Nation of Beancounters

Diversity is the opposite of equality

Posted in Explained from Scratch by Navin Kumar on June 27, 2014

There are two popular arguments for affirmative action. These are the Argument from Equality and the Argument from Diversity.

The Argument from Equality says that people from different genders, races, castes etc are the same. Members of these groups are equally hardworking, intelligent, enterprising etc. If one group is underrepresented in a field, it isn’t because of the personal characteristics of that group. Blame typically falls on “discrimination” – people treating individuals differently on account of prejudiced beliefs about their race, caste, gender etc. Affirmative action is required to fight such harmful prejudice.

The Argument from Diversity says that people from different social groups aren’t the same. They have different experiences, ideas, strengths etc.  Members of a minority group have insights that members of the majority group don’t. Decision making, learning etc is better when there are a variety of perspectives at the table. Thus, preferential treatment for underrepresented minorities is desirable.

Both arguments conclude that institutions should provide favorable treatment to underrepresented social groups. However, they have opposing premises. The Argument from Equality assumes that all people are the same.  Thus, under-representation is an injustice. The Argument from Diversity assumes that people from different social groups are different. Thus, some people to have insights that others lack.

A priori, there is nothing fallacious about either argument. However, a person must choose which of the two opposing premises he or she agrees with. If women are different from men, then perhaps it is these differences, rather than workplace discrimination, that causes women to earn less than men. The Argument from Equality fails. If women are the same as men, there is no valuable insight that they bring that men lack. The Argument from Diversity fails. You can either argue from equality, or from diversity, but not both.

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3 Responses

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  1. Arnav Kacker said, on June 27, 2014 at 1:53 pm

    While this works as a basic argument, there remains a point to be made regarding compartmentalization. In a system populated with a large number of players, simplification rests on finding common traits and reducing individuals to more manageable groups. However, when the system in theory considers an individual as a unit but often relies on compartments for identification, we reach a stumbling block.

    Even if the argument for equality fails (whe men and women are different and maybe the variance in position is a reflection of those differences and choices) and if the argument for diversity isn’t convincing (re: value of differences, one perspective simply being better/broader/more relevant etc.), we still need to address the question of exceptions within compartments. If we accept a system as fair because it’s an individualistic meritocracy, it needs to embrace those ideals, inconveniences and all, to make room for those exceptions within underrepresented minorities which share traits with favoured groups to get equality of opportunity.

    • Navin Kumar said, on June 27, 2014 at 2:00 pm

      I agree. Perhaps our best bet is to embrace the moral norm “You should never judge someone based on an immutable characteristic” like race, gender, caste etc.

      However, some people don’t trust others to embrace this wholly, or believe that unconscious prejudice will exert itself, or think that the weight of history is too much. Such people argue for affirmative action. Unfortunately, they often argue in a confused manner, from both diversity AND equality.

  2. xyz said, on June 27, 2014 at 4:42 pm

    i am just thinking through this … but this seems like a very simplistic binary analysis … in the sense that real life is inevitably a mixture of the two … for example its not like all female candidates are 100% different from men so you hire them on the basis of how different (or how feminine?) they are … so a candidate may be 80% good at the things the male candidate is doing and bring in a new perspective as well (coz of her different experiences, etc.) its very difficult to then quantify if the difference measure up to the missing 20% coz they are based on different systems of evaluation …. to take a different example … say a planning commission consists of mainly upper caste members … their background will influence the structure and the goals of the organisation … a dalit employee may show some competence in fulfilling those goals but not as much as a upper caste candidate .. yet he has a different background and different experiences so he may bring in a new dimension and a new set of goals to the organisation which may even contradict the earlier established/’official’ goals of the organisation … so then how will you decide ? on the basis of the equality paradigm, he is not equal enough and on the basis of the diversity paradigm he may not be dalit enough …..
    i think you have assumed that individuals are either this or that and that organisations are stable unchangeable entities with objectively determined policies and philosophies … i doubt that things are always as innocent.


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