Reflecting on Motivations


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36 Responses

  1. Brandon Berg says:


    Of course, the fact that they’re hypocrites doesn’t mean the principle they (sometimes) endorse is wrong. It just means they’re hypocrites.Report

    • Chris in reply to Brandon Berg says:

      I imagine what Kazzy’s getting at is that, regardless of the soundness of the principles underlying affirmative action, it looks like the principles are not what people are basing their opinions on. I think that’s a pretty valid point to make for any contentious political issue.Report

    • Shannon's Mouse in reply to Brandon Berg says:

      I think the fact that adherence to a principle correlates strongly with one’s position of privilege can provide us with some insight into the value of the principle. Wasn’t there a guy that died about 10 years ago that had quite a bit to say about that? Ross? Rose? Rolls? His name seems to escapes me at the moment…Report

    • Kazzy in reply to Brandon Berg says:

      But I think it requires that we revisit whether the principle is in fact right, or if we simply accepted it as such because the majority of people endorsed it the majority of the time for ultimately selfish reasons.Report

      • LWA in reply to Kazzy says:

        There is also a parallel in religion, where we have a tendency to draw a circle around our own behavior and conception of what is sacred and right, then declare that to be the universal morality.
        While “merit” may be a good principle, the study calls into question whether it is the complete and exhaustive version of how we award advancement.
        “Merit” generally means something that can be reflected on a test; is the skill that is measured the skill we want to reward?Report

      • Brandon Berg in reply to Kazzy says:

        Personally, I’ve known for many years that Asians are overrepresented at selective colleges, mostly if not entirely due to better grades and test scores, and I’ve never had a problem with this. I’m also inclined to take “everybody knows” as more of a reason to question something than to accept it, as this often indicates that a belief has been inadequately scrutinized.

        because the majority of people endorsed it the majority of the time for ultimately selfish reasons

        This really can’t be inferred from the article, which doesn’t really tell us anything about the magnitude of the effect or the methodology, or even link to the study. Really, it’s a textbook example of awful science reporting. By an editor and cofounder of a well-regarded publication. Sigh.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:

        So you’re comfortable casting aspersions on the researchers but not on their subjects? Am I understanding that correctly? How… convenient.Report

      • Brandon Berg in reply to Kazzy says:

        No, not on the researcher. For all I know it’s an excellent study, though I don’t care enough to pay the $9 to find out. I’m casting aspersions on the author of the lousy article to which you linked. And I did cast aspersions on the subjects, with my very first word in this thread.Report

  2. Caleb says:

    I would note that the study said that the respondents shifted their definitions of what they considered meritorious, not whether meritocracy was a desirous method. That’s a different, and narrower, consideration than elements such as social justice and affirmative action. Don’t oversell the scope.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to Caleb says:

      But the question remains… are their responses motivated by a principled belief in what is right and fair or in what best serves their interests? Even if it is just a different form of meritocracy they advocate for based on different contexts, the question remains.Report

      • Murali in reply to Kazzy says:

        Would you think that affirmative action was suspect if African Americans supported it because such a policy benefited them?Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:

        I wouldn’t think that affirmative action itself was suspect, but I do think the motivations of its supporters are fair to critique.

        To get a bit meta, I think the idea that affirmative action and a meritocracy are mutually exclusive is wrong. Certain attempts at affirmative action are themselves attempts at a meritocracy, but they seek to account for context and other factors in determining “merit”.

        So, I don’t disagree with the idea of a meritocracy. But I think how we define “merit” is up for debate. What this study evidences is that white folks want to shift the definition of merit to what is convenient for them, which is antithetical to a true meritocracy.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Kazzy says:

        Affirmative action at colleges wouldn’t be such a problem if all those girls that are just going to get married and have kids anyway weren’t taking up so much space.Report

      • Caleb in reply to Kazzy says:

        I don’t see how those motives are necessarily conflicted. People are self-interested, and tend to define in-group interest along racial and cultural lines. Nothing new there. If there is an “ideal” method of measuring merit, some group will benefit more from than method than others by definition. That group will argue, rightly, that the method is ideal. They will also argue, in self-interest, that the method is the best. The fact that it is in their self-interest to argue for the method does not obviate the fact that is in fact ideal.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:

        But Caleb, what this study shows is that the participants were not advocating for what they thought was right or ideal, but what they thought best suited them given the context. In practice, they argued for different definitions of merit. So, if we are seeking an “ideal”, than necessarily at least one of the methods they advocated was sub-ideal.

