Throughout history, perpetual conflict has existed between what is fair and what is practiced in the distribution of societal goods. The modern arena has raved incessantly on how to fairly distribute admissions to selective universities. Fairness, the ever-debated word, may seem simple at a glance, however it is highly subjective, especially in a purported free society such as the United States. In a culture that understands humans to be generally self-serving, that organizes government to counter overly ambitious parties, and that believes in staunch individualism, it is certainly conceivable how such a conflict of interests could arise.
The spectrum of potential solutions is diverse and wide reaching, but extensively stratified beliefs prevent an easy solution. Affirmative action represents the 21st century’s embodiment of the fight for a more just distribution of societal goods. The fairness aspect of equality of opportunity puts into conflict, to a large extent, procedural fairness on one end of the spectrum, or equality of life chances on the other. A utopian society does not exist, thus as stated, procedural fairness and equality of life chances occupy hopelessly irreconcilable and contradictory positions.
Both conceptions attempt to realize a single truism; that if people believe a system is fair from their personal and inherently selfish perspective, they will be more inclined to follow the established rules of society (Rawls 6). Procedural fairness embodies the commonly held notion that it is inequitable to treat one person differently than another. It maintains that impartiality is necessary and only relevant personal characteristics be considered in college admissions. On the surface it appears that this notion of distribution would end all argument as to fairness, however it assumes two fundamental premises incorrectly.
First, that all people have equal talents in the eyes of society, and second, that all people have had an equal opportunity to develop their respective talents (Rawls 58). John Rawls states that theoretically procedural fairness is the most logical means of distribution, however reality intervenes, insisting that due to stark inequalities during early life experience, implementing a procedurally fair system in later life is only truly beneficial to those who were able to gain the most from their experiences in early childhood (Rawls 16).
Based on the premise that people have an unequal opportunity to develop their talents, “background fairness,” or accounting for ones early misfortunes by evaluating their potential, would have to be taken into account (Fishkin 21). Although highly difficult to assess, by retrospectively compensating individuals for deficiencies that were incurred outside of their control, society takes on a more truly fare face in realizing equality of life chances (Fishkin 32).
It may well also be argued that such a system could help discourage widespread racially based income disparities, and increase the perception of an equal society, which as Rawls states, will lead to a more efficient and progressive culture (5). “Procedural fairness” and “equality of life chances” both aim to build a more just society, but their contradictory nature prevents cooperation. While “procedural fairness” has advantages, it exhibits irreconcilable deficiencies that are addressed by “equality of life chances. ” Consideration of ethnicity in admissions to selective universities is a highly charged topic.
Opponents and proponents alike have compelling cases for their respective stances on the issue. The opponent’s argue that consideration of race is improper on several valid bases and that procedural fairness is the only just method of admitting students. First, using group preferences, a common alternative to procedurally fair admissions, is morally and empirically wrong. On the moral front, providing a significant point advantage towards admission to students solely based on their membership in a particular group does not account for individuality (Thernstrom 394).
Furthermore, by undertaking such a halfhearted practice, less advantaged students that cannot claim membership in the favored racial group are further disadvantaged in admissions by the proverbial rising tide appended to others. Meanwhile, highly privileged members of the favored race are even further advantaged simply due to their claim of membership, thus the tide has brought their yacht up even higher (Thernstrom 413). Ethnicity is not the appropriate engine for a just distribution.