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  • Writer's pictureArdeshir

Utopia State University

Updated: Jan 13

It was right before the pandemic. I was attending a faculty meeting. These days the meetings usually lack any uncomfortable conversation. We have successfully eliminated all tension between our being and becoming. Conflict of thoughts is avoided and conformity of opinions is encouraged. That meeting turned out to be a different experience, though. The director of graduate studies proposed eliminating the requirement of the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) as a criterion for admitting graduate students to our program. I fiercely opposed the idea on two grounds. First, I argued that it is more objective to screen out competent candidates based on a standard test that provides a leveled ground for comparison. Second, I shared my personal story that the GRE played an important role in my success. During my Ph.D. interview, my former advisor asked me – how do you convince me that you deserve this opportunity? You don't have a strong scientific background – she said. I replied I have a GRE score within the top 3 percentile of all test takers. My point was that the GRE can provide equal opportunity for individuals to demonstrate their talents through a leveled competition. Proponents of removing the standard test requirement had two points. First, there is no correlation between the GRE score and long-term academic success. Second, some groups of people do not do as well as other groups of people when it comes to the GRE score. The pandemic hit and many graduate programs dropped the GRE requirement. It puzzled me. Why are we dropping our merit-based criteria? Why do we expect all groups, genders, and races to perform equally in the test? Is it about groups or individuals? Regardless of the relevance and quality of the GRE, I soon realized that the conversation around the subject is just a small part of a much broader doctrine of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

I found myself torn and conflicted about complex and multi-dimensional moral questions. How should we prioritize the admission of graduate students or the hiring of faculty – based on merit, equality, or diversity? Shall we prioritize the hiring of those who are labeled as disadvantaged? How can we judge who is disadvantaged and who is not? Who has to decide? Can we deprive someone of her intellectual properties and rights, presumably because of the wrongdoing of her ancestors? How much and for how long are we responsible for the wrongdoing of the past? Does it have any bearing on us as independent, free, and sovereign individuals? Shall we strive to have an equal number of students based on race, ethnicity, and gender in an academic environment? What is my mission as an educator – to expand and disseminate knowledge or promote social virtues? Do those who preach about the agenda have any skin in the game? These questions were crowding in on me and embarked on a journey of making myself familiar with theories of moral and political philosophy.

Classic and modern theories of justice transition amongst three fundamental principles: promoting virtues (Aristotelian), maximization of welfare (utilitarian), and individual freedom (libertarian) [1]. Let us run a thought experiment. Candidates A and B are finalists in a search for faculty hiring. It is objectively clear to the majority of the selection committee that B has stronger academic merits than A. However, A has a convincing statement in his application materials and claims to be among a historically disadvantaged minority group. The committee faces a moral dilemma about how to prioritize the hiring – A on the grounds of diversity, equality, and inclusion or B on the grounds of merit.

Choosing A over B can hardly be explained by the utilitarian theory of justice – maximizing utility for the greatest number of people (Jeremy Bentham, 1748-1832). If B has higher academic merits than A now, it is logical to deduce that B has a higher potential than A in providing greater utility to future students and the academic community as a whole. Even though, the uncertainty around such a predictive deduction is considerably large. When it comes to individual freedom, moral analysis becomes multifaceted. From a Kantian perspective, our sovereign master is the reason as a rational being and not the utility that might emerge in terms of maximization of pleasure and minimization of pain. We are free autonomous beings when we live according to our own reasons and motives, voluntarily undertaken, and not the product of distorting external forces [3]. We are autonomous beings if we live by laws that we accept to impose upon ourselves as an end and not merely a means. Are we violating the autonomy of B by choosing A? Is this the principle we accept to be applied to us?

How can we shed light on the moral dilemma by resorting to John Rawls’ original position of justice? Rawls argues that the principles of justice emerge from the original position of equality, under the veil of ignorance [2]. A hypothetical conception under which we have no a priori knowledge about our natural endowments and future social positions. We do not know if we will end up poor or rich, strong or weak, smart or stupid, gifted or inept, beautiful or ugly. No one can design and organize the social structure to her advantage. Let us suppose that we are behind the veil of ignorance and do not know whether we would be A or B. What would be the principles of justice we would like to invoke? To position ourselves as A will involve luck and choice but in the case of B, we are purely destined by our individual choices, independent of our random membership to a group, race, or identity.

How about the Aristotelian theory of justice? Justice emerges in our social construct to materialize the concept of a good life and social virtues for the greater good of the community. Honor, virtue, and moral desert can override individual liberty for the greater good of the community. We cannot consider ourselves a patriot but ignore our responsibilities for the historical wrongdoing of our community. This theory justifies the selection of A over B in our thought experiment. For the greater good of the science community, we need to have faculties from all races, genders, and places of origin. Certainly, this brings us face to face in confrontation with a fundamental moral question. When can we invade individual liberty in the name of virtues and honors?

A path of life promised by merit engages us with our highest faculty, promotes personal and collective responsibility, and makes our lives directed and more meaningful, where happiness can emerge as an epiphenomenon [4]. John Stwart Mills (1806-1873) writes in his book On Liberty (1859), “The human faculties, judgment, discriminative feeling, mental activities, and even moral preferences are exercised only in making a choice…He who chooses his plan for himself employs all his faculties”. We have a tendency in our hearts and a temptation to believe that the suffering of our human fellows will vanish in a utopia where we are all equal. This brings us to the grip of this question. Can that utopia offer freedom and meaning to our individual lives? William Durant in his book The Lessons of History (1968) writes “Leave men free, and their natural inequalities will multiply almost geometrically.” Rectifying natural inequalities comes with the expense of limiting individual liberty often in the name of social and moral virtues. Robert Nozick [6] offers a solution. Those who want to promote equality of outcome in academic environments can join communes with the consent that they are willing to give up their current positions and future opportunities in favor of disadvantaged members of a much broader community.

After two years of reflecting and reading, I could not yet go beyond what Milton Friedman concluded [5]. “A society that puts equality…ahead of freedom will end up with neither equality nor freedom…a society that puts freedom first will, as a happy by-product, end up with both greater freedom and greater equality.” I freely admit such conclusions should be built upon a broader foundation of moral philosophy. My hope is that intellectual developments in other directions would empower us to heal our collective historical trauma and move on to nurture our progressive being by continually updating our principles and judgments in light of one another and making the academic world a better place for those who are determined to cultivate their talents and exercise their ingenuity.

Minneapolis, MN 9/26/2023

[1] Michael J. Sandel (2010), Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?

[2] John Rawls (1971), A Theory of Justice

[3] Emmanuel Kant (1785), Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals

[4] Viktor E. Frankl (1946), Man's Search for Meaning

[5] Milton and Rose Friedman (1980), Free to Choose, A Personal Statement

[6] Robert Nozick (1974), Anarchy, State, and Utopia

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