill (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

*******************************

But Rousseau is not a Stoic and does not end up where the Stoics end up. In his view of the good society, esteem is not eradicated from human concern as the Stoics desired to. In fact, it plays a rather important role. “[P]eople live very much in the public gaze. In a functioning republic, the citizens do care very much what others think.” The vital condition Rousseau brings to the role of esteem is that it should be equally given. He wants “equality, or, more exactly, the balanced reciprocity that underpins equality.”

*******************************

It is the poems of Homer recited to the Greeks solemnly assembled, not in boxes, on stages and cash in hand, but in the open air and as a body of the nation; it is the tragedies of Aeschylus, of Sophocles, and of Euripides, often represented before them, it is the prizes with which, to the acclamations of all of Greece, the victors in their games were crowned which continuously set them aflame with emulation and glory, brought their courage and their virtues to that degree of energy of which nothing today gives us any idea, and which the moderns cannot even believe.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Considerations on the Government of Poland [1772], in The Collected Writings of Rousseau, Vol. 11, Edited by Christopher Kelly, Translated by Christopher Kelly and Judith Bush (Hanover: University Press of New England, 2005), Chapter 2, p. 173.

*******************************

In stressing this Rousseau frequently alludes to the the open spectacle of the ancient games and festivals (see the quotation from Letter to d’Alembert above) which we could (though Rousseau didn’t) distinguish from the closed religious ceremonies and theatre shows of the modern age. “One might say (though Rousseau didn’t) that in these ideal republican contexts, everyone did depend on everyone else, but all did so equally.”


Rousseau’s underlying, unstated argument would seem to be this: A perfectly balanced reciprocity takes the sting out of our dependence on opinion, and makes it compatible with liberty. Complete reciprocity, along with the unity of purpose that it makes possible, ensures that in following opinion I am not in any way pulled outside myself. I am still “obeying myself” as a member of this common project or “general will.”


If understood this way, and this is a point stated earlier, esteem becomes compatible with freedom because everyone is accorded the same equal esteeem for the same right reasons. “In contrast, in a system of hierarchical honor, we are in competition; one person’s glory must be another’s shame, or at least obscurity.”

What Rousseau achieves then is this. He borrows the denunciation of the concern for pride and honour from the Stoics. This he uses to denounce a society where the ethic of pride and honour based on an inegalitarian (hierarchical) order saw precisely the concern for pride and honour as a noble value. However, unlike the Stoics, he does not call for a complete renunciation of the concern for pride and honour. Instead, he imagines a different society, a different system characterised by “equality, reciprocity, and unity of purpose” in which the concern for pride and honour, for esteem, will be properly realised.


This unity makes possible the equality of esteem, but the fact that esteem is in principle equal in this system is essential to this unity of purpose itself. Under the aegis of the general will, all virtuous citizens are to be equally honored. The age of dignity is born.


This critique of pride on the basis of a principle of equality of dignity is what Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel takes up in his famous dialectic of the master and the slave where he argues against the hierarchical (i.e. inegalitatian) conception of honour in which some (the slaves) do not receive it where as those that do receive it (the masters) are frustrated since the esteem or recognition they get is from those who don’t have it, i.e. the losers, the slaves, and hence not really valuable. The solution, for Hegel, lies in a regime of reciprocal recognition among equals.

*******************************

A self-consciousness, in being an object, is just as much ‘I’ as ‘object’. With this, we already have before us the Notion of Spirit. What still lies ahead for consciousness is the experience of what Spirit is — this absolute substance which is the unity of the different independent self-consciousnesses which in their opposition, enjoy perfect freedom and independence: ‘I’ that is ‘We’ and ‘We’ that is ‘I’. [emphasis added]

Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, Translated by A. V. Miller with Analysis of the Text and Foreword by J. N. Findlay (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), §177, p. 110.

*******************************

The problem with the solution proposed by Rousseau and Hegel is that it requires a strong unity of purpose. In fact, such a unity of purpose is the very condition for the possibility of the equality of esteem. Put differently, for equality of esteem in the way Rousseau and Hegel think to be possible, it has to be the case that everyone endorses, at the absolute least, this particular equal and reciprocal idea of esteem along with the idea that the purpose of human life, of our deeds, is to realise precisely this idea of esteem.

Regardless of what content is given to this purpose, it must be the case that everyone agrees to it. There is no room for disagreement nor for differentiation. In an infamous passage, Rousseau had argued that those who do not conform to such a purpose shall be “forced to be free” and justified it by saying that such is “the condition which, uniting every citizen to the fatherland, protects him from all personal dependency”. Without equality of esteem and unity of purpose, men shall forever remain enslaved (dependent on others). The goal here is freedom which is inseparably tied to a unity of purpose which makes equality of esteem possible and which rules differentiation, whether in terms of purposes or social roles, out. However, such a cocktail has been “the formula for the most terrible forms of homogenizing tyranny, starting with the Jacobins and extending to the totalitarian regimes of our century.”

*******************************

[W]hoever refuses to obey the general will shall be constrained to do so by the whole body; which means nothing else than that he shall be forced to be free; for such is the condition which, uniting every citizen to the fatherland, protects him from all personal dependency, a condition that ensures the control and working of the political machine, and alone renders legitimate civil engagements, which, without it, would be absurd, tyrannical, and subject to the most enormous abuses.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract [1962], in The Social Contract and The First and Second Discourses, Edited and with an introduction by Susan Dunn (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), Book 1, Chapter 7, p. 166.

*******************************

IV

This Roussean picture of a society of freedom-in-equality based on the principle of equality leads to an inflexible unity of purpose, of a totalising homogeneity if you will, which is unattractive and which the proponents of the politics of different have correctly diagnosed. What about the models inspired by Kant which although they appeals to the principle of universal equality are neither tied to any unity of purpose nor lead to a vision of undifferentiated roles; models which abstract from any issue of the differentiation of roles. The proponents of the politics of difference charge even these models fail to give adequate attention to distinctness. Is this charge well-founded?


[COMMENT: These models are those given by John Rawls in his A Theory of Justice (1971), Ronald Dworkin in his Taking Rights Seriously (1977) and A Matter of Principle (1985) and Jurgen Habermas’ Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns/Theory of Communicative Action (1981). A discussion of these is beyond this summary. Taylor himself does not discuss them in any detail.]


Certainly, there are models of equality of rights which are not receptive to cultural distinctness, models which find it unacceptable that, for instance, certain schedules of rights might be applicable in some cultures but not in others. But is this the only way in which such models — “the liberalisms of equal rights” — can be understood/interpreted? If yes, the complaint is well founded. But I don’t think this is the only possible interpretation. This can be seen in the politics which has played out in Canada over the question of how rights may be enforced.

