Affirmative action, also known as positive discrimination, is the
act of deliberately giving preferential treatment to some
marginalized group. For example, women could be given additional
points when applying for engineering-school, or someone who is
disabled could be given preference when applying for a job.
When such positive discrimination happens, you always hear
complaints. Complaints that it’s not “fair”. Complaints that “she
got the job just because she’s a woman”, or “he got into that
university just because he’s in a wheelchair.” Nobody should get
“special treatment”, they say. For a fair world, everyone should be
treated the same, they say.
The people complaining are invariably privileged. Educated,
healthy and wealthy and conveniently forget that they themselves
got special treatment in a multitude of small and big ways,
starting before they where even born.
They grew up in the womb of a mother who was well-fed and had
adequate access to good-quality medical care. Then they were born
in a modern hospital with the best doctors, medicines and machinery
A few days later they came home – to a house where the roof does
not leak, where there is adequate heating in winter, and cooling in
summer. Where fresh healthy water runs freely. Where the beds are
soft and the neighbourhood safe. Where books and toys are
plentiful. Where smart, healthy and intelligent parents do their
very best, using their considerable resources to give the best
possible start in a new life. Where there’s plenty of varied,
healthy and safe food on the table several times each and every
All this before they even utter their first word.
You don’t get to pick your parents. Your time or place of birth.
Your gender or your genes. It’s a lottery. It infuriates me how
many have themselves had the luck of picking a winning-number, but
have no compassion for those who didn’t.
Hard work influences outcomes. A tiny bit. If you study hard and
work diligently, you may succeed in doing somewhat better than the
average person of comparable luck.
But the lottery-part dominates.
Even the laziest, stupidest, unkindest, do-nothing son of a
millionaire in most cases end up financially much better off that
the most hard-working girl born in the slum. Even the laziest
stupidest Norwegian has a standard of living that is higher than
90% of humanity.
We tell people, “if you work hard, you’ll make it”, and sometimes
that’s true. But we seldom tell them the depressing truth: If you
are going to do well, or suffer horribly in life, is mostly
determined by luck.
What philosophical principle makes “special” treatment due to
having won the birth-lottery fair, but “special” treatment by the
government in an attempt to compensate slightly for the grossly
slanted playing-field unfair ?