Merit versus diversity: A conversation between Glenn Loury and Heather Mac Donald

May 6, 2023 • 12:30 pm

Glenn Loury now calls himself a “conservative” (I think he said for a while that he was a liberal), and of course Heather Mac Donald, infamous among ideological authoritarians, is a senior fellow of the conservative Manhattan Institute. Does that mean that I shouldn’t put up this 100-minute video? I don’t think so, because this is the kind of conversation—involving the tradeoff between merit and ethnic diversity—that we need to hear, even if we oppose Mac Donald’s views. (Remember Mill’s arguments in On Liberty for listening to such discussions.) I’m betting that many people are worried about whether DEI initiatives will erode quality, particularly in fields like medicine. It does us no good to sweep our thoughts under the rug; we should be able to air them, and discuss them, without fear of being tarred or slurred as bigots.

The occasion for this discussion, I suppose, is because two weeks ago Mac Donald put out her latest book, When Race Trumps Merit: How the Pursuit of Equity Sacrifices Excellence, Destroys Beauty, and Threatens Lives.  I’ve read a few of Mac Donald’s books, and she’s become both well known and demonized because she deals with issues that are either taboo or that people would rather not discuss.

This conversation is also relevant to our recent paper (Loury and 28 other people are authors), “In Defense of Merit in Science”.  Mac Donald—and Loury, I believe—never think that merit should be sacrificed to equity. I, however, am one of the authors of our paper who thinks that at least some form of affirmative action should still be practiced in college admission (but probably not in admission to medical school).

Note that Loury “pushes back” at some points, but he may just be playing the devil’s advocate or trying to clarify what Mac Donald is saying. At 34:35, Loury proposes his own solution to the problems of inequities. which involves tasks far harder than affirmative action.

11 thoughts on “Merit versus diversity: A conversation between Glenn Loury and Heather Mac Donald

  1. As a life-long scientist, liberal and (dare I say it) progressive, I remain conflicted about this issue. Part of my uncertainty stems from a matter of the terms “merit” and “equity. The problems with the first, at least to me, are who defines meritorious and how should merit be applied in different arenas. These issues are explored in the excellent book “The Tyranny of Merit” by Michael Sandel. I would have less uncertainty if the word “ability” was used in its place.

    Regarding equity, the definitional problem is much more complicated. I consulted the knew Guru of Everything, ChatGPT, for a definition, and it returned four. This is the most relevant:

    “Equity as fairness: Equity can refer to fairness or justice, particularly in the distribution of resources, opportunities, or outcomes. This can involve ensuring that everyone has equal access to essential goods and services, regardless of their race, gender, ethnicity, or socio-economic status.”

    Quite honestly, I would be happy with this being a goal of higher education IF (and it’s a big one) the word “outcomes” was removed, at least when applied to educational ones when all has been done to provide resources and opportunities. I wonder the extent to which folks on both sides of the debate would agree with this opinion.

    1. You should re-evaluate your life choices if you’re having to consult chat cptge.
      Firstly, the thing is censored, which is fine since the Internet is a place of mischief, but that hardly makes it an unbiased moral guide.
      Secondly, it’s an ‘ai’ that doesn’t understand dates or prime numbers. It’s dumber than most calculators.
      Thirdly, chatggggp results are based off of Internet searches. And the Internet is full of nonsense as well as mischief.

    2. I think it’s generally understood that “equity” means “outcomes proportional to the proportions of different groups (sexes, ethnic groups) in society. That is, if African-Americans constitute 13% of society, then equity is the claim that they should constitute 13% of doctors, lawyers, professor, and so on. It’s not really “equal” outcomes, but PROPORTIONATE outcomes.

      I favor not equity but equal opportunity for people to access life prospects from the outset. This may not lead to different outcomes if different groups have different preferences. And of course we’ll never have equal opportunity because, with inheritance and the like, some people get a head start in life. Still, it should be the goal of liberals (in my view) to try as hard as we can to afford the disadvantaged equal opportunities. (this is what Loury refers to at the time point I mention above).

