The Ethics Sage and the Ethics of Affirmative Action

The Ethics Sage
The Ethics Sage and the Ethics of Affirmative Action

The Ethics Sage and the Ethics of Affirmative Action

Ethics of Affirmative Action

(A Guest Blog by My Colleague, Steven Mintz. Visit his site here!)

University of Texas Affirmative-Action Program is upheld by a Federal Appeals Court

Are considerations of affirmative action ethical policies for a university to follow? This is the overriding question to be addressed in evaluating race-based decisions about admission to colleges and universities. I raise the issue because a federal appeals-court panel handed at least a temporary setback to critics of affirmative action last Tuesday by ruling that a race-conscious admissions policy at the University of Texas at Austin had passed a strict-scrutiny analysis ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Critics of the ruling might believe that the ethical principles of justice and fairness work against race-based policies because people should not be treated differently because of race. The ethical support for this kind of opinion holds that equals should be treated equally and unequals should be treated unequally. In other words if there are legitimate reasons to treat one group differently than another, then such treatment is justified.
The problem with this argument is by saying one group (i.e. minorities) should be given preference over another group (i.e. whites) we give credence to the idea that certain groups are inferior because we then assume that the favored groups cannot reach the required level of achievement through their own efforts. Moreover, affirmative action policies lead to lower standards since some less qualified candidates will be admitted if race is allowed to override general standards applied to all.

Opponents of race-based policies hold such views because they value the equal treatment of every person on the basis of common standards. It’s hard to argue this position from a fairness point of view. On the other hand, I believe a diverse population in colleges and universities add to all students’ experiences as they learn in their classes how some groups historically have been discriminated against. I believe the motivation for affirmative action is to right a past wrong and not to give one group preference over another in admissions decisions.

The federal appeals court decision that brought to the fore the affirmative action policies of the University of Texas means that consideration of some applicants’ race are necessary to achieve sufficiently diverse enrollments there. In a 2-to-1 decision revealing continued disagreement among the judges over the appropriate standard for evaluating such policies, the panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit In response to an overwhelming Supreme Court decision Supreme Court decision that faulted the Fifth Circuit’s previous endorsement previous endorsement of the undergraduate admissions policy as too deferential to the university, the two judges in the majority said the policy withstood stricter scrutiny than applied before.

The appeals-court panel affirmed, for a second time, a 2009 summary judgment by a U.S. District Court dismissing the lawsuit brought by Abigail Noel Fisher, a white applicant who had accused the Austin campus of illegal discrimination after being denied admission as a freshman the previous year.

The ruling Tuesday’s ruling in the case, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, almost certainly does not mark an end to the legal battle over the policy. the legal battle over the policy. The Project on Fair Representation, an advocacy group that brought the lawsuit on Ms. Fisher’s behalf, said it expected to appeal the decision all the way back to the Supreme Court, if necessary.

“This panel was proven wrong last year by the Supreme Court, and we believe it will be proven wrong once again on appeal,” said Edward Blum, the organization’s director.

Judge Emilio M. Garza, the dissenting member of the Fifth Circuit panel appeared to lay some of the groundwork for an appeal with an opinion arguing that the majority had again failed to treat the university’s assertions with sufficient skepticism.

“By holding that the university’s use of racial classifications is narrowly tailored, the majority continues to defer impermissibly to the university’s claims,” he wrote, adding that such deference “is squarely at odds with the central lesson” of last year’s Supreme Court ruling in the case.

In that ruling the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, 6-2, that Michigan voters have a right to amend their state Constitution to ban racial preferences in admissions at public universities. In so doing, the court affirmed laws in eight states that have 29 percent of America’s high-school population and more than 40 percent of its Hispanic residents.

In the case, Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, the court’s only Hispanic member, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, wrote a widely acclaimed dissent, in which she challenged Chief Justice John Roberts’s colorblind approach to college admissions as “out of touch with reality.”

A new report by the Century Foundation and the Lumina Foundation, suggests, however, that the concerns of both justices can be met: Alternatives to race-conscious affirmative-action, if properly structured, would produce more diversity than just concentrating on race.

According to a chapter by Anthony P. Carnevale and his colleagues at Georgetown University in the new report, The Future of Affirmative Action: New Paths to Higher Education Diversity After Fisher v. University of Texas, using socioeconomic preferences and/or plans that admit a top percentage of students from every high school, if structured properly, could produce even higher levels of black and Hispanic representation at the most selective colleges than racial preferences now achieve. That approach would work because it reflects economic disadvantages that are often shaped by racial discrimination.

