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Why positive discrimination is actually a step backwards

Equality is a laudable social goal – about this there can be no doubt. It’s a truism to say that women and members of the LGBT and BAME communities are under-represented in business and politics. Only a quarter of board members of FTSE 350 companies are female. A mere 52 BAME MPs were returned to the House of Commons in the 2017 general election, and yet this was the most diverse Parliament on record. I could cite a litany of statistics in the same vein as these.

A cursory examination of these leads one to a solution which, on first glance, seems  compelling. If disproportionately few minorities are admitted to Oxbridge, or sit on company boards – the argument goes – we should simply make those institutions accept a certain proportion of these groups. We should apply legal or financial sanctions against bodies that fail to do this.

This idea of ‘positive discrimination’ has gained much traction. And for good reason: it’s an alluring answer. But, as HL Mencken notoriously once said, for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple – and wrong.Positive discrimination is a sledge-hammer. It gets the job done – not prettily, not sustainably – but bluntly and effectively. And this is okay if one believes that the ends always justify the means.

Yet positive discrimination – by seeing not the individual, but the group to which that individual belonged – erodes the meritocratic principle.

But the reality is more problematic. For a principle is at stake, which is corroded by positive discrimination. This principle is that of meritocracy, which would inevitably founder in the face of positive discrimination carried out from unimpeachably pure motives. In a competitive admissions system, someone succeeding means someone else failing. We justify this by saying that the successful candidate was more meritorious than the failed candidate, and thus more deserving of success. Yet positive discrimination – by seeing not the individual, but the group to which that individual belonged – erodes the meritocratic principle.

The benefits of a true meritocracy are manifold. As well as the obvious advantages – greater efficiency, a more effective workforce, etc. – I’d argue there’s also a moral argument to be made. Intuitively, it seems iniquitous that a well-suited person should be deprived of the benefits of their expertise because of discrimination, on the grounds that we have endowed the end goal of that discrimination with social value.

Once done, positive discrimination cannot easily be undone.

By diluting merit-based accomplishment in this fashion, we unfairly cast doubt on the suitability of successful candidates. How could one not feel patronised if you got a job not because of merit, or ability – but because your employer felt it’d boost their statistics. Readers who remember Sports Day at school will remember how disdainfully we treated the participation certificates handed out to every student. We focus on statistics, which measure the grand arc of social development. But, in doing so, it’s easy to forget that statistics represent individual lives, which are dramatically affected by policies like positive discrimination.

When I once had to argue in favour of positive discrimination in a debating competition, I thought I stumbled on a trump card with which to defeat any opposition. “Aha,” I said, “let’s have quotas – but only temporarily.” But, upon revisiting this view, I find it unconvincing. It would take a simply enormous amount of political willpower to withdraw the benefits conferred upon a particular group once the allotted timespan had elapsed – doing so would be a vote-loser. Once done, positive discrimination cannot easily be undone.

A sustainable solution for systemic inequalities within society will recognise the delicacy required to achieve a fair outcome.

There are practical questions which need to be answered. According to the Women’s Engineering Society, only 15% of STEM undergraduates are female. Given this gender deficit, expecting engineering companies to have a workforce comprised 50% of women seems like an unrealistic expectation. Those who argue in favour of positive discrimination do so, I have no doubt, for the very best of intentions. But positive discrimination is the wrong tool for the job. A sustainable solution for systemic inequalities within society will recognise the delicacy required to achieve a fair outcome. Positive discrimination is an over-powerful battering-ram. We should not use it.

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