        So, the question remains: How do we define “merit”? White folks, or at least the white folks who participated in this study, do not have a single definition of merit, be it self-serving or otherwise. Their definition of “merit” was ultimately “whatever best serves my interests”.Report

      • Caleb in reply to Kazzy says:

        Yes, the tendency for self-dealing in these situations is universal. That each group tends to argue in its own self-interest is not particularly interesting or relevant to rational argumentation. The validity of an argument only flows one way. That the material consequences of any given argument benefits its advocate has no bearing on its overall validity. That stands or fails only on relevant factors (evidence, logic, ect.).

        In my opinion, merit is inherently contextual. If someone asks me if a given trait is ‘meritorious’, I must ask “for what ends?” That we can extract the essence of merit and define it independently of a given goal strikes me as absurd.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:

        But this challenges the conventional wisdom, which was that white folks WEREN’T being self-serving, but were only seeking to do what was “fair” and “right”. Well, that just might be bunk now. It completely rejiggers the conversation.Report

      • Caleb in reply to Kazzy says:

        Ah, I see. Well, I don’t know who bought the idea that any cohesive group of persons were doing anything other than acting in their own interests. But yes, that line of argumentation is likely false.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:

        Well, as white people tend to write the narratives and set the rules for discourse, they tended to frame the conversation as “merit” vs “AA” rather than as competing definitions of merit.Report

      • Pierre Corneille in reply to Kazzy says:


        I think there’s a lot of truth to this:

        Well, as white people tend to write the narratives and set the rules for discourse, they tended to frame the conversation as “merit” vs “AA” rather than as competing definitions of merit.

        But I don’t think the study, at least as it’s reported in the linked to article, really has much promise to demonstrate that. To me, deconstructing the “merit vs. AA” narrative is more about unpacking assumptions implicit in the narrative than it is about trying to find some sociological proof that most whites’ definition of merit appears to be malleable.

        Motivations might be important, and they’re especially important when unpacking any given narrative written by any given person, but it’s hard to assign motivations to a group and, in my opinion, epistemologically risky to try to infer too much from group motivations. I’m not very well versed in how motivations can even be measured, and I tend to agree with Brandon above (though not his tone) that either the study or the article reporting it, or both, aren’t well done. (And I lack the expertise to critique the study if I could read it.) I wonder how, for example, one controls for the very nuanced views we might get if we interview any given person. They likely have a complicated view of “merit” that is hard to capture in any survey. Part of the dynamic at play is, I think, what Morat describes below at 11:05 am.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:


        I don’t doubt that whatever human conditions lead to what this study showed are largely universal and can be found among any racial group (or gender group or religious group, etc.). However, because white culture is the dominant cultural determinant in our society, its existence among white people leads to some very different outcomes.

        For instance, why are some folks quick to hold up a black person who goes against AA as such while the same isn’t done for white folks who support it? No one says, “Well, Kazzy supports AA and he’s white!” but they do say, “Well, Joe Blow opposes AA and he’s black!” The dominant narrative and framing are all constructed by white folks and so ingrained that they are taken as the norm. It is entrenched. It is the definition of privilege. So, yea, maybe black folks and Hispanics and everyone else does the same thing, but rarely are those people situated such that they can implement such self-serving policies. I mean, even look at the language we use… black people were given the right to vote… as if they didn’t naturally possess that right but instead were gracefully granted it by white people, as if it was theirs to give in the first place.

        This study alone doesn’t prove any of that, but I think it offers an important data point. If it can be demonstrated what white people do indeed apply a malleable definition of “merit” that is inherently self-serving, than it helps jostle them from the position of assumed rightness which they (we) typically hold. Even myself… I never thought of the debate in terms of competing definitions of merit because it was so ingrained in me that it was a “merit vs AA” issue because that is how it is always framed. Well, if this study can be verified*, it shows that dominant narrative is not only wrong, but likely part of the same self-servingness of whites… “Let’s assume the position of fairness and make someone move us off it.”

        * A bit of Googling indicates the work was part of a dissertation. It is not clear if this dissertation is currently available or soon will be.Report

      • Pierre Corneille in reply to Kazzy says:


        Thanks for your answer (if it was me and not Stillwater you were answering, but even if you were addressing, him, you seem to touch on the point I was making).

