Encyclopedia of Business and Professional Ethics

Living Edition
| Editors: Deborah C Poff, Alex C. Michalos

Affirmative Action in Business

  • J. Angelo CorlettEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-23514-1_12-1


Affirmative action is a legally and policy-based practice in the USA in which various programs target individuals who are members of particular ethnic groups and white women in order to achieve certain aims of broader public policies such as equal opportunity in education and employment. Such policy aims are not always clear. But they range from desired equality of opportunities for the least advantaged in society to desired “diversity” among members of a particular environment to the provision of what certain classes of people deserve in light of historic harmful wrongdoings which they or their ancestors have experienced in the USA as a class of people. There is affirmative action in all ranks of education and affirmative action in business with regard to the hiring and retaining of persons into the workplace. While affirmative action is often confused with reparations of the compensatory variety, the latter are paid to those whose rights have been violated (or to their heirs), while the former often target those who are perceived to have been disadvantaged or whose inclusion in business contexts creates and sustains the perceived value of “diversity.”

In the USA, affirmative action in business occurs in at least two broad ways. One way in which it occurs is at the level of hiring at the executive level, and the other happens at the employee or nonmanagement level. In either case, the usual reason for it is to balance business with a diversity of peoples for the sake of equality of opportunity and representation of such groups in business. Exactly what is meant by “equality” and “diversity” is uncertain. However, it is clear that forward-looking utilitarian justifications for such affirmative action policies are most often provided for most supporters of such affirmative action policies and programs.

Generally, the utilitarian justification for affirmative action in business is that it provides equality of opportunity to the least advantaged in society so that such persons might be better able to thrive in business, making society stronger because it is more diversified from a business standpoint. Moreover, such affirmative action policies serve to provide positive role models for younger members of such groups targeted by affirmative action policies, thereby providing a stronger business environment for the future for those whose future prospects lie in business.

Detractors of affirmative action policies in business contexts often argue that such policies amount to “reverse discrimination” wherein white males are disadvantaged with respect to affirmative action targets. According to this objection to affirmative action policies and programs, reverse discrimination eliminates fair competition between citizens to compete for employment opportunities. Those who are the most qualified for positions in business contexts ought to be awarded the positions, it is argued. And affirmative action policies and programs thwart such ideals; thereby reducing the competition that is argued would otherwise make for a better future for businesses, qualitatively speaking. Another objection to affirmative action in such contexts is that it fails to target white males who are disadvantaged, though a utilitarian justification of affirmative action seeks to include such disadvantaged white males in order to better society as a whole.

In defense of affirmative action policies and programs and against the first part of the objection, it is replied that the objection in question is sound only in an ideal world where ethnic discrimination and sexism are minimized or absent. But since the USA was founded on and persists as a society having such thoroughgoing problems, policies and programs such as affirmative action are required for the sake of justice and fairness, including equality of opportunity.

It is important to note that the foregoing discussion is largely between opposing parties each of whom is utilitarian in character, wherein it is only future-oriented factors that are important to the discussion of the moral status of affirmative action policies. But there are backward-looking arguments concerning the moral status of said policy.1 One backward-looking objection to a utilitarian approach to affirmative action is that it neglects the rights of the members of targeted groups to compensatory justice. On this view, the aim of affirmative action policies and programs is to provide equality of opportunities in education and employment. If this is true, the objection states, then members of targeted groups have certain rights to affirmative action that imply that there is a duty to governments to provide, rights that cannot be overridden by social utility maximization.2 Thus programs of affirmative action constitute a right that is possessed by members of various groups that have been harmed by and in US society: American Indians, US blacks, etc.

Backward-looking arguments concerning affirmative action policies come in at least two general varieties. One such variety opposes such policies because they constitute programs that are unjust because they are unfair to those who are not targets of such policies. White males who are not included in affirmative action programs, it is argued, have done nothing wrong such that they deserve to be victimized by such policies and programs. Without such policies and programs, it is argued, only the deserving would be hired at whichever level of business. And only the genuinely deserving ought to be hired in the first place. So affirmative action policies and programs ought to be eliminated because they are unjust and unfair to those who are not the targets of them.

