Unjust Deserts?

When I started traveling for work, I resented the airlines for creating social hierarchies favoring those who pay more or fly more. Something about the overt unequal treatment of people rubbed me the wrong way. In those days, I would proclaim to my friends and colleagues that if I ever I qualified for a first class seat I would refuse it out of principle. Instead, I would offer it to someone infirmed or perhaps to a parent traveling with an infant. I would gallantly swap my seat for whatever seat the less fortunate traveler had been assigned. I would not become a pawn in the airline’s twisted plot to create addicts of their frequent fliers.

Fast-forward thirty years. I now qualify for American Airline’s top tier status. I get upgraded to first class about 75% of the time. I’m treated deferentially. The more onerous travel becomes for the occasional flier, the more my status distinguishes me. By the way, I have never once given up my first class seat. What’s worse, the resentment I once reserved for the airline sometimes manifests as impatience with people who board too slowly like the infirmed or parents traveling with infants. I’m not proud of abandoning my earlier principled stance. I am, on the other hand astonished by how quickly I got used to the blatant preferential treatment.

I qualify for special treatment by the airline because of my job. A few of us on every commercial flight have an advantage over the planeload of other passengers even though everyone onboard needs to get from point A to point B. Some passengers in first class have paid extra for the comfy seat, free food and deferential treatment. Many of the passengers in first class are road warriors whose company or clients pay about the same fare as everyone else on the plane.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the advantages I enjoy and often take for granted; I’ve been thinking about whether or not I’ve earned all those advantages. For example, I’m just over six feet tall, white and male. It would be impossible to list all the advantages I’ve enjoyed in my lifetime because society favors certain of my traits.

There is a dynamic relationship between “access” and “advantage.” My unearned advantages have made it easier for me to access earned advantages like a good education and promotions at work. Earned advantages afford me preferential treatment when competing with others for access to even more limited and valuable advantages and opportunities. For others, the virtuous cycle becomes a vicious cycle when a lack of advantage prevents access, which in turn puts opportunity for acquiring advantages out of reach.

I got inspired to turn my attention to the topic of earned and unearned advantage after reading an anecdote in Eugenia Cheng’s excellent new book, The Art of Logic in an Illogical World. Early in the book, Cheng shares a story about commuter reactions to the new green markings painted on the platforms of the London Underground. The markings let waiting passengers know where the train doors will open so they won’t stand in the way of people exiting the train. Cheng noted, “Apparently some people were upset that these markings spoilt the ‘competitive edge’ they had gained through years of commuting and studying train doors to learn where they would open.” This story led Cheng to an insight about affirmative action, “…If we give particular help to some previously disadvantaged people, then some of the people who don’t get this help are likely to feel hard done by.”

Helping those who have been previously disadvantaged has been in the news recently owing to a high-profile lawsuit against Harvard University based on their affirmative action practices in admitting students. Putting the politics of affirmative action aside, I tried applying the Unstuck Minds Method to the questions we ask about affirmative action. The Unstuck Minds Method helps people identify thinking traps that prevent them from discovering new options. We generally pose questions about our dilemmas and then focus our energy and attention on generating and debating solutions. The Unstuck Minds Method helps us determine the extent to which a misleading or incomplete question might be responsible for our inability to find a solution.

The practice of affirmative action attempts to correct for a long history of systemic and institutional bias against minority groups and women who seek equal access to limited opportunities. Our questions about affirmative action focus on improving things for those who have been disadvantaged by discrimination. When devising affirmative action practices, we generally ask some version of, “How do we level the playing field for the disadvantaged?” The question is clear and evocative, but it also misses an important aspect of the problem.

While we work to remove barriers that unfairly target minorities and women, we also need to ask some uncomfortable questions about our relationship to our unearned advantages. American Airlines is making an economic decision by establishing tiers of service and rewarding frequent fliers. As a consequence of their system, I become habituated to better treatment. After a few years I start to believe I deserve better treatment. When I start to identify with the treatment I’m getting; that’s when I fall prey to a thinking trap.

When I conflate my unearned advantages with who I am, “leveling the playing field” starts to feel like an existential threat.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we give up on removing institutional discrimination. I am suggesting that until the conversation feels personal, we may not get enough of the people who have the power to enact change to engage in the conversation in any meaningful way. It’s not unlike getting people motivated to work on climate change. We need regulations and we need personal commitment to change our daily habits.

Here is a question I would like to include in our public conversations about affirmative action: How might increased awareness of our unearned advantages spur a call to action?

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