U01: Affirmative Action

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, affirmative action is defined as “an active effort to improve the employment or educational opportunities of members of minority groups and women” (Merriam-Webster). The intent of affirmative action seems to be a sound, ethical decision to allow minority groups the opportunities that otherwise would not be afforded to them such as acceptance to a prestigious university. It seems straightforward from the Utilitarian Approach when considering a large number of applicants that the most “good” that can be done includes giving the opportunity to attend university to those of a minority group, in this case, based on race. However, the education institutions that adopt these affirmative action policies may not be doing the most good and therefore may need to reconsider their decisions. At what point does the opportunity provided by affirmative action for one group become discriminatory practices for another making the policy unethical?

A case currently in the media is the lawsuit against Harvard University, where students are claiming that Harvard’s use of affirmative action discriminates against Asian-Americans. When utilizing the non-consequentialist theories, it’s apparent that the affirmative action policies may not be the most ethical decision in determining college acceptances. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said, “As a recipient of taxpayer dollars, Harvard has a responsibility to conduct its admissions policy without racial discrimination” (Benner). That perspective speaks directly to the duty approach. As an institution that receives public funds, Harvard should follow the law and not show prejudice in its acceptance policies and practices. This duty framework would allow for applicants of all races to receive equal consideration for acceptance based on their merit and performance in academia. The race component, by law, should not be used to determine who should and should not be accepted. The use of affirmative action, if found to be discriminatory would be against the law and unethical.

The Justice Department stated “Harvard has failed to carry its demanding burden to show that its use of race does not inflict unlawful discrimination on Asian-Americans” (Benner). Using the fairness or justice approach, those making the acceptance policies and decisions need to put themselves in the shoes of the applicants and consider that all applicants should have equal treatment when being considered for acceptance or rejection. The requirement for college acceptance should not differ because of the applicant’s race. Asian-American students who excel academically should not be held to higher standards and overlooked for African-American, Latino, or other groups; all applicants should be treated equal.


Bonde, S., Firenze, P., Green, J., Grinberg, M., Korijin, J., Levoy, E., Naik, A., Ucik, L., & Weisberg, L. (2013, May). A framework for making ethical decisions. Retrieved from http://www.brown.edu/academics/science-and-technology-studies/framework-making-ethical-decisions


Benner, K. (2018, August 30). Justice Dept. Backs Suit Accusing Harvard of Disciminating Against Asisan-American Applicants. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/30/us/politics/asian-students-affirmative-action-harvard.html


Affirmative Action [Def.1]. (n.d.). Merriam-Webster Online . In Merriam-Webster. Retrieved September 20, 2018, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/affirmative%20action


  1. Nadia Patterson September 21, 2018 at 10:32 AM #

    Hi Julley,

    In my opinion affirmative action is based on the duty ethical framework that seeks to “perform the right action” by allowing minority segments of society opportunities that the majority segment enjoys. When it first started many years ago, it operated exactly that way, but I think like many other things got distorted over years. Just like hiring somebody with disability, just because they have a disability it does not excuse you from poor performance. We still expect the individual to be able to perform regardless whether they were hired through a disability program or an affirmative action program. The same goes for academic institutions, you must do well academically, regardless of your race or gender. Affirmative action is no excuse for admitting individuals that have no strong academic performance track record. Over the years, the conditions in our society somewhat changed, and I think affirmative action does more harm than good, because it takes away from the individual achievement.

  2. Autumn Paje Ghigiarelli September 21, 2018 at 7:46 AM #

    Thanks so very much for your discussion around this issue. When studying ethical theories and frameworks in an academic, or even training, setting, it is easy to assess the overall harm or good a decision might have on a given group of individuals; however, in ethics in practice often produce somewhat different results. Your story seems like a perfect example: affirmative action was meant to level the playing field for some groups, so-to-speak, but ended up causing unforeseen harm and discrimination to other groups. This show’s how multifaceted ethical issues can be and the need to apply ethical frameworks across entire situations rather than portions. Utilizing Padilla, Hogan, and Kaiser’s (2007) toxic triangle to ethical dilemmas, enables one to look at all contributing aspects to a toxic/unethical situation including toxic leaders, susceptible followers, and conducive environments. Specific to this situation, assessing the leaders, who as you note were not empathizing with the condition of the applicants, could have brought a spotlight to the discrimination to bring about action to remediate expeditiously.

    Padilla, A., Hogan, R., Kaiser, R. B. (2007). The toxic triangle: Destructive leaders, susceptible followers, and conducive environments. The Leadership Quarterly,18(3), 176-194.

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