In reply to the foregoing backward-looking arguments against affirmative action policies and programs, it is argued that the argument problematically assumes that there is a “level” playing field of competition for employment opportunities in business. However, this assumption is so problematic that it is disingenuous. First, one need not look further than former US President G. W. Bush to understand that if intelligence, honesty, integrity, and the like are necessary or even sufficient conditions of that office, he lacked perhaps every quality that would make for a good president. Yet even a white male as poorly qualified for public office such as Bush was actually “appointed,” however unconstitutionally, as the US president! In US business, it is surely neither a just nor fair playing field. For many a white male in a high profile position holds his position almost solely because of who he knows rather than what he knows or by virtue of otherwise objective qualifications for that position. This is unjust because unfair playing field is so rampant throughout US society that it is disingenuous to deny it. And given its prevalence throughout the US business world, it is argued that affirmative action policies and programs are needed to balance out the undeservedness of so many positions occupied through US history by undeserving white males. Thus the argument from deservedness is turned on its head in favor of affirmative action policies and programs.

But there are those who would argue that even if affirmative action policies and programs are justified in principle, in practice they are problematic and must be rejected and disbanded. They argue, for instance, that “two wrongs don’t make a right” in hiring unqualified folk to “replace” or instead of underqualified white males in business. On this view, affirmative action amounts to “reverse discrimination” and does more harm than good in business contexts because it creates and sustains worker and employer discontent

However, this point seems to assume that such positions in business are somehow owed to white males – even underqualified ones! But surely this cannot be the case even if it is true that the most qualified person ought to be hired. And it is disingenuous and perhaps even racist to assume (absent adequate evidence) that those who are not white males cannot qualify or be trained to qualify for said positions. Yet one reason for the very policies and programs in question is to create and sustain programs that would provide businesses with qualified folk who could occupy such positions, thereby increasing the quality of productivity in businesses overall. College- and university-level affirmative action policies and programs are available to prepare people to qualify for executive or skilled positions in business, while unskilled labor positions can be filled by untrained personnel who qualify as targets of such policies and programs. So here is where the backward-looking argument from desert is coupled with a forward-looking consideration that attempts to maximize social utility, further turning the argument in question against affirmative action policies and programs on its head.

However, there is a new approach to affirmative action that has been developed which affirms the need for such policies and programs but seeks to restructure it in order to rid it of some of its persistent fundamental injustices and unfairnesses. It is primarily a backward-looking desert-based approach, yet one that construes forward-looking considerations as also being important. It is referred to as the “differentialist approach to affirmative action” because it categorizes each group which is targeted by such policies and programs according to each group’s degree of harmful wrongdoing which it has suffered in the USA. It uses history to determine the facts which in turn determine the level at which each group ought to receive affirmative action support (Corlett 2003: Chap. 7; Corlett 2010: Chap. 10).

According to the differentialist approach to affirmative action, then, American Indians and blacks3 ought to receive the greatest level of affirmative action assistance. Far down the list would be Latinos/Latinas, Asians, etc., with the women and girls in each group receiving a greater amount of affirmative action support than their male counterparts in that they also experience(d) sexist harmful wrongdoings. But because white women generally were and remain part of the oppressive and discriminatory forces over such groups, they should be eliminated from and should have never been allowed to be targeted by affirmative action policies and programs. Generally and as a class, white women have been victimized far less than, say, American Indian and black women and men. So they ought not to be included in affirmative action programs as they have been from their very inception. For it is not only undeserved on their part, but the inclusion of white women in affirmative action programs diverts much needed and deserved resources from those more deserving of them. This differentialist conception of affirmative action assumes that reparative justice will not accrue to such groups. In such a case, substantial increases in affirmative action resources are required because that is what is required, morally speaking, in terms of what such parties deserve given their respective histories of oppression (in the cases of American Indians and blacks) and discrimination (with respect to members of the other groups) (Corlett 2003: Chap. 7; Corlett 2010: Chap. 10)

While many argue that white women in the USA ought to remain targeted by affirmative action programs because they too were/are oppressed, several problems face such a claim. First, this claim cannot be substantiated except by a future-oriented and non-backward-looking version of a utilitarian, rights-disrespecting “ethic” which denies a victim’s legitimate moral claim to or interest in being compensated in albeit approximate proportion to the harms suffered by one’s predecessors. To claim that white women on average and as a class were and are oppressed in the USA in anything akin to the manners in which American Indian women and men were/are oppressed in the USA is disingenuous due to the fact that white women on average and as a class played and continue to play a major role in the oppression of nonwhites in US society. For instance, even the most progressive of white women have played major roles in the discrimination of US blacks (Davis 1981; Corlett 2010: Chap. 10; hooks 1981). The differentialist analysis of affirmative action, while not falling prey to the category mistake of construing reparations as affirmative action or vice versa, refuses to categorize white women as being oppressed in any manner in which American Indians and US blacks were and are oppressed in the USA. Thus white women should not at all be considered as targets of affirmative action as that would serve as a moral insult to the members of the other targeted groups which have experienced genuine oppression and not simply discrimination. At the very most, white women ought to be placed at the bottom of the list of affirmative action recipients due to their considerable roles in oppressing or otherwise discriminating against nonwhites in US society.