      But equal opportunity is not a guarantee of equal outcomes, which is a fallacy if groups differ in their life desires. But it’s fundamentally unfair to deny people equal opportunities. For instance, I’m not at all sure that people should be able to inherit huge sums of money.

  2. I am afraid that there is not enough space here (respecting the roolz) to havea full discussion that this issue requires. But i will take a whack at a couple of issues. People seem to line up in one of two camps…camps that do not overlap. If you are in the merit camp then you are painted as against diversity; if you are in the diversity camp at all then you are painted as against merit. But some of us (like me and ithink jerry) see a need for both in some way. Many, like bruce’s chatbox, conflate equity, opportunity, and outcomes. Teasing out the subtle but important differences in what these words convey takes a real conversation..a willingness to give and take. But virtually no one on the authoritarian left and their blind followers or the extreme right and their similar followers want to engage in such a discussion. Yes the Manhatten Institute is conservative, but john mcwhorter who engages in discussions with them and randell kennedy have some excellent viewpoints. Rather than dialogues, we are engaged in what prof kaplan at the university of michigan called duologues back in the 60’s, the paragon of which is two tv sets turned on with the volumes loud and facing one another. If people would take the time to understand what critical philosophy and post modern philosophy in general really is and perhaps the difference between equity and real equal opportunity, and work on the very tough problem of real equal opportunity, we might fill in the middle between those tarred as either woke (dei) or racist (merit). Well i am out of room.

    1. But do not the groups left behind not have some responsibility to better themselves? If mothers don’t care (or are resigned that they can’t do anything about it) that their kids would rather hang out with their friends shooting hoops and smoking dope instead of studying or even showing up for school at all, schools which in poor neighbourhoods receive funding far in excess of what local property taxes can afford, what more can the rest of us do in enforcing equal opportunity on them if they won’t seize those opportunities? The schools don’t even seem to care. Where is all that money going?

      Conservatives like me oppose more redistribution not just on its own terms, which we do, but also for the strong evidence that it hasn’t done much to equalize school outcomes since Brown v. Board of Education.and the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s.

      I’m speaking from a Canadian perspective where we struggle with similar issues just more modest and less violent, for now. But black and indigenous students are failing here, too. It’s not funding. Even Reserve schools get more per student than ordinary schools for settlers. We in Canada don’t have a super-super rich plutocracy than can be plucked easily for redistribution. For us it has to bite farther down the income pyramid. Americans can call for higher taxes on the rich, confident that you won’t have to pay them.. In Canada, not so much. So ordinary well-off people have to think hard when we are asked for more money for equal opportunity.

      1. Just a side note, now that you mention it – even if one is merely interested in equal opportunity in the most colorblind ways conceivable, funding schools locally on a neighborhood scale (rather than, say, statewide) is a strong mechanism for establishing vicious circles. It’s difficult enough to provide adequate education in bad neighborhoods if funding is not an issue, but next to impossible if it is.

        1. In Virginia, K12 funding comes from a combination of state and local funding (with a bit of federal funding); there are 132 school districts, each a political subdivision such as a county or independent city. There is an “ability to pay” coefficient calculated for each district as a normed combination of the county’s or city’s economic well-being including average personal income of residents, total property value, and sales tax receipts if i recall correctly. The coefficients determine what per centage of state funding a school district receives…the difference between state funding and school district budget must be made up by local funds (and of course a small amount of federal funds). So poor districts receive considerably more state funds than wealthy districts…though very few districts request or receive what one might say is really sufficient funds.

      2. While not explicitly pro-distribution of wealth, I as a Canadian can see its value. I am not against taxation, but I do want to see my taxes spent wisely.

        So the question becomes how do we spend extra resources on sectors of the population that fall behind, not if.

  3. I think the solution is primarily giving more opportunities to those who are in a disadvantage rather than lowering standards, but that does not guarantee equality.

    Complete equality is impossible. And there are bigger problems. Why are there billionaires while people are starving? I think that deserves more attention.

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