Business Ethics for the 21st Century: Chapter 5 (pp. 224 - 233): "Discrimination and Affirmative Action"

[According to Kant, we ought to treat each human being as an end in itself and never simply as a means. In Kant's view every human being has intrinsic value.

According to John Dewey, all human beings are qualitatively equal, even though they may have quantitatively non-equal talents, capacities, and resources.

It is morally imperative to treat each person fairly in the workplace. It is furthermore morally imperative to respect each individual as qualitatively equally important.

On the other hand, quantitative differences do matter, especially insofar as they affect one's performance in the workplace. Thus employers have a right to hire strong individuals to lift heavy loads and educated individuals to perform certain skilled jobs. Employers wish to hire employees who have the capacity (power) to do the things the employers need done.

Yet, certain differences may be accidental and irrelevant with respect to doing a certain job. Legally, employers may not discriminate with regard to hiring, promotion, or pay on the basis of "race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." (Civil Rights Act of 1964)

It is also illegal to discriminate against workers on the basis of age (older workers) or physical (or mental) disability. In the case of the disabled, if workers are in every other way capable of doing their job, employers must accommodate disabled workers in certain ways -- i.e, environment, access, and the like.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) often puts employers in a difficult position. Especially in the case of hiring mentally disabled workers, employers may be liable for harm done to other employees. [Refer to the example of the Goodwill employee.]

New areas of discrimination have recently entered the public arena: These include discrimnation based on appearance, obesity, sexual preference, and HIV.


According to the ADA, employers must make reasonable accommodations for their disabled employees. These accommodations include --

When do such accommodations become unreasonable or cause "undue hardship" for the employer [such as costing him/her lots of money]?

The ADA defines a disability as --

It is unclear whether this extends to drug dependency, obesity, or AIDS. Much controversy here.


[Historically, affirmative action calls for preferential hiring or preference in admission to educational institutions. Individuals belonging to ethnic or racial or gender groups which have traditionally been discriminated against are given the opportunity to advance (a "leg up," as it were, to make up for historical lack of opportunity). Thus, affirmative action is society's way of restoring balance of opportunity and fairness where before there was imbalance and unfairness. Individuals belonging to certain groups need an "extra push" of additional resources to make up for resources denied to their group in the past.]

According to the author: "Affirmative action is typically taken to refer to a body of social programs in both the public and private sectors that are intended by their proponents to insure that certain segments of society have the opportunity to participate fully in the benefits of citizenship.... The basic rationale of those programs is taken to be the need to correct imbalances in employment and education that exist as a result of past discrimination." (p. 227)

This has become highly controversial. Republicans have sought to overturn affirmative action programs. They have maintained that affirmative action leads to a new kind of discrimination -- reverse discrimination -- and therefore discriminates against individuals on account of their race or gender or ethnicity. Furthermore, opponents of affirmative action maintain that individuals benefitting from affirmative action in the present are not the same individuals that suffered from discrimination in the past. The wrongs committed against individuals in the past cannot be undone; the individuals are gone.

[Proponents of affirmative action maintain that individuals belonging to groups that have historically suffered discrimination are necessarily disadvantaged by that association and its historical consequences. The consequences of past discrimination for accumulation of wealth, education, and employment have spilled over into the present. Chains of causes and affects have resulted in lessened opportunities for affected groups in the present.]


Recent facts and statistics have shown that the number of women and minorities in professional and upper-level jobs is relatively small. As the author points out, the "Old Boys' Network Is Still Around." (p. 228) Read the statistics on Pages 228 -229.


Examine the arguments for and against affirmative action. Add your own to the list.

Small-Group Discussion:

Bring these lists to class. Prepare to debate and discuss these arguments with your fellow students. Reach a consensus as to which arguments have the greatest weight.

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