        I don’t disagree with the critique offered here of merit. I guess I just find little utility in proving underlying motivations of all/most members of demographic. Not no utility, just not much. Still, I suppose as you point out it’s one data point, and as long as it’s an “off the cuff but relevant” and not “main page and determinative,” then I’m on board pointing it out.

        For the record, I’m pretty cynical about “merit”-based arguments myself, whether advanced on their own or in the context of AA. For example, the most fulfilling jobs I have had I got in large part because I knew the right people or had some connections. I worked hard to get there and I think I’m a hard worker now, but I likely wouldn’t have success without those connections. I’m even more sensitive to this because my current job expires in about four months and then I’ll be looking for work again. And one possibility I’m hoping for is that my supervisor will convince their higher ups to hire me on semi-permanently. Again, if she succeeds at that, it’ll be in part because in her view I’ve “earned it,” but I also realize there are a lot of qualified people for that position, and my best “qualification” is that I have someone lobbying for me.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:

        Oi, my apologies on the mixup. I’ve got some sort of mental block on mixing people’s names up. Sorry. It was indeed you I was responding to.

        I don’t think this is determinative, but I do think it is important. Again, the dominant narrative was that white people want what is universally fair and black people want something that serves their own interest. This isn’t what everyone accepted, but it seemed to be the base position. So I think it is important to say, “Maybe white people aren’t just seeking what is fair.” Which makes them human, not monsters.

        And Morat’s point, which you demonstrate here, shows how difficult it is to measure true merit and disentangle it from context. And, again, when the contest tends to benefit one group, thereby amplifying the appearance of their merit, it is really easy to actually ignore that context. “Hey man, just work hard in school and you’ll be good.” Well, that assumes people are in a school where hard work will amount to much of anything. True for most people, but not for all. And we can’t forget that.Report

  3. Jaybird says:

    I figure it’s safe to assume that people assume that they will benefit from their publicly affirmed positions.

    If not from “hey, if they actually do this, I’ll benefit”, from “if I publicly affirm this, I’ll get kudos from my team”.Report

    • morat20 in reply to Jaybird says:

      I think it’s simpler — and really the same thing as “Keep your hands off my Medicare” signs alongside the “No government funded healthcare signs”.

      People assume what they get is what they deserve — especially if it’s good. “I earned this, I paid for this, I worked hard for this, nobody gave me this”. But someone else, well — you tend to be more cynical. Especially if they got it and you didn’t.

      That’s even before race and class conceptions enter the picture.

      People tend to define “merit” in a way that makes themselves worthy. Nobody likes to admit they don’t measure up.

      So if you don’t make it into a college, it’s not because you weren’t as good as other applicants — it’s because of affirmative action, or legacy admissions — someone else’s fault. And if you DO make it in, it was entirely on your own worth — your race, your social demographics, your Daddy’s big donation — entirely immaterial.

      And hey, sometimes it’s true. Sometimes you get screwed, sometimes you benefit from someone else getting screwed. And sometimes no, you just weren’t as good. But most people? If they got what they wanted? It was merit. If they didn’t? They got screwed.

      Just how people are wired.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to morat20 says:

        Profits are privatized. Losses are socialized.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to morat20 says:

        And at least part of that is attributable to a lack of understanding, on both a micro and macro level.

        You inherently know what you did to get where you got… you remember the hours studying and the trips to the library and the all nighters.
        But that guy next to you? Well, you never saw him study, never saw him go to the library, never saw him pull an all nighter… for all you know, he simply paid off a teacher for his grade. I mean, he probably didn’t, but can you really be sure? No.

        And as you get further removed from “the other”, as you understanding of them gets less and less, it is easier to make all sorts of assumptions about them. In fact, you MUST make assumptions, as you lack the knowledge necessary to otherwise reach conclusions.Report

  4. NotMe says:

    I have another explanation. After watching minorities benefit from affirmative action for so long, more whites feel they shouldn’t have to be bound by meritocracy given that others don’t have to. Why should whites be the only ones that any real standards are applied to?Report

    • Kazzy in reply to NotMe says:

      For “so long”? What? A few generations? While minorities were being systematically harmed by damn near every other institution? And white did and continie to reap the benefits of white privilege? So now they act in a self-interested way but can’t/won’t/don’t call it as such and instead they just want things to be “fair”?