“The issue came to the fore because of the adoption in 1982 of the Canadian Charter of Rights, which aligned our political system in this regard with the American one in having a schedule of rights offering a basis for judicial review of legislation at all levels of government. The question had to arise how to relate this schedule to the claims for distinctness put forward by French Canadians, and particularly Quebeckers, on the one hand, and aboriginal peoples on the other. Here what was at stake was the desire of these peoples for survival, and their consequent demand for certain forms of autonomy in their self-government, as well as the ability to adopt certain kinds of legislation deemed necessary for survival.”

“For instance, Quebec has passed a number of laws in the field of language. One regulates who can send their children to English-language schools (not francophones or immigrants); another requires that businesses with more than fifty employees be run in French; a third outlaws commercial signage in any language other than French. In other words, restrictions have been placed on Quebeckers by their government, in the name of their collective goal of survival, which in other Canadian communities might easily be disallowed by virtue of the Charter. The fundamental question was: Is this variation acceptable or not?”

This question was raised when an amendment was proposed that would recognise Quebec as a “distinct society” which would in turn enable the Charter to be interpreted and applied in different ways in different parts of the country. This was unacceptable for many. Examining why this was opposed would help better understand the connection between the liberalism of rights and diversity.

*******************************

This amendment was the Meech Lake Accord so-called after the lake north of Ottawa in the forested Gatineau hills, where the agreement was reached.

“In 1987 the Progressive Conservative government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney attempted to win Québec’s consent to the revised Canadian Constitution — following the Québec government’s rejection of it in 1981. The result was the Meech Lake Accord, an agreement between the federal and provincial governments to amend the Constitution by strengthening provincial powers and declaring Québec a ‘distinct society’. Political support for the Accord later unravelled, and it was never put into effect.”

Gerald L. Gall, “Meech Lake Accord”.

*******************************

The Charter gives the basis for judicial review on two basic grounds. First, it enumerates a set of individual rights very similar to those found in other western (as well as non-western democracies). Second, it guarantees equal treatment of citizens in a variety of respects, or, put differently, it prohibits discrimination against citizens on irrelevant grounds such as race or sex. These are quite common features of entrenched schedules of rights in western democracies.

Now, for many people in “English Canada”, the provisions recommended by the proposed amendment that sought to espouse collective goals by declaring Quebec as a “distinct society” violated both grounds of the Charter. Those collective goals may first of all violate individual rights. But even if individual rights were not violated, the adoption of collective goals on behalf of a national group will always discriminate against those, even if only few, people who do not belong or do not wish to belong to that group. Moreover, such provision would lead to the differential treatment of outsiders and insiders. This clash with the Charter was what prompted many to oppose the amendment. The concern being that the distinct society clause would take precedence over the Charter.

There is a serious philosophical point behind this position. The argument that individual rights must always take precedence over collective goals is underpinned by a liberal position that is familiar in the Anglo-American world and have been articulated by such important figures as John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin and Bruce Ackerman. While the idea is expressed in many ways, Dworkin encapsulates it a way that is relevant to this discussion in his paper “Liberalism” where he distinguishes between two types of moral commitment: a substantive commitment about the ends of life, about what constitutes a good life, which we and others ought to strive for and a procedural commitment to deal fairly and equally with each other, regardless of how we conceive our ends.

Dworkin’s claim is that a liberal society is one in which people are united around a strong procedural commitment but one in which people do not adopt any particular substantive commitment about the good life. Why such a society does not commit itself to particular views of the good life is that given the diversity of modern societies, the adoption of any particular view of the good life would unfailingly go against the views of at least some members of the society. And in such a case, such members would be deprived of equal respect. “It would be saying to them, in effect, ‘your view is not as valuable, in the eyes of this polity, as that of your more numerous compatriots’.”

*******************************

What does it mean for the government to treat its citizens as equals? … It may be answered in two fundamentally different ways. The first supposes that government must be neutral on what might be called the question of the good life. The second supposes that government cannot be neutral on that question, because it cannot treat its citizens as equal human beings without a theory of what human beings ought to be.

The first theory of equality supposes that political decisions must be, so far as is possible, independent of any particular conception of the good life, or of what gives value to life. … The second theory argues, on the contrary, that the content of equal treatment cannot be independent of some theory about the good for man or the good of life, because treating a person as an equal means treating him the way the good or truly wise person would wish to be treated.

Ronald Dworkin, “Liberalism,” in Public and Private Morality, Edited by Stuart Hampshire (Cambridge: Cambridge Unviersity Press, 1978), 127.

*******************************

Of course, underlying this thought is the philosophical assumption rooted in the thought of Immanuel Kant (and indicated above) which locates “human dignity … in autonomy, that is, in the ability of each person to determine for himself or herself a view of the good life” and, it may be added, not in any particular view that people might actually choose.

Now a society like Quebec which adopts collective goals violates the procedural commitment. For the government of Quebec, the flourishing of French language and cultural is a good. And the society is not going to remain neutral between those who wish to adopt this good and those who don’t. It will side with the former.

Given this, those who argue in favour of provisions proposed for Quebec, those who argue in favour of collective goals or have substantive moral commitments, opt for a very different model of liberal society. According to this the mark of a liberal society is not it neutrality with regards to substantive conceptions of the good — it remains committed to certain goods — but the way in which it treats those, usually minorities, who do not subscribe to whatever conceptions of the good it espouses.

“A society with strong collective goals can be liberal, on this view, provided it is also capable of respecting diversity, especially when dealing with those who do not share its common goals; and provided it can offer adequate safeguards for fundamental rights.”

These then are two incompatible variants of liberal society: procedural and subtantive. The former is inhospitable to difference, suspicious of collective goals, and insists that rights be applied uniformly. It cannot accommodate the demands of groups that subscribe to the latter, i.e. groups that seek distinction, for that necessarily involves some collective goal which will also require that laws be applied differentially in different cultural contexts.

As far as the Kantian inspired procedural liberalism espoused by Ronald Dworkin is concerned, the charge made by proponents of the politics of difference that the politics of didgnity fails to give adequate attention to distinctness is indeed-well founded.

However, as indicated before, there could be a substantive model of liberal society that takes a different line on the issue of collective goals and uniform application of laws. Such a model could defend the uniform application of certain rights, that of habeas corpus for instance, but distinguish these fundamental rights from other immunities and presumptions of uniform treatment that have sprung up in in recent years. The would be “willing to weigh the importance of certain forms of uniform treatment against the importance of cultural survival, and opt sometimes in favor of the latter.” Such a model would be hospitable to distinctions in ways that procedural liberalism is not while being not as rigid on .


