October 3, 2003 -- A group of Southern Methodist University students recently taught a lesson in practical philosophy better than those they are likely to receive in their classes, and the recipients of the lesson are hopping mad. To demonstrate the moral absurdity of the kind of affirmative action principles practiced by many colleges and universities, the SMU students applied the principle to a bake sale. The price of a cookie for a white male was 1 dollar; for a female, 75 cents; for a Hispanic, 50 cents; and for a black, 25 cents.
Individuals who believe that admissions standards at universities should be discounted based on race, gender, ethnic origin or other accidents of birth didn't like the idea of similar discounts on the price of cookies. This is interesting because the usual complaint is that stores in black neighborhoods, often run by enterprising Asians, charge prices much higher than in suburban stores - never mind that they often have higher incidents of crime, lower volume and higher overhead costs.
The price of a cookie for a white male was 1 dollar; for a female, 75 cents; for a Hispanic, 50 cents; and for a black, 25 cents.
Affirmative action proponents were insulted and outraged by the bake sale. They felt it was demeaning. On "Good Morning America," interviewer Charlie Gibson kept asking one of the students involved if he thought the bake sale was hurtful. Naturally, the affirmative action proponents reacted emotionally because they couldn't react rationally: that would have entailed a rejection of their own principle as insulting, outrageous, demeaning and hurtful. It is also interesting that they were so outraged over something as small as cookies, when affirmative action in universities affects millions of individuals and billions of dollars of services.
In a rational culture individuals would be judged, in the words of Martin Luther King, not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character -- or, in the case of college admissions, by their academic and other relevant achievements. Of course, in a society in which governments did not run or fund educational institutes, those institutes would be free to set whatever standards they want. Some might even seek students from different backgrounds to enhance the diversity of ideas. But affirmative action advocates often believe that an individual's identity is a function of race, gender or ethnic origin, that groups are in a constant power struggle with one another, and that they should seek special privileges, usually backed by government force.
Advocates often disguise this principle in platitudes about the importance of higher education. They don't like it when their principle is revealed - as in the bake sale -- as the moral mud that it is and they have their noses rubbed in it.
The moral nature of this form of discrimination was also made clear in the recent controversy over radio host Rush Limbaugh's remarks, made on a sports show, to the effect that the media were overrating the Philadelphia Eagles' Donovan McNabb because they wanted to have a successful example of a black quarterback. Whether Limbaugh's charge is true or not, one can understand the moral issue involved. In American sports, skill and talent is what counts. Black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Irish, Italian, Jewish - it doesn't matter. Sports teams take pride in picking players who are the best and who win games. For individuals to give praise or privileges to players not for their achievements but because of their race or ethnic group would fly in the face of the principle of judging individuals on their merits.
If granting special privileges in the sale of cookies or promotion of quarterbacks based on race, gender or ethnicity is insulting and degrading, the same principle when applied to college admissions must be judged the same as well. True individualists will want to be judged not by the genes and chromosomes from which they are made but by what they make of their own character and soul.
Edward Hudgins writes on political and social issues. He is the editor of Freedom to Trade: Refuting the New Protectionism, Space: The Free Market Frontier, and two books on postal service privatization. His latest collection is entitled An Objectivist Secular Reader. He is director of advocacy for The Atlas Society.