Sotomayor’s dissent in Schuette is a strong reminder of the importance of race. “Race matters to a young man’s view of society when he spends his teenage years watching others tense up as he passes, no matter the neighborhood where he grew up,” she wrote. “Race matters because of the slights, the snickers, the silent judgments that reinforce that most crippling of thoughts: ‘I do not belong here.’ ”
In Schuette, Sotomayor wrote that preferences provide the only realistic path to racial inclusion in higher education, correctly noting that race-neutral alternatives have failed to produce adequate diversity at three high-profile institutions—the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of California at Los Angeles.

The question of whether affirmative action policies, whether based on racial differences, to right past wrongs, or socio-economic considerations, is a complicated issue from an ethical perspective. Like most contentious issues each position can be argued from different points of view in part, I believe, because the motivation for such preferences underlies the issue of ethical ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness.’

In virtue ethics, motivations are an integral part of the ethical equation. If we can say the motivation for race-based decisions is the inherent goodness of such policies, then the Fisher ruling is ethically supportable. On the other hand, doesn’t Fisher have an ethical right to be given preference based on higher achievement of admissions criteria (i.e. SAT scores)? Doesn’t the University of Texas have an obligation to Fisher to admit her because she was more qualified and denied admission based on socio-economic factors that enabled less qualified candidates to be admitted?

These are difficult questions to answer. I am conflicted because each argument has some merit. As a college professor I have seen first-hand how having a diverse population in my ethics class adds value to the learning experience of all students. On the other hand I can understand the position of a student denied admission because other considerations allowed another student to be given preference for whatever reason.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on July 22, 2014. Dr. Mintz is a professor in the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at:


Luis Guillermo Solis Gives Up Vanity

Luis Guillermo Solis Gives Up Vanity

Costa Rica president ends ‘worship’ of his office | Al Jazeera America

Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solis, a month into his first tem in office, doesn’t want his name on plaques at public works or his portrait hung in public offices.

In a decree, Solis prohibited his name from being used on plaques inaugurating bridges, roads and buildings, as had been the custom in previous administrations. From now on, plaques will carry only the year the project was inaugurated, according to the BBC.

via Costa Rica president ends ‘worship’ of his office | Al Jazeera America.

They are everywhere, in public buildings, state offices and any other public edifice. The pictures and the plaques of the men and women “responsible” for their construction and continuation. They are a muted form of immortality, at least as long as our civilization continues.

And yet, Luis Guillermo Solis, the President of Costa Rico, has dispensed with this. He says, “The works are from the country and not from a government or a particular official.” In this he is very much correct, yet his stand against such things is very much the exception.

Vanity or vainglory or self-idolatry has been recognized as a fault for much of history. However, we in the United States are very much taken with it. We like to think of ourselves in grandiose ways. We tell ourselves that our electronic devices make us more than human and many look forward to cyborgs and trans-humanity.

Is vanity a business ethics problem?

Absolutely. The CEO who buys with company money a $6,000 dollar shower curtain or a one million dollar birthday party for his wife, has got a problem with vanity. How many billions of dollars are spent each year out of money invested by or due others in every kind of business on frivolities, on bizarre perks or just spent because they can?

The Greeks believed that hubris or overweening pride was a major fault but not us. We put chief executive officers on magazine covers and lionize them as “job creators.” I have watched in astonishment as disgraced CEO’s are showered with attention and allowed to recover their reputations. Jordan Belfort is now a motivational speaker. After a disastrous tenure at Hewlett-Packard, Carly Fiorina has been appointed to numerous corporate boards and travels the country dispensing advice. Corporate predators who destroyed thousands of jobs are consulted about issues of public important, as if their very notoriety meant expertise.

We would do better in this nation and practice virtue ethics and exalt in public the characteristics that make for good and great citizens, leaders and Americans. And not just exalt the good but diminish the bad, we should be cruel to the corrupt and incompetent. They be publicly shamed for their crimes whether prosecuted or not. How much virtue can you have if wickedness is not punished?

James Pilant

On The Same Subject

Hubris according to Merriam Webster is a great or foolish amount of pride or confidence. I meet and talk to a number of entrepreneurs and investors, I am always on the lookout for characteristics of Hubris. I am not being judgemental, but what hubris does is it gets in the way of learning.

Owen, who trained as a neurologist/psychiatrist before going into politics, coined the term “Hubris Syndrome” to describe how power can change the personality of power-holders, not just in politics, but in every realm of life ranging from business to the media.

The Ethics Sage – What does it take to make Ethical Decisions in the Workplace?

It is my pleasure to publish a posting from The Ethics Sage. As always, I recommend you visit his site and sign up as a follower so you will be notified of each of his postings. I consider him a most capable colleague in the field of business ethics and hope you visit his site often.

James Pilant

The Ethics Sage
The Ethics Sage

What does it take to make Ethical Decisions in the Workplace?