[COMMENT: Taylor not only indicates the possibility of such models but also endorses them adding that “the rigidities of procedural liberalism may rapidly become impractical in tomorrow’s world”. Yet, he does not substantiate them in much detail.]


V

It has already been indicated how the politics of dignity — especially in the model inspired by Rousseau, but also in procedural liberal version espoued by Dworkin — leads to homogenising difference. Only the substantive model of liberalism alluded to above could be cleared of the charge of homogenising difference. But there is another way of formulating the charge of homogenising difference against the politics of dignity — of which the three just mentioned are merely variants.

Such a charge is made against/denies arguments that claim that a liberalism that is blind to differences can serve as a neutral ground on which people of all cultures can meet and coexist. Liberalism is no neutral ground. For instance, the distinction between what is public and what is private, or between politics and religion that liberalism cannot do without is the political expression of one range of cultures — those of the West — and quite incompatible with other ranges. In Islam, for instance, such distinctions cannot arise, cannot make sense.

“All this is to say that liberalism can’t and shouldn’t claim complete cultural neutrality. Liberalism is also a fighting creed.” And hence the charge that liberalism is no neutral ground for the meeting of cultures is valid; yet, such a charge “ought not to be rebutted”. There will always be distinctions to be made, and variations to be applied. And substantive liberalism is fully ready to accept this.

The Salman Rushdie controversy was disturbing because at one level the charge that the defence of his statements in terms of freedom of speech and right to life stems from a peculiar culture (Western) that might not be salient in another (Islamic) is quite valid. And given the fact that substantial numbers of people who live in the west (the Islamic diaspora) will sympathise with those who level this charge, it is a little awkward to say in defence of Rushdie, “This is how we do here in the west” meaning we take freedom of speech very seriously. Yet, such a defence will have to be made. It shall have to be said, “This is what we do here.” The question then becomes: how can such a reply be given, i.e. how can the principles of liberalism be upheld, without marginalising those who do not subscribe to those principles?

This brings us back to the issue of recognition raised in the debates on multiculturalism; for in replying, “this is how we do things here”, a certain sense of superiority is already assumed. Given this, how then, and in what way, if at all, can we make sense of the demand made by proponents of the politics of difference that different cultures with different beliefs and different political principles be recognised as having equal value? (In the last section, the concern was not so much with the recogniton of equal value if different cultures as with the deployment of certain arrangments that allowed those cultures to defend themselves.)

This demand has usually tended to remain implicit with those espousing it unwilling to acknowledge it explicitly. They usually appeal to “other factors, like inequality, exploitation, and injustice, as their motives”. But now, it has become explicit. And with it, misrecognition has graduated to the status of an actual harm. An important influence in bringing about this change has been Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth where he “argued that the major weapon of the colonizers was the imposition of their image of the colonized on the subjugated people. These latter, in order to be free, must first of all purge themselves of these depreciating self-images.”

In universities around the world, this purging is usually recommended in the form of changes to curriculum such that those authors hitherto ignored — women, non-Western writers — be given importance rather than continuing to give pride of place to canonical writers, usually white males. This not merely because the exclusion of women and non-Western authors might adversely affect the understanding of students, but importantly in oder not to demean the excluded groups an exclusive curriculum that makes it appear as though “all creativity and worth inhered in males of European provenance”.

The assumption is that recognition of such authors from diverse backgrounds and groups will help forge and foster the identity of those groups. And although it is never explicitly stated, the background assumption seems to be that all cultures are owed equal respect. That the colonial view of these groups were somehow narrow, insensitive, or, worse, that it actively sought to degrade. And the implication being that in freeing attitudes from these distorting factors, “true judgments of value of different works would place all cultures more or less on the same footing”.

Perhaps this presumption that all cultures have the same value is correct. But it is far from unproblematic. “There is no reason to believe that, for instance, the different art forms of a given culture should all be of equal, or even of considerable, value; and every culture can go through phases of decadence.” This is a presumption because it is the starting hypothesis with which one approaches the study of any other cultures. But that hypothesis will have to be demonstrated concretely.

But how? “Because, for a sufficiently different culture, the very understanding of what it is to be of worth will be strange and unfamiliar to us.” What should happen is what Hans-Georg Gadamer has called a “fusion of horizons” in which we move to a broader horizon within which our owns standards of what is worth becomes merely one possibility among many. This fusion which will lead to the development of new vocabularies with which to articulate all the various possibilities will in turn provide the proper background which which to support and therefore accept, or to reject, our standards. And this background would be something we wouldn’t have before the fusion of horizons.

*******************************

In fact, it will almost always be the case that the adequate language in which we can understand another society is not our language of understanding, or theirs, but rather what one could call a language of perspicuous contrast. This would be a language in which we could formulate both their way of life and ours as alternative possibilities in relation to some human constants at work in both. It would he a language in which the possible human variations would be so formulated that both our form of life and theirs could be perspicuously described as alternative such variations. Such a language of contrast might show their language of understanding to be distorted or inadequate in some respects, or it might show ours to be so (in which case, we might find that understanding them leads to an alteration of our self-understanding, and hence our form of life – a far from unknown process in history); or it might show both to be so.

This notion of a language of perspicuous contrast is obviously very close to Gadamer’s conception of the ‘fusion of horizons’ and owes a great deal to it.

Charles Taylor, “Understanding and Ethnocentricity,” in Philosophy and the Human Sciences: Philosophical Papers, Vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), p. 125–126.


If, however, there is no such thing as these distinct horizons, why do we speak of the fusion of horizons and not simply of the formation of the one horizon, whose bounds are set in the depths of tradition? To ask the question means that we are recognizing that understanding becomes a scholarly task only under special circumstances and that it is necessary to work out these circumstances as a hermeneutical situation. Every encounter with tradition that takes place within historical consciousness involves the experience of a tension between the text and the present. The hermeneutic task consists in not covering up this tension by attempting a naive assimilation of the two but in consciously bringing it out. This is why it is part of the hermeneutic approach to project a historical horizon that is different from the horizon of the present. Historical consciousness is aware of its own otherness and hence foregrounds the horizon of the past from its own.

Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method [1960], Translation revised by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Second, Revised Edition (London: Continuum, 2004),  Chapter 4, Section 1.B.iv., p. 305.

*******************************

To come back to the presumption, it might be thought that such a presumption of equal worth is owed to all cultures. And on this view, even to withold this presumption would be the result of ill-will, and tantamount to the denial of equal status.

“This presumption would help explain why the demands of multiculturalism build on the already established principles of the politics of equal respect. If withholding the presumption is tantamount to a denial of equality, and if important consequences flow for people’s identity from the absence of recognition, then a case can be made for insisting on the universalization of the presumption as a logical extension of the politics of dignity.”