All of this implies that white women in US society should not remain as serious targets of affirmative action policies and programs as they currently are and have been for decades as this robs much needed resources for members of groups that have been and remain historically wronged by US society in ways that far surpass whatever discrimination that white women have experienced and continue to experience. So in business contexts, affirmative action policies and programs should be narrowed to differentially and mostly target American Indians and US blacks. To proceed in this way would be to begin to take seriously what the US business communities owe to American Indians and US blacks far more than any other groups in US history. For from the very beginning, US businesses from banks to shipbuilders to investors played roles in both the oppression of American Indians and US blacks in ways that are unprecedented in world history.4 And while it is a category mistake to conflate affirmative action with reparations and vice versa, correcting the confused ship of affirmative action is imperative if justice is to begin to accrue to genuinely oppressed groups in US business contexts.

In practical terms, the differentialist approach to affirmative action would function along the following lines. In a business, those conducting the hiring would do all they could to recruit reasonably qualified hires from the pools of American Indian and US black applicants for a particular open position. Within these categories of applicants, the women would be given preference. Only when recruiters can prove that they have conducted a reasonable recruitment effort from such pools would they be permitted by the policy to proceed to, say, Latino/Latina pools of applicants, then to Asian-American applicants, etc., each time giving preference to women over their male counterparts. White women would then be targeted and lastly white males. Sensitivity must be demonstrated to the fact that some applicant pools will not contain many American Indians and/or US blacks. With competition to hire the most qualified employees and executives, businesses will have difficult times hiring American Indians simply because the demand is high and the supply is low, generally speaking. But every reasonable effort must be made to recruit such applicant candidates. A roughly similar problem arises with regard to US blacks, though there are millions more such persons in the USA than there are American Indians. Subsequent to reasonable efforts being made to recruit American Indians and US blacks, businesses are to attempt as best they can to hire from the pool of Latinos/Latinas, then from the pool of Asian-American applicants, etc. Because of the low supply and high (affirmative action) demand for potential American Indian and US black hires at least in certain skilled positions, businesses which have taken reasonably strong steps and in good faith to hire from these categories ought to be shown understanding if they are unsuccessful in doing so. But such businesses, if affirmative action is indeed mandatory as a matter of law and public policy, must demonstrate to the standards of such laws and policies that they have complied with them as best they could given current factors of supply and demand of available qualified applicants from the targeted groups mentioned. This must be understood in light of the fact that the more productive and successful American Indian and US black skilled employees and executives will likely not be sufficient to fill each of the positions available in any given market. However, businesses which fail to satisfy the standards of recruitment and retention of said affirmative action hires would stand to face significant sanctions, from adverse publicity of the business to substantial fines handed down to said businesses. All of this assumes, of course, a capitalist or some other mode of production wherein factors of supply and demand of employees and executives are relevant.

However, insofar as adequate compensatory reparations are provided for American Indians and US blacks, it would appear that they would then have no justification to remain on the list of affirmative action targets. For their respective experiences, both historic and contemporary, of injustice within US society would have thereby been rectified. Affirmative action policies and programs, then, could target members of the other groups listed according to the degree and duration of the harmful wrongdoings experienced by them in and by the USA.



  1. 1.

    The distinction between forward-looking and backward-looking perspectives on affirmative action is found in Boxill (1984: 147–172) and McGary (1999: 125–144).

  2. 2.

    That rights ought never to be trumped by considerations of social utility is found in John Rawls (1971: 1–5).

  3. 3.

    By “blacks” is meant those of African descent whose ancestors were enslaved in the USA.

  4. 4.

    For an account of how US businesses sustained the slave trade, see DeWolf (2009).


  1. Boxill BR (1984) Blacks and social justice. Rowman & Littlefield, TotowaGoogle Scholar
  2. Corlett JA (2003) Race, racism, and reparations. Cornell University Press, IthacaGoogle Scholar
  3. Corlett JA (2010) Heirs of oppression. Rowman & Littlefield, LanhamGoogle Scholar
  4. Davis AY (1981) Women, race, and class. Random House, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  5. DeWolf TN (2009) Inheriting the trade. Beacon Press, BostonGoogle Scholar
  6. hooks b (1981) Ain’t I a woman. South End Press, BostonGoogle Scholar
  7. McGary H (1999) Blacks and social justice. Blackwell, LondonGoogle Scholar
  8. Rawls J (1971) A theory of justice. Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar

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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.San Diego State UniversitySan DiegoUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • J. Angelo Corlett
    • 1
  1. 1.San Diego State UniversitySan DiegoUSA