by Dan Hausman •
Like many of my colleagues in the philosophy department, I have been disturbed by the low level of public discourse in the United States, whether it is a matter of understanding the natural sciences (as in discussions of climate change or the teaching of biology), the social sciences (as in discussions of social and economic policy), or ethics (as in the discussion of contemporary moral issues such as abortion, capital punishment, or affirmative action). In the hopes of making a small contribution to our community, members of the philosophy department plan from time to time to give lectures addressing these issues from a philosophical point of view.
I agreed to give the first of these lectures in February, on preferential admissions at UW-Madison. For many years, I have discussed affirmative action in Philosophy 341–”Contemporary Moral Issues”–which is taken by hundreds of students every semester. I don’t think that the answers are easy. If they were, one would not expect controversy to persist for decades.
But, like many others here on campus, I was upset by the accusations the Center for Equal Opportunity made this past fall that preferential admissions here at UW Madison were extreme and unfair. It seemed an apt time to give a lecture that examines carefully some of the arguments both supporting and opposing preferential admissions to selective universities, such as ours.
In my lecture, I do not offer an overall judgment. Whether preferential admissions is a good idea or not depends on its consequences and on what alternatives there are, and there is no way to discuss everything that is relevant in a single lecture. Instead, I shall probably annoy everybody by criticizing both the most common argument made against preferential admissions (that it constitutes racism in reverse) and the most common argument made in defense of affirmative action (that it is a way of rectifying past injustice). I will then argue that there is a strong case to be made for preferential admissions as a way of lessening inequalities in opportunity. But it would take a great deal more than one hour to make a decisive case in favor of preferential admissions.
In the lecture, I hope to illustrate what philosophical argument has to contribute to the resolution of public controversies. Philosophical argument is no substitute for the information provided by social scientists. On the contrary, it depends heavily on their work. Nor is it a substitute for the appreciation of the character of human aspiration, experience, and potentiality that the creative arts and students of languages, cultures, and the creative arts can provide.
But, in its sometimes maddeningly careful treatment of argument, philosophical analysis can help to clarify our thinking and our objectives. In particular, I hope on the 22nd to help my audience to avoid some common confusions concerning preferential admissions. If disagreements remain, they will, I hope, rest on genuine considerations that favor one view or another rather than on mistaken arguments.
The lecture is entitled, “Preferential Admissions at UW: Equal Opportunity or Unfair Discrimination.” It will take place at 7:00 PM on Wednesday, February 22 in Room 1100 in Grainger Hall. All are welcome.
[Dan Hausman is the Herbert A. Simon and Hilldale Professor in the department of philosophy, where he has taught a wide variety of courses since 1988. He works on issues that lie at the boundaries between economics and philosophy ranging from metaphysical questions concerning causation, through epistemological questions concerning economics to ethical questions concerning welfare and justice.]