Regardless, whether or not this presumption should be granted as a right is left to the side. For the demand made by multiculturalists is a lot stronger. “The claim seems to be that a proper respect for equality requires more than a presumption that further study will make us see things this way, but actual judgments of equal worth applied to the customs and creations of these different cultures.”

This would underlie the demands that certain works by hitherto neglected authors from other cultures be included in the canon of, say, philosophical texts; authors which have been left out due to ill-will, prejudice, or simply the desire to dominate. The demand that we start out with a presumption of value seems valid; but other demand that value be accorded as a matter of right, as a matter of final judgment, makes no sense. It would be like demanding that “we find the earth round or flat, the temperature of the air hot or cold.” The point being that either we will find a certain culture or author to be great or not. And nothing more.

Of course, the question of whether such judgments about the worth of a certain culture or author can be justified or claim objectivity is in great doubt. And often, the demand for equal worth is made by people who harbour such doubts about objectivity — people harbouring “subjectivist, half-baked neo-Nietzschean theories”. This is a confusion. If, as they think, these “judgments are ultimately a question of the human will [i.e. not objective], then the issue of justification falls away”. One no longer makes right or wrong judgments, but merely expresses like or dislike.

This being the case, it then becomes impossible to distinguish between declaring the worth of a certain culture and declaring that one likes/supports/endorses that culture. But there is a difference between the two. The first is an expression of genuine respect; the latter is unsufferable patronizing. “The supposed beneficiaries of the politics of recognition, the people who might actually benefit from acknowledgment, make a crucial distinction between the two acts. They know that they want respect, not condescension.”

Any theory that wipes out this distinction misses the point. But such theories are in fact popular. In rejecting the possibility of making judgments, they turn “the entire issue into one of power and counterpower. Then the question is no more one of respect, but of taking sides, of solidarity”. But to merely take sides is to, again, miss the point, as indicated above. It turns into an act of condesension. And in doing so, “they miss the driving force of this kind of politics, which is precisely the search for recognition and respect.”

To come back to the demand for equal worth as a right, it seems misplaced to demand positive judgments about the worth of cultures from “Eurocentered intellectuals”. Such judgments from such intellectuals would be not only condescending but ethnocentric. “It would praise the other for being like us.” What’s worse, the demand for such juddgments is ultimately homogenizing, “[f]or it implies that we already have the standards to make such judgments. The standards we have, however, are those of North Atlantic civilization.”

In conclusion, this strong demand for recognition of equal worth as a matter of right does cannot work. What we are left with is the presumption that all cultures could be of equal worth: a presumption, or hypothesis, with which to start out with. Can this presumption be grounded? Well, it would take a supreme arrogance to discount to reject this presumption. That’s to say, it would take an especially arrogant mind with an unjustified sense of the superiority of his own culture to discount the possibility that other cultures might have articulated over the millennia their sense of the good, the holy, and the admirable which are almost certain to have something that deserves his admiration and respect.


Affirmative Action: Is it Fair? by Ronald Dworkin — A Summary


Ronald Dworkin, “Affirmative Action: Is It Fair?” in Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000), 409–26.


I

In the 1978 Bakke case, the United States’ Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Affirmative Action (hereafter AA), and ruled that racial preferences are permissible if their purpose is to improve racial diversity among students, and if they do not stipulate fixed minority quotas but take race into account as one factor among many. The Supreme Court might reconsider this ruling and declare AA unconstitutional. This is thanks to the 1996 Hopwood case where the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the Texas Law School’s AA plan and effectively declared all university AA unconstitutional.

[Note: This essay was published in 2000. The 1996 Hopwood decision was abrogated by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger case where the AA admissions policy of the University of Michigan Law School was upheld.]

Is AA unconstitutional? Does it violate the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of “equal protection of the laws”?

No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

14th Amendment to the US Constitution

The equal protection clause is not meant to protect citizens from all legal distinctions and classifications that disadvantage them. Governments take a lot of decisions — which medical research to support, which art to subsidize, which industries or products to protect by tariffs or other trade policy, etc. — which have both adverse and beneficial consequences for vast sections of the population. In principle, such decisions should be made in the general interest of the community even if they have adverse consequences for some. In practice, such decisions are often determined by the political power that certain interest-groups might have and not considerations of general interest.

The equal protection clause is not violated when a group loses out on the merits of the case or through politics. That clause is violated only when a group loses out due to a special vulnerability to prejudice or hostility or stereotype and its consequent diminished standing in the political community. The clause does not guarantee each citizen that he will benefit equally from every political decision; it guarantees him only that he will be treated as an equal — with equal concern and respect — in the political processes and deliberations that produce those decisions.

We must distinguish between two different principles that take equality to be a political ideal. The first requires that the government treat all those in its charge as equals, that is, as entitled to its equal concern and respect. That is not an empty requirement: most of us do not suppose that we must, as individuals, treat our neighbor’s children with the same concern as our own, or treat everyone we meet with the same respect.... The second principle requires that the government treat all those in its charge equally in the distribution of some resource of opportunity, or at least work to secure the state of affairs in which they all are equal or more nearly equal in that respect.

Ronald Dworkin, “Liberalism”, in A Matter of Principle, 1985, p. 190. But first published in Public and Private Morality, 1978, p. 125.

The difficulty with the 14th amendment is that it forces courts not only to judge on the consequences of legislation for different groups, but the motive behind that legislation. Was the law — in this case, AA policy — that injures this or that group — in this case, white candidates who would have got admissions were it not for AA policies — the product of a forbidden, prejudiced attitude toward that group, or of more benign motives? It is obvious that motives cannot be discerned in the manner of consequences. In addition, it is impossible to translate the individual motives of the legislators into an overall motive which can be attributed to the legislation.

The courts approach the question of motives indirectly. They have devised doctrines intended to “smoke out” improper motives by concentrating on the apparently more objective question of a law’s actual effects. They subject all political decisions that are challenged on equal protection grounds to an initial threshold classification. If the group upon which a law imposes disadvantages forms a “suspect” class  — “a class … that is saddled with such disabilities, or subjected to such a history of purposeful unequal treatment, or relegated to such a position of political powerlessness as to command extraordinary protection from the majoritarian political process — then the decision is to be subject to “strict scrutiny”  meaning that the decision must be rejected as violating the equal protection clause unless the disadvantage can be shown to be essential in order to protect some “compelling” governmental interest. 

But if those whom a law disadvantages do not form such a “suspect” class — if they are only the members of a particular business or profession or the residents of a particular area, and are not different from their fellow citizens in any way historically associated with prejudice or antipathy — then that law is subject to only a “relaxed” scrutiny meaning that the law constitutional unless it can be demonstrated to serve no purpose or point at all.

