With the debate over Affirmative Action going to the Supreme Court, most people believe there are only two possible outcomes:
- The court overturns Affirmative Action because people should be judged as individuals, not as members of an ethnic or racial group, or
- The court upholds Affirmative Action because otherwise certain ethnic and racial groups would be under-represented in institutions (for example, the number of Blacks attending Harvard would likely decline from the current 12% to under 3% as happened at other schools that eliminated Affirmative Action)
I think there’s a third way, but first, some observations:
- Smart and motivated people are lucky to have their talents. And if you’re merely lucky, you don’t deserve to go to Harvard
- Sure, you worked hard all your life to get there. But if you’re born with tons of motivation and a high aptitude (with resilience, persistence, lack of social anxiety, extroversion, and a low threshold to anger), of course you’ll do well on school tests and extracurriculars. Look around at any elementary school playground and you’ll easily spot the bright students with promise, having a calm demeanor, who naturally take on leadership roles and initiate games, etc. Those children never chose their personality traits any more than their parents instilled them (listening to, or rebelling against, your parents is yet another inborn trait). It’s just who they are, by chance.
- [Note: my definition of innate traits has nothing to do with genetics. I believe traits are assigned by lottery during pregnancy when you’re in your mother’s womb, although I confess I can’t prove that theory yet.]
- Therefore, if we never consciously chose any of our traits, then we’re not responsible for the outcome. Smart people, the ones who can get perfect scores on the SAT, don’t deserve the spoils of their smarts. They’re just smart, by luck (the same way that some are unlucky to contract a debilitating disease or sustain a random injury on a battlefield).
Unfortunately, many people don’t believe in luck, and simply ignore this argument. From The Politics of Luck:
- Conservatives (individuals on the political right) will be less likely to endorse the link between luck and success than their liberal counterparts (individuals on the political left).
- Conservatives [are] less supportive of the notion that luck is influential to success because the randomness it invokes challenges their belief that people’s outcomes are deserved, whereas the notion of random chance contributing to success is consistent with the liberal worldview.
- Explicitly linking random chance with success could be ideologically divisive because it implies that successful individuals have not fully earned their spoils. It challenges the notion that people get the outcomes that they deserve
- This investigation of this hypothesis is politically important as emphasizing luck’s importance to success has been used to support redistributive social policies. Invoking luck as one explanation or success can support the conclusion that the successful (the lucky) should help the unsuccessful (the unlucky). Those who have benefited from random chance, this argument goes, should give back to those who have not. However, if the basic premise (luck plays a role in success) is not broadly shared by a segment of the population, then it is unlikely to be an effective rallying cry for redistribution.
I believe Conservatives and Liberals are both hardwired in their beliefs (i.e., their human nature), as different people are born with different natures. If you believe in luck, then you will likely gravitate to the Liberal side (although Liberals falsely believe that traits are not hardwired!). On the other hand, if you (falsely) believe people are personally responsible for their own traits (high motivation, high intelligence) then you will become a Conservative, and you literally can’t conceive why anyone else would think differently (or watch anything other than Fox News).
Both sides are wrong, which makes rational decision-making nearly impossible. I believe scientific evidence of hardwired human traits will arrive soon, and perhaps it will change some minds. Recent science has upended our view of how the brain works. Instead of consisting of passive neural networks waiting to be imprinted upon by experience, it has been shown that the brain’s memories can be transferred (between slugs and worms at least) by an exchange of genetic material alone. This is a revolutionary finding, because it appears to show that memories and traits are stored in DNA, not in neural connections. Every human is conceived with every possible human trait in their DNA (ambition, caring, psychopathy, craving a strong leader, etc.) but our specific traits are selected during pregnancy by some sort of random hormonal lottery. Again, this is just a theory.
In any case, if humans are assigned their traits by luck, they don’t deserve to benefit from them.
The Third Way
So how should the Supreme Court decide on Affirmative Action? I believe they should outlaw any admission criteria at any organization. Harvard should throw the names of all applicants into a bin and select names randomly, by lottery. That’s the only fair way to admit students, instead of culling those with bad luck. Of course, Harvard then would no longer be special, tuitions would go down, ethnic participation would match their population levels, and every college in the country would be on a level playing field. So be it.
Meritocrats will complain, of course, at their loss of elite institutions and status. Desire for status is, of course, human nature, another hardwired trait. But if we want to instill fairness in the system, it’s the only option. In other avenues of life as well, similar outcomes would follow. For example, everyone should make the same salary and receive the same healthcare and benefits. That’s only fair, but a topic for another day.