On Philosophy

January 15, 2007


Filed under: Political Philosophy — Peter @ 1:04 am

Diversity is important, especially cultural diversity. Cultural diversity is not, however, the same thing as racial diversity. Sometimes, perhaps most of the time, racial diversity promotes cultural diversity, as people from different races often have different cultural backgrounds, but there are occasions racial diversity doesn’t contribute to cultural diversity, if the people of different races have merged into a single culture. I would argue that racial diversity by itself has no benefit., although perhaps I am getting a bit ahead of myself here, since I haven’t demonstrated why cultural diversity is important in the first place.

Now by culture here I am referring to a set of attitudes, practices, and behaviors that are shared by a group of people, and which are distinct from those of other groups. This means that the cultures I am referring to here may be considered by some to be “sub-cultures” (like the punk “sub-culture”), since they aren’t necessarily defined by national or geographical boundaries (although such boundaries do encourage cultural differences).

Now I wouldn’t claim that diversity is good for its own sake, there is nothing magical about “diversity” that makes it better than homogeneity by itself. Rather, diversity is important because it allows different cultures to “compete” with each other. In a diverse group it becomes obvious if some cultures promote success while others promote failure. And in a diverse setting we can expect that people will gradually adopt the best practices of the successful people around thus, meaning that in the long run everyone is better off, since we end up with the best practices, as determined by trial and error.

Because the point of diversity is this “competition” between different cultures it doesn’t make sense to promote diversity by itself. (I put “competition” in quotes because it is not the case that different cultures are actively striving against each other, rather they will simply succeed to different degrees.) An attempt to directly promote diversity will simply prop up the cultures that are failing, and drag down those that are successful.

An example of a program intended to promote diversity in this straightforward way is affirmative action. Although affirmative action applies to many different areas here I will focus on affirmative action in college admissions, since they make a particularly good example. Such affirmative action programs are often justified by pointing to the fact that most minorities come for poorer areas, which generally have the worst primary and high schools. Thus it seems only fair to give these people a better chance to get into college, since they have been given an unfair handicap, through no fault of their own. There is some sense in this, but affirmative action is really not needed in the long run. Consider the Asian immigrant population. Like most groups of immigrants they started as some of the poorest people, but, because their culture put a strong emphasis on education, Asian students learned more in school, and thus were more likely to be successful later in life. Eventually they (on average) moved up the economic ladder, and now Asian students make up a much larger percentage of the college population than they do of the population in general. Again, this can be attributed to the fact that their culture emphasized education so strongly, a cultural practice that we wouldn’t have been exposed to in a homogenous society. Affirmative action, if it balanced admissions by percentage of the general population, would actually result in keeping Asian students out of college. And I think this is a good example of why affirmative action is not needed; if your culture really has some advantage then affirmative action won’t be needed, over time it will rise to the top on its own. As for the rest of us, well we should learn our lesson and start drilling into our kids the importance of education.

As a side note: affirmative action might even help the very people it isn’t supposed to. For example if Asian students were kept out of college because of affirmative action then it would make sense to strongly favor Asian college graduates, since you know that they had to work harder than students of other races to get in. Likewise, you would be less likely to hire someone who was part of a minority favored by affirmative action, since you know they weren’t held to as high standards as other people.

But we don’t want to end up in a situation where everyone is basically the same either. Surely there are better ways to do things out there, which no one has thought up yet. If we were to give up on diversity we would never have the chance to be exposed to those ideas. However, I think the best way to promote diversity is not something that can be legislated, but rather lies in our attitudes. Certainly we don’t want to favor people simply for being different (because that doesn’t give us the benefits of diversity), but we don’t want to be hostile to people for being different either. I think it is this hostility that is the greatest obstacle to the best kinds of diversity. The problem with doing things differently is that people tend to look down on you for doing so. And although we have come to appreciate the differences between people of different ethnic backgrounds there is still a strong pressure to conform to what is expected of your ethnic group, to have the same culture as the rest of your family. Such attitudes hinder the kind of diversity we are trying to encourage, which is people trying out something new and not simply doing things the same way as everyone else, because it is hard to do something new if you are burdened by expectations.

Blog at WordPress.com.