It is very difficult to apply these doctrines to the AA debate. The white candidates who form the disadvantaged class do not, by any stretch of the imagination, form a “suspect” class. AA policies seem to be entitled to relaxed scrutiny. However, race is so closely associated with bias and favoritism that some racial classifications that seem benign on the surface might turn out, after a closer look, to be constitutionally offensive. An AA scheme that gives preference to blacks might conceivably have been constructed to reduce the number of Asian Americans or Jews admitted. However, such offensive motivations can only be revealed by a closer look, something that a relaxed scrutiny would not allow. But subjecting AA schemes which benefit a genuine suspect class — black candidates — to the same strict scrutiny that is applied to schemes/laws/classifications that harm a suspect group seems insensitive to the moral differences between the two aims.

What must be done then? A case-by-case approach must be pursued which accounts for, among other pertinent factors, the character of the groups benefited and disadvantaged by the program, the racial or other character of the officials who have designed and will administer the plan, and whether the plan aims at a goal. No doubt, such an approach requires more judicial work and provides less legal predictability but with time, these shortcomings will be overcome.

However, the Supreme Court has, in recent cases, subjected all racial classifications, including those that are apparently designed to favor rather than injure suspect groups, to strict scrutiny. In the 1986 Croson case, the Court struck down a Richmond, Virginia, city council plan that required city contractors to subcontract at least 30 percent of the dollar amount of any contract to minority-owned firms. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor ruled that Richmond’s claim that it was seeking a racially more diverse local construction industry was not a “compelling” interest. The low participation of minority business enterprises was not the result of injustice authored by the city, either directly, by its own discriminatory practices, or “as a ‘passive participant’ in a system of racial exclusion practiced by elements of the local construction industry”.

The Hopwood decision relied heavily on the Supreme Court’s Croson decision. The Fifth Circuit judges in the Hopwood case argued that no state institution may use a racial classification for any purpose except to remedy the continuing effects of, following Croson, its own direct or indirect discrimination. The Texan Law school could not satisfy that test, the judges said, because it had ceased discriminating against minorities many years ago.

How to make sense of this? Has Croson and other decisions had this devastating effect on AA policies?

II

The strict scrutiny test can be interpreted in two very different ways which are based on two very different assumptions about the constitutional status of racial classifications.

For the first, any racial classification imposed by any branch of government for any purpose whatever automatically violates the equal protection clause in principle. Only that racial classification will be tolerated which is absolutely necessary — hence, this might be called the “overriding necessity” interpretation — either as the only available means for that branch to end its own past and continuing racial discrimination, or to forestall some danger of such dramatic urgency — “a social emergency rising to the level of imminent danger to life and limb” to use the words of Justice Scalia — that we must overlook a grave constitutional wrong in order to avoid that danger.

The second does not assume that every racial classification violates the 14th Amendment, even in principle, and it therefore does not assume that no racial classification is tolerable unless it is required by some emergency sufficiently grave to justify overlooking a constitutional wrong. Racial classifications, in this view, violate the equal protection clause only when they have been generated by the unacceptable attitudes of prejudice or stereotyping that the clause outlaws. This view imposes the burden of proof on any institution that uses racial classification to produce evidence which is sufficiently compelling to rebut — hence, this may be called the “rebuttal” interpretation — any suspicion of offensive motivations.

The rebuttal version is closer to the constitutional principle than the overriding necessity version. There is no constitutional warrant for assuming that the equal protection clause prohibits all racial classifications regardless of the purposes they serve. The 14th Amendment does not mention race, and there is no reason to think that those who drafted and endorsed that amendment meant to forbid all racial classifications outright.

And it is this version that has been argued for by many, though not all, Supreme Court judges. For instance, in the Croson case, Justice O’Connor opined that “classifications based on race carry a danger of stigmatic harm. Unless they are strictly reserved for remedial settings, they may in fact promote notions of racial inferiority and lead to a politics of racial hostility (emphasis added).” A careful, case-by-case examination, cannot be replaced by a flat, mechanical rule striking down all plans that did not meet a simple a priori test. Justice Stevens, in the same case, said that racial classifications should be judged in terms of their impact on the future, and expressly rejected any implication that “a governmental decision that rests on a racial classification is never permissible except as a remedy for a past wrong”. 

III

Thus, it may thus be said that the Hopwood decision which struct down Texas Law School’s AA program as unconstitutional was wrong. However, it does not follow that the Courts cannot strike down race-sensitive admissions schemes. Even on the basis of the rebuttal reading of strict scrutiny, they can do so.

[Oh! By the way, Dworkin himself prefers a case-by-case approach to the rebuttal version (see Section I).

[E]ven the rebuttal version imposes too heavy a burden on branches and departments of government, from Congress to city councils, that are struggling with intractable problems of de facto racial segregation in industry and politics. My point in distinguishing the rebuttal version from the overriding necessity version of strict scrutiny is not to endorse the former, though it is plainly preferable to the latter, but only to clarify what the Court has actually decided, and what its past decisions entail in future cases. (Footnote 15)]

How can, if at all, university AA plans meet a strict scrutiny test as construed by the rebuttal version? The justifying purposes for race-sensitive admissions tests are, first, the universities’ own need for racial diversity in their student bodies, and, second,  the community’s need for a larger presence of minority members in important political, business, and professional roles. Are these purposes compelling? Does the record of AA policies rebut any trace of reasonable suspicion that the courts might have against the institutions implementing AA?

University admissions are in a strong position to dispel such suspicions. University admissions policies are not set by politicians, who might hope to court the votes of a racial bloc, but by faculty members, who are not running for office. Their interest in diversity is traditional and recognized. Indeed, many universities believe that it is irrational to seek diversity in geographical origin, in social class, and in cultural orientation, and not also to seek racial diversity. Racial diversity is sought because race is itself important. Besides, universities have used AA programs judiciously with no tendency to expand them beyond sensible proportions. There is no genuine risk that race-sensitive admissions programs will be used as a pretence for disfavouring any other particular group of applicants. In fact, the search for racial diversity among students has been accepted as a compelling interest that survives strict scrutiny by many members of the Supreme Court.

“The argument is therefore strong that the Bakke principle,” — that racial preferences are permissible if their purpose is to improve racial diversity among students — “in force for over twenty years, remains good constitutional law, and that American colleges and universities · may continue to rely on that principle to justify using race-sensitive admissions policies to secure a diverse student body.”

However there is yet another justification for race sensitive admission policies — the deplorable absence of blacks from key positions in government, politics, business, and the professions. This is the need for a larger presence of minority members in important political, business, and professional roles in American society. Many statements in various Supreme Court judgments appear hostile to this justification. They see AA policies as compensatory and point out that it is a mistake to suppose that one race “owes” another race compensation. Such statements, however, fail to note the distinction between backward-looking justifications of racial classifications as compensatory and forward-looking justifications that argue that such classifications may, in some circumstances, be in the general interest of the community as a whole.