I often discuss ethical decision making in my Accounting Ethics class because accountants and auditors are part of the internal organization structure and have an important role in preventing and detecting misconduct (i.e., occupational and financial statement fraud). I typically start by discussing virtue ethics that posits ethical people possess certain character traits that pre-dispose them to do the right thing when conflicts arise or ethical dilemmas exist. I favor virtue ethics because it provides a basis for evaluating the decision as ethical, which traditional philosophical reasoning methods do as well, and also it can be used to evaluate the ethics of the person making the decision. In other words, ethical decisions and decision-makers reflect honesty, integrity, fairness, due care, and responsibility and accountability in decision making.

One model I draw on to support the discussion is James Rest’s Model of Moral Development. In 1983, Rest proposed a four-stage model of the ethical decision-making process that links to the cognitive processes that individuals use in ethical decision making; that is, it depicts how an individual first identifies an ethical dilemma and reasons through what is the right thing to do, and then continues through her intention and finally courage to act ethically. Here is a brief outline of the model.

Moral Sensitivity

The first step in moral behavior requires that the individual interpret the situation as moral by noticing the moral features of the decision. A moral person ought to have a certain preference about how to behave and then ought to behave in accordance with that preference. Moral features are built around consideration of how our actions affect others and whether we respect the rights of others in decision making.

Moral Judgment

Moral judgment entails finding the ideal solution to an ethical dilemma. It starts with cognition, the process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses. It continues by making assumptions and emphasizing some things over others. Typically, philosophical reasoning methods help in the process. An integral part of virtue ethics is the application of practical wisdom, gained through years of experience and developing good habits.

Moral Motivation

Moral motivation reflects the degree of commitment to taking the moral course of action, valuing moral values over other values, and taking personal responsibility for moral outcomes. Moral motivation reflects an individual’s willingness to place ethical values (e.g., honesty, integrity, trustworthiness) ahead of non-ethical values (e.g., wealth and fame) that relate to self-interest. A whistleblower who acts out of moral intent is willing to accept the risk of retaliation in order to follow her ethical beliefs.

Moral Character

Individuals do not always behave in accordance with their ethical intention. The whistleblower may know what the right thing to do is but lack the moral courage to do it. Rest describes moral character as persistence in completing a moral task, having courage, over-coming temptation, and implementing processes that serve a moral goal. A person with a strong ethical character is more likely to carry out ethical intentions with ethical action than one with a weak character because she is better able to withstand pressures from higher-ups in the organization to overlook wrongdoing.

Here are some tips in making ethical decisions in the workplace.

1. Consider how your actions affect others. All decisions have stakeholder effects and ethical people consider how those parties will be affected if I they decide to do one thing or another.
2. Do no harm. Your actions and decisions should never harm another party. One exception is whistleblowing where the greater good may dictate that a decision-maker should report wrongdoing whenever the action of one party harms others (i.e., investors and creditors). A good example is fraudulent financial statements where, under certain circumstances, the accountant or auditor should blow the whistle on fraud by contacting the SEC.
3. Make decisions that are universal. That is, ask yourself whether you would want others to resolve the conflict by taking the same action you are about to take for similar reasons in similar situations. If the answer is ‘yes,’ then your actions have universal appeal. Universality requires that your decisions respect the rights of others.
4. Reflect before deciding. As a final step, think about how you would feel if your actions and decisions appear on the front pages of a newspaper. Would you be proud to defend them; explain them to loved ones; follow-up with ethical behavior in the workplace?

The reason virtue ethics is an excellent tool of ethical decision-making is no matter how “good” an individual wants to be, in the workplace competing forces come into play such as loyalty to one’s supervisor or the organization. It takes a person of courage – integrity – to place the good of others (i.e., public interest) ahead of one’s own self-interest and that of one’s employer. Virtue ethics recognizes that the person must be honest, trustworthy, and fair-minded, and so on for the decision itself to reflect these characteristics.

The Ethics Sage blogs can be found at:



Ethics and Education: the beginning (via Just a Word)

This is a good article and I always enjoy essays where the author struggles with difficult moral conundrums.

I teach college classes and I lean heavily on opinion writing because it’s difficult for students to speak in anything but their own voice. I have observed a great deal of teaching and while it varies in quality, I doubt if the principal blame lies there.

I believe the problem is the bleed of toxic philosophy from Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand. Isn’t buying a term paper an economic choice (Friedman) that maximizes shareholder worth while following the “rules of the game?” If productivity is the only measure of morality(Rand), shouldn’t our modern John Gaults enhance their productivity? Aren’t the unproductive sheep, the dead weight of society, the helpless proles, the creators of these rules designed to limit the productivity of the great minds, the only real producers of value in our society?

