Monitoring the Ethicist

My old post, Ethicist on oaths, got linked to by Inside Higher Ed. I think they may have been confused and thought it was a response to this week's Ethicist column, when in fact I hadn't written anything about that one yet. That piece had to do with law students and issues of discrimination - and so does this week's Ethicist - but they're separate topics. Since I've been deficient in my Ethicist responses lately and I feel obligated to say something about topics I'm linked to on:

The issue Randy is dealing with is the obligations of a minority applicant who is opposed to the existence of affirmative action. The applicant refused to disclose her race in the portion of the application which explicitly asks about it. But in her personal statement she wants to discuss race and experiences in which race is inherently bound up. The applicant is worried that doing so is hypocritical because she doesn't want to take advantage of affirmative action while disagreeing with its existence. I want to dispute that there is any obligation for even the most ardent opponent of affirmative action to avoid using it. I'll argue this by analogy.

Let's say there's someone who doesn't think rent control should exist. This person thinks rent control violates the rights of land owners and gives
renters an undeserved windfall gain. Let's call this hypothetical person Robert Nozick. Is he under some obligation to not take advantage of the existence of rent control? I would suggest that he is not obliged to. Of course, he is going to look bad making use of a practice which he says is unjust. But really, he thinks the whole system of laws should be changed in such wholesale ways that his position is best understood as saying "In an ideal world rent control wouldn't exist." Now even if he is completely right about that, the bare fact tells you very little about how he should behave in the world of the second-best where we actually live. In particular, unjust rent control may function in opposition to other systematic injustice in the real world or it may be that the owners who rent control is being imposed upon aren't the rightful owners in a Nozickian sense and therefore don't have the moral standing to object to rent control. In short, it can be perfectly ethical to take part in an institution while simultaneously acting in a sincere manner to eliminate it.

Similarly, the bare fact that this student opposes the existence of affirmative action places no obligation on her to avoid the existing program. Other students are going to benefit from the practice, so by opting out she risks making herself worse off than she would be in the ideal world of no affirmative action. The main reason I see for her decision to opt out is that the contrary position makes her rhetoric less effective.

As for Randy's advice, it's not terrible. Telling the student they may want to rethink affirmative action isn't crazy, though Michigan's diversity rationale certainly isn't the only one behind the program. Rather, it's the only reason courts like to hear as justification. On the other hand, someone who bothers to write to Cohen about affirmative action probably does care a good deal about the issue and has given it a lot of thought. So it's sort of condescending to say that she should rethink her belief. His joke about not robbing banks because he doesn't know how to divvy up the loot is moronic, but he tends to say things like that every once and a while and I've come to accept it.

Oh, in case I was being too subtle or you didn't follow the link, Nozick really did take extreme advantage of rent control laws.

Update (2:00): This post has been revised. Also, to clarify my view: As I said, I think the belief that something shouldn't exist doesn't tell you how to behave in the world where it exists. It does create an ethical obligation to act towards a world where it doesn't exist. If, and only if, her mentioning her race made affirmative action more likely to continue existing, then she would have a very real obligation not to mention her race. Since I doubt the truth of the antecedent clause, I doubt that she has any such obligation.