Race-sensitive admission policies of universities are not compensatory. Rather they are forward-looking. Great universities hope to train more blacks and other minority students not to repay them for past injustice, but to make the future better for everyone by helping to lift a curse that the past laid on us all. The worry that any broad and general remedial justification for AA would license racial preferences until every industry or social or professional stratum had the same racial and ethnic composition as the nation as a whole is misplaced when applied to higher education. This is because colleges, universities, and professional schools use race-sensitive standards not in response to any central government mandate but through individual decisions by individual schools. They don’t and can’t fix how many members of which races will occupy what roles in the overall economy and polity. They seek to increase the number of blacks and other minorities who are in the pool from which other citizens will choose employees, doctors, lawyers, and public officials in the normal way.

“If the justices recognize this aspect of what our best universities aim to do, as well as their academic need for educational diversity, then they will have served us particularly well. They will have acted not just as judges allowing a crucial educational initiative to continue, but as teachers helping to explain to the nation the true and continuing costs to everyone of our racist past, and the distinct promise of an educational policy that can help us all to achieve, if we really want it, a more perfect union.”


Affirmative Action: Does it Work? by Ronald Dworkin — A Summary


Ronald Dworkin, “Affirmative Action: Does It Work?,” in Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000), 386–408.


The short answer is, “Yes, absolutely!” 

The essay draws this emphatic response on the basis of the book The Shape of the River: Long–Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions by William G. Bowen and Derek Bok (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998). 

This book has been hailed as the one that “forever changed the debate on affirmative action in America. …Its conclusions mark a turning point in national discussions of affirmative action — anything less than factual evidence will no longer suffice in any serious debate of this vital question.” To quote Dworkin:

[The book’s] analysis has significantly raised the standard of argument. Impressionistic and anecdotal evidence will no longer suffice: any respectable discussion of the consequences of affirmative action in universities must now either acknowledge its findings or challenge them, and any challenge must match the standards of breadth and statistical professionalism that Bowen, Bok, and their colleagues have achieved. (“Affirmative Action: Does it Work?” p. 390)


Just a word on the metaphor of the river. To quote the beginning of the book:

Stretching from St. Paul to New Orleans, Mark Twain’s Mississippi winds for twelve hundred miles through fog, rapids, slow eddies, sand bars, bends, and hidden bluffs. Drawing upon his own experiences on [Life on] the Mississippi, Twain created an image of the river as both physically central to the United States and symbolically central to the progress of the country. The image of the river is also central to the story of our book, which is concerned with the flow of talent — particularly of talented black men and women — through the country’s system of higher education and on into the marketplace and the larger society. The image most commonly invoked in discussions of this process is the “pipeline.” We often hear of the importance of keeping young people moving through the “pipeline” from elementary school to high school to college, on through graduate and professional schools, and into jobs, family responsibilities, and civic life. But this image is misleading, with its connotation of a smooth, well defined, and well understood passage. It is more helpful to think of the nurturing of talent as a process akin to moving down a winding river, with rock-strewn rapids and slow channels, muddy at times and clear at others. Particularly when race is involved, there is nothing simple, smooth, or highly predictable about the educa­tion of young people. (Preface, p. 1)

To quote another voice:

“I’m calling for a temporary restraining order” on the two metaphors, said [Michael] Olivas, the Bates Professor of Law at the University of Houston Law Center. “The pipeline and pool paradigms are inapt,” he continued, in a lecture titled “Academic Life: In Search of the Perfect Metaphor.” “They misconstrue the problem. A pool is static, likely to turn brackish and is bounded. It cannot replenish itself. A pipeline is even worse. It’s a foreign mechanism used to leech valuable products from the earth. It can leak, damage the environment, rust or clog up.”

A better metaphor for the use of historical records and social science data to correct injustices in higher education, he said, is the river. Couching issues of racial and ethnic diversity as a “pool” problem “suggests that there is a supply shortage or that someone is merely using bad fishing techniques,” Olivas said. “And saying there is a ‘pipeline problem’ casts injustice as the result of ‘a foreign mechanism’ that is experiencing merely a ‘glitch in conveyance.’”

“These are not rich enough metaphors,” Olivas declared. “A better one is the river. A river supplies nutrients and conveys resources. It constantly changes form and can wear down rock. It has a natural filtration system, can adapt, can be altered and even reversed. This is the image I wish to convey. Efforts to make our schools reflect demography will lead to improvement over time.”

And therefore, one find articles, in the debate on Affirmative Action, with titles such as Two Views of the River (which by the way is inspired by Mark Twain, again), Meeting Across the River, or The Changing Shape of the River.

That’s quite enough. On with the summary.


I

America’s finest institutions have pursued race sensitive admission policies for decades to increase the number of students from minorities, especially blacks. 

Critics of such policies, also known as affirmative action (hereafter AA), argue that it has lowered educational standards by admitting students unqualified to benefit from the education they receive.

Before considering this question, which will be done in the light of the book, The Shape of the River, we should distinguish two main strands of the debate on AA. The first is a matter of principle: Is AA unfair in so far as it fails to take adequate stock of the individual merits of each prospective student? The second is a matter of practical consequence/policy: Does AA do more harm than good by, to return the the question posed in the previous paragraph, admitting blacks beyond their capacities, or by stigmatising them as somehow inferior, which makes them more, not less, conscious about race? The two questions are not separate. People think AA policies are fair, or unfair, because they realise, or restrain, certain substantial social goods. But they are also independent in that admissions that consider race as an important factor might still be fair, or unfair, even if they realise, or restrain, whatever social goods are being sought.

The debate has mostly been concerned with the practical aspect. And so will the next two sections of this essay. Most critics who charge AA policies of being counterproductive — of  perpetuating a sense of black inferiority (among both blacks and whites), of promoting black separatism, and increasing race consciousness, etc. — rely on sketchy factual evidence, isolated newspaper reports, and introspective or otherwise anecdotal accounts. The River study disproves these objections on the basis of solid empirical evidence. 

A few words on the study. It analysed an enormous data base of records, called the College and Beyond (C&B) data base which contains information about each of more than 80,000 undergraduates who matriculated at twenty-eight selective colleges and universities in 1951, 1976, and 1989; these institutions are representative of the elite schools that have used AA. In the case of the 1976 and 1989 cohorts, the data base records the undergraduates’ race, gender, high school grades, SAT scores, college majors and grades, extracurricular activities, any graduate or professional school record, and, for many, family economic and social background. It also presents information about the post-university experience of all those in the sample who answered detailed questionnaires sent out when the data base was being compiled.