If rules are designed to create a level field and you don’t believe in a level playing field, you are not going to play by the rules. I am sure that many of these students are unaware of the origins of their philosophy about rules and choices but that does not make the connection any less real. Obviously there have always been rule-breakers. But have we ever lived in a time where the public ethos is so accepting of this kind of behavior?

I tell you it is always a weird experience to meet the prototypical John Gault, an individual who has discovered their own specialness and that humanity, kindness, compassion and brotherhood are limits placed on their success by the common herd. Or the weirdness of the Friedman follower who believes if only we gave people free choice about seat belts, air bags, food, drugs and inoculations, our lives would be enhanced.

You see, in their world, it is perfectly obvious that brotherhood is the enemy, common rules a bacteria weakening the human specie, and compassion, a tragedy, binding people to their own lack of success.

What is the rule on buying term papers but an annoyance to the superman, the new man?

Well, I await patiently for the John Gaults to ascend the mountain and leave the rest of begging, pleading our our knees, crawling on our insignificant bellies, that if only these paragons of production, the new successful breed of humanity, would only return to make society work and, in return, we would swear to no longer limit them by taxes and rules from their proper and obvious role in society. (Read Atlas Shrugged.)

I’m sure it fills the longing in my students to be special, kings and queens under the flesh. Humanity is hard. Being productive and resilient is difficult. Sharing and caring is a burden. But those are the things that make us significant, not a Nietzschean philosophy of destiny and specialness.

There are other philosophies in our nation: virtue ethics, several hundred variations of Christianity, citizenship, and the doctrines of honor, responsibility and chivalry.

When these are in place, we will solve many of our problems with obeying the rules.

James Pilant

Ethics and Education: the beginning I call this “the beginning” because I have a feeling that this will prompt several posts on the subject, but I am not promising that yet. This actually coincides well with my post on Friday regarding a University’s attempt to eliminate cheating by allowing collaboration and internet use on exams. This post however, follows a slightly different vein. I was reading an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education this morning called The Shadow Sch … Read More

via Just a Word



I find stoicism an attractive philosophy. I suspect that has to do with the slings and arrows of an implacable fate falling with such regularity. Hanging tough may be the only thing many Americans (and all Japanese) can do.

It’s a nice essay. I hope you enjoy it. Maybe you can buy the book when it’s finished.

James Pilant

My book on the history of moral thought, due to be published next year by Atlantic, is beginning to take shape (I should hopefully have finished writing it by late summer / early autumn). Every month I am posting small sections from the book. This excerpt is from the conclusion of Chapter 3, which begins in Aristotle’s moral thought and ends in Stoicism. THE PHILOSOPHER ZENO WAS ONCE FLOGGING A SLAVE WHO HAD STOLEN SOME goods.  ‘But I was fated t … Read More

via Pandaemonium

Benjamin Franklin, Business Ethics, Newspapers And Teaching

From the John Torrey Morse, Jr. biography of Benjamin Franklin (pages 23-24)

But the famous almanac was not the only pulpit whence Franklin preached to the people. He had an excellent ideal of a newspaper. He got news into it, which was seldom done in those days, and which made it attractive; he got advertisements into it, which made it pay, and which also was a novel feature; indeed, Mr. Parton says that he “originated the modern system of business advertising;” he also discussed matters of public interest. Thus he anticipated the modern newspaper, but in some respects improved in advance upon that which he anticipated. He made his “Gazette” a vehicle for disseminating information and morality, and he carefully excluded from it “all libeling and personal abuse.” The sheet in its every issue was doing the same sort of work as “Poor Richard.” In a word, Franklin was a born teacher of men, and what he did in this way in these his earlier days gives him rank among the most distinguished moralists who have ever lived.

I, myself, am a teacher and a good one. Franklin is very good. He is fond of facts, fascinated with reason and inclined toward discussion, both intelligent and moderate.

But do not think for a moment that Franklin was not willing to be angry or unwilling to use strong language. He knew that civility is not a one way street. He was a leader in revolution, at times, a soldier and a master of spies.

We need Franklin’s example now, more than ever. Franklin believed in virtue, virtue ethics like those practiced by the Greeks. That system says that we do the right thing because it is a better way to live, that it has benefits and we profit by them.

Those benefits are generally internal, how we feel about ourselves, others, this life or the next one. But Franklin takes it to a place where we can see that you can be virtuous and effective, honest and successful, hard-working and prosperous. He takes virtue ethics and shows how when applied with diligence and intelligence, a balanced life is possible.

The Greeks of the Classical Age believed in the moderation in all things. I do not. Neither did Franklin.

However, we can certainly say that Franklin believed in moderation in most things and recommended such to others.

Let that be our lesson today.

James Pilant