The concepts of diversity, equity and inclusion have gained in popularity in recent years among the political left, including university administrations and corporate HR departments. To those who believe no individual is intrinsically more valuable than any other, this trend is troubling. While inclusion is a good thing, valuing diversity and equity with regard to immutable characteristics is unethical. Naturally occurring diversity and equity are indications—though not proof—of a tolerant and inclusive society. A lack of diversity and equity may indicate bias. However, active pursuit of these ideals requires disregarding the basic, universalist ethics that civil rights leaders fought and died to achieve for everyone.
The pursuit of diversity—on a university or corporate campus, for example—involves crafting selection criteria that yield the desired assortment of immutable or quasi-immutable characteristics among the body of people in question, at the expense of relevant neutral selection criteria, such as merit or competence. This selection is usually designed to mimic the distribution of immutable traits among the local or national population. The rationale behind the push for diversity is that our intrinsic differences make us valuable. The more difference one brings to a given body, the more value. This is troubling in itself—but, to make matters worse, in practice, immutable characteristics are often used as a proxy for more substantial and meaningful differences, such as diversity of perspective or experience.
Imagine one hundred white male conservatives. Which person would add more diversity to that group: Bernie Sanders or a black woman? Bernie Sanders is radically different from most conservatives, but someone advocating diversity would probably pick the black woman. However, can one say with confidence that the inclusion of the black woman will increase diversity of perspective or experience within this group? What if the black woman were the conservative Candace Owens? Perhaps one might argue that she would contribute a black or female perspective—but what does that mean? Since they are both rappers with disadvantaged backgrounds, the black Tupac Shakur’s experiences are probably more comparable with the white Eminem’s than with those of the son of an affluent black man, like Denzel Washington. A similar question can be asked for the female experience.
Another argument for preferring Candace Owens over Bernie Sanders might be that our groups ought to represent the people they serve. The problem with the statement is what is meant by represent. If your immutable characteristics are a core part of your identity, then to be represented means to have those characteristics represented. This means, for example, that Kay Ivey, the female governor of Alabama who has recently enacted the US’s toughest abortion law, somehow represents the interests of feminist Alabama women more than a pro-choice male governor would. There is no reason to believe that we cannot be represented by those who do not look like us. The intense identification of people with their immutable traits often leads to those who buck the ideological trends of their groups being branded as race, gender or sexual traitors, sometimes with tragic consequences. This identitarianism also, ironically, fuels the white supremacy movement.
Aside from their general ideological uniformity, we know almost nothing about the experiences of the one hundred white male conservatives in our example. All we know is that they supposedly all benefit from white male privilege, but as this example shows, we ought to question if we can even make that claim. In practice, the pursuit of diversity requires making generalizations based on immutable characteristics: such as the assumptions that minority individuals are all underprivileged and have similar perspectives, and all members of majority groups are privileged and have similar perspectives. The theory driving diversity pursuits encourages us to value certain immutable characteristics over others. This is troubling for the following reasons:
- Benefiting an individual at the non-consensual expense of another individual is inherently immoral.
- Valuing one individual over another on the basis of race, gender or other immutable characteristics is inherently immoral.
- Valuing diversity of immutable characteristics means valuing some individuals over others on that basis.
- Crafting selection criteria that ensure diversity of immutable characteristics necessitates harming one group of individuals at the expense of another group on that basis.
Points one and two are basic moral principles. Points three and four are the logical conclusions of pursuing diversity as a value in itself.
In theory, the term equity, used in a Social Justice context, means fairness of treatment for women and men according to their respective needs. It also applies to characteristics like race and ethnicity. In practice, equity means equal outcomes among groups.
Equity of outcome and equity of opportunity are usually mutually exclusive. Groups differ for a variety of reasons, including natural, cultural and environmental factors. These differences produce disparate results. This is generally acknowledged when discussing disparities that favor women, such as the higher rates of male vs. female incarceration, but is extremely controversial when discussing disparities that favor men, such as the higher numbers of men in STEM, as James Damore discovered.
To combat sex disparities in political representation, some countries and institutions have instituted strict equity quotas. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has selected a cabinet of 50% women and 50% men; Australia has committed to a parliament of at least 40% women and to ensuring that 50% of government board positions are allocated to women. In the US, the DNC has declared that all committees and similar bodies will be split equally between (self-identified) men and women, with a variance no greater than one. Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg has recently announced his plan to appoint a cabinet comprising of at least 50% women, if elected. In total, 80 countries have instituted gender quotas of some kind.
It would be disastrous to apply such equity principles to the prison population or to workplace fatalities. Jonathan Haidt further demonstrates the problem with equity principals in this analogy between a fictitious Bush administration policy that punishes schools that suspend more boys than girls and a real Obama administration policy that punishes schools that suspend more black than whites.
The rationale behind equity policies is that the demographics of certain bodies would mirror the demographics of the population, in the absence of any systemic cultural or institutional injustices. In other words, without external factors to impede the success of historically marginalized groups, outcomes would be equally distributed. This neglects to take into account both natural and environmental/cultural differences between groups. The logic is also applied selectively. Statistics demonstrating a disparity between blacks and whites are hence taken as evidence of systemic racism, but the same disparity between whites and Asians is not (and usually goes unmentioned). Coleman Hughes calls this the disparity fallacy. Black intellectuals like Hughes, Thomas Sowell, Glenn Loury and John McWhorter have discussed this fallacy at length.
If selection criteria are designed to promote equity, some individuals must benefit at the expense of others, on the basis of their immutable characteristics. Given a finite number of positions, this is a mathematically necessary and indefensible consequence.
The Path Forward
Historically, some groups have enjoyed systemic cultural and institutional privileges over other groups, privileges that have had lasting impacts on both. The problem with diversity and equity is that, rather than correct for the injustices, they only reverse their flow. They also replace a superior set of values—all people are equal; means do not justify ends; individualism—with an inferior set—immutable characteristics give people value; ends justify means; collectivism.
Society ought not to value the trivial differences that divide us, such as sexuality, gender and race, but focus on those differences that can bring about greater social and scientific enlightenment, such as differences in perspective and experience. We also ought to value the qualifications and competencies an individual brings to a given task, while recognizing our biases and reevaluating our definitions of merit accordingly. This will help us achieve an inclusive and just society.
To do this, we must accurately describe the universal ideals that unite all people and continue to advocate for those who are included in theory, but left out in practice. In other words, we must live up to the spirit of our founding documents. We must defeat competing values in the marketplace of ideas and articulate why supposedly western values, such as freedom, due process, primacy of the individual and respect for personal autonomy are in fact universal values. This means that we must evaluate economic and social policies in accordance with how they forward these universal ideals.
The recently announced and subsequently cancelled SAT adversity score was a good example of the direction in which our society should move. Not because condensing adversity into a single statistic is an optimal evaluation criterion (it probably isn’t), but because the measure was an attempt to reward merit, while addressing the systematic undervaluation of some, usually minority students, without making race a proxy for adversity. Unfortunately, the policy was cancelled rather than reconsidered.
If we can agree on our ideals, value meaningful differences, reward merit, root out our biases and tackle cultural and institutional practices that value some over others, then we can create a more just and inclusive world. This is a tall order—but it’s worth a try.