The final section will consider the objections of unfairness raised against the principle itself, irrespective of its practical consequences. It will argue that AA is just and fair.


II

Does AA accept unqualified blacks? No. The average number of black students in the schools covered in the analysis (which, unless otherwise obvious, will mean the analysis presented in the book, The Shape of the River), increased from 0.8 percent in 1951 to around 7 percent in 1989. Much of the increase was due to race sensitive admissions. If such race-sensitive admissions were not followed,  the number of black entrants would have declined to between 2.1 and 3.6 percent for all schools in the study. Not because those who would have been “retrospectively rejected” were unqualified but because of extraordinary improvement in recent decades in the academic qualifications of white applicants, i.e. because the white candidates were spectacularly well qualified. 

Do blacks waste the opportunity they are offered? Not really. The black dropout rate in the schools analysed is small by national standards: 75 percent of the 1989 black cohort graduated from the school they entered within six years. This graduation rate however is lower than that of whites.

III

Has AA produced, as hoped, more successful black businessmen, professionals, and community leaders? Certainly. While it is true that black male graduates from the twenty-eight schools in the 1976 cohort found less-well-paid jobs than their white classmates who had parallel test scores and college or professional school grades, black graduates earn considerably more than the average black with a B.A. degree. Also, while both black and white college graduates are equally likely to participate in various kinds of civic and professional groups, at least among those studied, black men are strikingly more likely to do so, especially in those activities that seem most important to black communities, including social service, youth clubs, and elementary and secondary school organizations.

Does racial diversity in a university’s student body help to break down stereotyping and hostility among the students, and, if so, does the benefit endure in post-university life? Yes to both, and to a significant extent. More blacks than whites thought knowing people of other races particularly important. More black than whites rated the value of their college experience in improving their ability to “get along with” people of other races as “very important”. Also, Even though black students made up less than 10 percent of the student body, 56 percent of the white respondents (in the 1989 cohort — group — said they knew two or more black students well while 88 percent of the black students said that they knew two or more white students well. 41 percent of the 1951 cohort — the group which might be expected to be more conservative about AA since the policy didn’t exist then  —  reported that they believe that a great deal of emphasis should be placed on seeking racial diversity. This is compared to 37 percent and 48 percent of the 1976 and 1989 cohorts.

[T]he River study gives some reason to doubt whether there is any general and deep-seated antagonism to affirmative action specifically in university admissions. Of course, many rejected university applicants (including, presumably, the plaintiffs in the lawsuits I mentioned) are indeed resentful. But the study estimates the number of once-rejected students who are resentful as relatively low.

Does AA damage blacks by insulting or mortifying them, or destroying their self-respect, or poisoning the black image? Yes, but only for very few. If many blacks felt insulted, the cost would be great. However, the overwhelming majority of blacks canvassed in the River study applaud the race-sensitive policies of their university. They think that their universities should now place more, not less, emphasis on racial diversity, and they accept what the study confirms. 

Could the proportion of blacks in prestigious institutions be maintained if AA was abandoned and race-neutral standards used instead? No. On the basis of plausible assumptions, that a strict race-neutral admissions policy would have reduced the number of blacks by between 50 percent and 75 percent. The suggestion has been made that consideration of low income, and not race, would help maintain the number of blacks. This is fallacious because even though black applicants are disproportionately poor, poor applicants are still dominantly white.

Is the United States better off, judged strictly by the outcome, because its most selective universities and colleges have practiced AA over the past thirty years? Yes. The high correlation the study establishes between the selectivity of the school attended and later success suggests that many fewer blacks would then have become prominent professors, doctors, or lawyers, or high-salaried and powerful business executives, or political or community service leaders, than the actual graduates have become. 

In all the dimensions in which our society is stratified — income, wealth, power, prestige, and authority — blacks are greatly underrepresented in the top levels, and the resulting de facto racial stratification is an enduring shame, waste, and danger. [We cannot] think ourselves better off if that racial stratification were even more absolute than it is, and if we saw no or fewer signs of its lessening.

IV

Does AA violate the right of candidates to be judged only on the basis of their individual qualifications?

What is a qualification is this context? For a beauty contest or a quiz, the relevant qualification is some physical or intellectual quality. For a book award, the qualification is a prior, or backward-looking, achievement. In other contexts, such as that of choosing a doctor, the qualification is a forward-looking promise. The doctor is chosen based on considerations of what he can do for you in the future, on the basis of a forward-looking promise. The doctor’s natural talents or prior achievements or relevant only in so far as they are good indicators of his forward-looking promise.

Sufficient attention [must be paid] to the distinction that Justice Stevens has several times made-between backward-looking justifications of racial classifications as compensatory and forward-looking justifications that argue that such classifications may, in some circumstances, be in the general interest of the community as a whole.

Compensatory [i.e. backward-looking] justifications suppose that affirmative action is necessary ... to “make up” to minorities for damage done to their race or class in the past. But universities do not use race sensitive admission standards to compensate either individuals or groups: affirmative action is a forward-looking, not a backward-looking, enterprise, and the minority students whom it benefits have not necessarily been victims, as individuals, of any distinct injustice in the past. Great universities hope to train more blacks and other minority students not to repay them for past injustice, but to make the future better for everyone by helping to lift a curse that the past laid on us all.

Ronald Dworkin, “Affirmative Action: Is it Fair?”, In Sovereign Virtue, p. 424. 

University admissions are contexts or competitions of this last sort. Admissions are not prizes for past achievements or effort, or as medals for inherent talents or virtues. The aim of admission policies is to try to choose a student body that, as a whole, will make the greatest future contribution to the legitimate goals their institution has defined. These goals need not be political or economic in any narrow sense. Educational institutions, especially the best financed and most prestigious ones, are instead expected to contribute to science, art, and philosophy, whose advancement we might take to be part of our collective public responsibility, and to select students and faculty very much with that goal in mind.

But of course, such a goal cannot be the only goal of educational institutions. They are expected to help the students and the community in general in more practical ways as well. “[A] great university may properly decide to study the treatment of AIDS or Alzheimer’s disease even when it knows that different, more basic research would be theoretically more rewarding.” Besides, different educational institutions are expected to adopt varying goals and devise strategies most appropriate for the realisation of those goals.

The point is that given the goals that an institution has set, academic qualifications such as high SAT scores and grades are only one among others. “The list of other qualifications is long: it includes motivation for public service, athletic ability, unusual geographical background, and, in the case of some of these schools, ‘legacy status.’”

[N]one of [the insitutions] has treated these distinctly academic qualifications as exclusive: they have all from time to time rejected candidates with top SAT scores and grades — even black candidates — in favor of other students with lower grades and scores.