      Your continued apologizing for and promotion of white privilege is really tiring. And nauseating.Report

  5. Will Truman says:

    I think noteworthy in there is the bit about Asian and Asian-Americans and the SAT scores. Asians object to the removal of SAT scores because it’s an area where they excel. I doubt that, if you asked them, they’d say that “It’s only because we do well at that. If we didn’t, I wouldn’t support it.”

    But I also suspect that if Asian-Americans did not do as well on such tests, their meritocratic views would be different. Of minority groups, it seems like Asian-Americans tend to be the most critical of affirmative action. It’s not coincidental, I don’t think, that they’re the ones “hurt” by it.

    These things are important, don’t get me wrong. It belies the notion that opponents of affirmative action generally just want fairness without regard to self-interest (and the interests of their groups). Everyone has a stake in this. It’s also a fair point, made above, that since whites shape the narrative more than any group, we should take a closer look at their motivations than those of, for instance, Asian-Americans.

    But while it’s almost certainly true that the white firefighters wouldn’t have sued if they’d done less well on the test than Asians and were out either way, it’s also true that is not an unusual approach to matters of fairness. Fairness usually has more subjective value than objective.

    So the question is, “fair to whom?”

    Fair to me, of course.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to Will Truman says:

      This is why I think it important to determine explicitly the purpose of a given institution.

      What is the purpose of a fire department? Presumably to ensure fire safety. As I understand it, a racially diverse company doesn’t provide better fire safety than a racially homogenous one. Now, it is possible that company camaraderie/cohesiveness/collegiality and community relations might and those might be improved by more racial diversity, so we’d have to look at that more closely. But if the purpose of a fire department is to provide fire safety and skills A, B, and C are more closely related to providing great fire safety, than we should hire folks who have the most of A, B, and C, regardless of race.

      Schools present a different issue, since they often serve multiple purposes and/or don’t have a clearly articulated prioritization of mission. Which makes it much harder to determine who the best attendees are. But first we must determine purpose, than determine the profile of a person who’ll best serve that purpose, then determine a methodology to effectively identify and recruit those people.

      Odds of all that happening? Slim.Report

      • Caleb in reply to Kazzy says:

        Odds of all that happening? Slim.

        Which is unfortunate.

        What do you think of schools (I’m specifically thinking higher-ed) delegating admission selections to their various subject-matter departments? So the Engineering school selects engineering applicants, the Biology department selects bio applicants, ect. That way the scope of desirable skills is narrowed somewhat.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:

        Off the top of my head, it seems reasonable, but I think you’d still want sort of umbrella oversight.

        The college professors here might have better insight.

        I know at my undergrad, you had to apply to the different colleges, and there was an understanding that some people could get into one but not the other and that transferring from an easier entry to a harder one was not assumed. The education school was known as the easiest to get into. When classmates learned that I entered in arts-and-sciences and transferred into ed, it was a big deal. So it seems this happens to a degree.

        Now, I personally would still argue that certain demographic information could be relevant, even to students applying to the “hard sciences”.

        A little while back there was a mini-brouhaha when a company released a laptop with a camera that could detect faces. The only problem was, it didn’t detect dark-skinned people. Or not as well as white-skinned people. Now, this was not because of any bias or animus… it was ultimately an oversight. But it is the sort of oversight that would be less likely to happen if the designers and testers of the camera had been a racially diverse mix. They might have noticed by accident that, hey, it worked when Larry sat in front of it but not when Moe did.

        This is but one tiny, ultimately superficial example, but I think it shows that what people bring to the table as, well, people matters in just about all areas of life. How effective will a college be at turning out engineers who can solve 21st century problems if all of them are men and, thus, the unique way that women might interact with their creations are absent?

        But that is putting the cart way, way ahead of the horse. To your initial question, yea, I’d be in favor of better articulated mission statements and, consequently, more focused student recruitment. As usual, the devil would be in the details. And you’d also have to consider how much overlap there was between the programs/majors.Report

      • Brandon Berg in reply to Kazzy says:

        “But it is the sort of oversight that would be less likely to happen if the designers and testers of the camera had been a racially diverse mix.”

        That episode of Better Off Ted was totally worth it.

        Anyway, Indians, many of whom are as dark-skinned as the typical black American, are well-represented in the American software industry. I’d be very surprised if no dark-skinned people were involved in the project.Report