The consideration of race as a qualification in addition to the others has served at least two goals traditionally set by institutions — diversity, and improvement of the collective life of the community.

First, it is “plausibly assumed that students are better equipped for commercial and professional life, and better prepared to act as good citizens in a pluralistic democracy, if they have worked and played with classmates of different geographical background, economic class, religion, culture, and — above all, now — race.” The objection that race — like, for instance, the preference for soul music — is an inappropriate or arbitrary consideration for diversity misses the point that it is race itself which is the relevant aspect of diversity being sought. 

Second, institutions have “traditionally aimed to help improve the collective life of the community … by helping to make that collective life more just and harmonious [which] are, after all, among the main ambitions of our law schools and schools of politics and public administration.” And it is right to think that “the continuing and debilitating segregation of the United States by race, class, occupation, and status is an enemy of both justice and harmony.” Race sensitive admission seek to correct and remove such segregation.

Thus, AA in no way compromises the idea that students be admitted based on relevant qualifications. Given the kind of forward-looking competition that university admissions are and given the goals of diversity and communal harmony adopted by institutions, race is an important and relevant qualification.

I do not mean (as some critics have accused defenders of affirmative action of supposing) that black color is in itself a virtue or an aspect of merit. But it is nevertheless a qualification in the sense I have been describing. We do not count a person’s height as a virtue or a merit. But someone who is tall may just for that reason be better able to contribute, on a basketball court, to one of a university’s traditional goals, and in the same way, though for sadder reasons, someone who is black may for that reason be better able to contribute to its other goals, in the classroom and dormitory and in the course of his or her later career.

Why, then, is AA so widely thought unfair? Why do even many of its supporters concede that it is a distasteful remedy, even if, in their view, a necessary one?

It is argued often that race-sensitive admissions judge applicants not as individuals but as members of large groups. This objection has been upheld against crude forms of AA. But in contemporary forms where admissions are given based on “case-by-case, all-things-considered judgments”, it no longer holds. No one is accepted or excluded simply by virtue of race.

It is also argued that race should not be considered as a qualification even in the qualified sense outlined above. Any consideration of race, it is contended, is wrong in principle, regardless of the consequences, however desirable they may be, that result. The idea is that it is impossible to distinguish between invidious and benign uses of race. Would we “accept a law school’s argument that it rejects all black applicants because it aims to help the community’s economy by producing graduates who will function effectively in local law firms that do not welcome blacks? We wouldn’t.

However, we can make a distinction between malign and benign uses of race. For one, we can think of individual rights which the malign uses of race violate but which the benign uses do not. Properly conceived AA programs do not violate the fundamental right of each citizen to be treated by his government, and by institutions acting with the support of his government, as equally worthy of concern and respect, i.e. the right to be treated as an equal. Nor does AA reflect, either directly or indirectly, prejudice against white citizens any more than seeking seeking geographical diversity expresses prejudice against people from large urban centers.

We must distinguish between two different principles that take equality to be a political ideal. The first requires that the government treat all those in its charge as equals, that is, as entitled to its equal concern and respect. That is not an empty requirement: most of us do not suppose that we must, as individuals, treat our neighbor’s children with the same concern as our own, or treat everyone we meet with the same respect.... The second principle requires that the government treat all those in its charge equally in the distribution of some resource of opportunity, or at least work to secure the state of affairs in which they all are equal or more nearly equal in that respect.

Ronald Dworkin, “Liberalism”, in A Matter of Principle, 1985, p. 190. But first published in Public and Private Morality, 1978, p. 125.

For another, “though it is important to allow universities ample latitude in designing their own purposes and goals, we can nevertheless insist that some goals a university might conceivably adopt are illegitimate and unacceptable, and we can dismiss, as such, a goal that panders to and reinforces the racial stratification of our society.”

But, it is further asked, how could we be sure, for example, that a program that gives preference to some minorities, like blacks and Hispanics, is not motivated by hostility to other groups of citizens — Asian Americans or Jews, for example-who score well on tests and who would be admitted in greater numbers if admission policies were race-neutral?

This argument is applicable in political cases, for example, against allowing city councils, which might well be dominated by black members or dependent on black support, to set aside a quota of construction contracts for black-owned firms. It is easy to see the malign use of race in such a case. But despite its force, “it seems fanciful and misplaced when applied to higher education.” The faculty and academic administrators are in no way beholden for power or wealth to the the communities benefited by AA policies. It is true that the consideration of race cannot be made completely immune to the suspicion of malign use, but “denying all universities the power to do what they can to improve diversity and social justice and stability, on the remote chance that some one or two institutions would abuse that power and escape undetected, would be like denying any use of public funds for medical research on the ground that a few researchers might be plagiarists or embezzlers”

There is yet another difficulty with considering race. It is an important psychological fact that many people do think that being rejected by a university because they are not of the “right” race is far worse being rejected because they lack some other quality, like a skill or physical ability, or even because their parents did not graduate from the school.” Such feeling is understandable but only because of our familiarity with invidious racial classification. “In a racist society people are indeed rejected absolutely and for who they are, and it is therefore natural that racial classifications should be seen as capable of inflicting a special form of injury.” But to state thus is to assert at the same time that race itself possesses no special importance in the metaphysics of our identity: the colour of your skin is no less genetically grounded than the fact that some people will never be able to score above 1400 on an SAT test no matter how hard they prepare.

The point is that it is only because we are so familiar with racial classification and discrimination that we see considerations of race as especially damning and contemptuous. It must be realised however that race is similar to many other differences in that it is genetically determined with us having no say: these other differences (difference in intellectual or athletic capacity, for instance) are such that their consideration do not lead the terrible psychological responses that consideration of race does. The peculiar “psychological character of race … is [thus] a product and sign of racism, and it must not be permitted to protect the racism that has generated it.”

Finally, it is often argued that that America’s social and constitutional history has committed us to a society that is colorblind as a matter not just of our ultimate goals but also of the means that we are entitled to use toward any goal. Race, in this line of argument, must play no role in any official affair whatsoever. It is asserted that a colorblind commitment would do a better job of confronting and eliminating racism in the long run would. This has been proved false by the River study. Besides there is no ground for supposing that the Constitution, or anything else, has committed the nation to that strategy of colourblindness. No plausible interpretation of the 14th Amendment — which guarantees “equal protection of the laws” — shows that it automatically  rules out all racial classifications as means to greater justice. “Nor have the American people, by any long-standing or sustained consensus, ruled out all such [racial] classifications for [greater justice].”

No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

14th Amendment to the US Constitution

“So, according to by far the best evidence yet available, affirmative action is not counterproductive. On the contrary it seems impressively successful. Nor is affirmative action unfair: it violates no individual rights and compromises no moral principle.”