Asian Americans and Affirmative Action: What Do We Count as Hard Work?

Asian Americans are divided. Harvard University, an institution with near king-making power, is being sued for its allegedly discriminatory admissions policies. A spot at Harvard is said to guarantee stability, wealth, intellectual fulfillment and even widespread influence. It is not shocking then that admission to Harvard has become almost universally coveted. The premise of the lawsuit has always been acknowledged as an open secret; something was being done behind the scenes to adjust the proportion of Asian Americans attending universities like Harvard. This is clear from the much higher proportion of Asian Americans at universities in the California system where race is not allowed to factor into admissions, as well as the irregularly constant rate of Asian American students in every admitted class to universities like Harvard. Unsurprisingly, many Asian Americans have found this unfair, largely on the grounds of moral desert. Why should people who have the same scores, credentials and qualifications have their achievements discounted due to something as arbitrary as race?

As with any issue of redistributive justice, there are many dimensions of fairness at play with affirmative action policies. Too many in fact to deal with all at once. Thus, in this essay I only seek to address one dimension of one specific dispute between the two sides; hard work and parental influence. First, I will summarize the main concerns of both parties and provide an abstract thought experiment to isolate for a key dimension of the debate. Then I will demonstrate that redistributive frameworks that focus on moral desert, such as luck egalitarianism, reach an impasse on the issue. Finally, I will argue that if we take the powerful “king-maker” nature of universities such as Harvard as given, we can justify affirmative action policies in their protection of complex equality – the idea that one’s standing in one sphere of society should not impact ones standing in another.

The anti-affirmative action side is straightforward. Adjusting down the scores of Asian Americans is unfair and discriminatory. They did not choose to be Asian American, and it is unclear why them belonging to this morally arbitrarily defined group would warrant lowering their own earned credentials and scores. The pro affirmative action side is a bit more complicated. One concern is functional, that repealing race-based admissions would have negative effects on wider society by lowering the access of other minorities to opportunities at Harvard. The second concern is related to moral desert. Some anti-lawsuit proponents argue that Asian Americans are advantaged due to the disproportionate rate at which their parents emphasize education and academic performance from a young age. Of course, the converse is the primary thrust of this concern; that other minorities are disadvantaged and thus deserve adjustment.

Contemporary political philosopher Ronald Dworkin proposes a redistributive scheme that some might find neatly tackles the divisive issue of moral desert between these two opposing viewpoints – I acknowledge that this does leave out arguments considering the direct impacts of diversity and intergroup contact. Ronald Dworkin applies a version of luck egalitarianism to issues of redistributive justice. Luck egalitarians believe that a just distribution can be achieved through compensating and thus equalizing for outcomes that are luck-based, and thus individuals are not morally at fault for, yet allowing individuals to be entirely responsible for the outcomes of decisions that they choose. Dworkin summarizes his position succinctly, he argues distributions should be ambition sensitive and endowment insensitive.

Dworkin writes, “we must … allow the distribution of resources at any particular moment to be (as we might say) ambition-sensitive. It must, that is, reflect the cost or benefit to others of the choices people make so that, for example, those who choose to invest rather than consume, or to consume less expensively rather than more, or to work in more rather than less profitable ways, must be permitted to retain the gains that flow from these decisions” (EoR Dworkin, 311).  On the other hand, the distribution should not be “affected by differences in ability of the sort that produce income differences in a laissez-fair economy among people with the same ambitions” (Ibid.). Many would find this to be a fair scheme, especially within the narrow context of college admissions, as the priority is placed upon the ambition and choices of the actor.

Unfortunately, the key advantage at hand in the Asian American case has unclear implications on moral desert within this framework. On one hand, it is true that having education minded parents is a great advantage in college admissions. However, it is not an advantage in the same manner money, social capital or positive general perception might be. Unlike these advantages, a strong parental emphasis on education increases the chances of admission by inducing hard work. As a crude analogy, if college admissions were a foot race, education minded parents might range from a coach talking you through the race to an animal chasing you around the course. The aforementioned advantages instead might look like a closer finish line, better shoes or a head start. In the former cases, although there is clearly a distinct advantage, it seems strange to hold it against them, as their result is still entirely a result of their own hard work.

To isolate for this concern, I offer a thought experiment. I acknowledge that this thought experiment abstracts away from many important features of the real-world case for the sake of clarity, notably the racial and familial dimensions of the issue. Imagine four individuals all graduating from high school in the same year. Two of them born with a work-nudge-gland and two born without. The work-nudge-gland is an imaginary gland that mentally nudges you to work harder, and is only active from childhood to late adolescence. It is public knowledge who possesses the glands and what they do. In all other ways, they are endowed with the same advantages relating to college admissions. This is meant to be a crude representation to isolate for the functional effect of having education minded parents. Additionally, let us assume that institution like Harvard have perfectly defined and public admissions criteria – of course this makes the wild assumption that a holistic admissions criterion can be objective. The first individual A has the gland and was barely admitted to Harvard. The second individual B did not have the gland, yet still gained entry far above the cutoff. The third individual C did not have the gland and just missed the cutoff. The fourth individual D had the gland and did not earn a spot at Harvard.

With no redistribution, individual A and B are admitted. Of course, the key concern is that since individual C had only barely missed the mark, they might deserve a spot. Assuming Harvard has a fixed number of spots, the most common intuition is that we should replace individual A with individual C. Here is the crux of the issue; individual A would be completely reasonable in claiming that they worked equally and possibly even harder than individual C, while individual C would be completely reasonable in claiming that they did not have the advantage of the work-nudge-gland.

To resolve this impasse, I suggest that we must return to the role of colleges such as Harvard in contemporary society. Due to a myriad network of social realities, these institutions violate Michael Walzer’s concept of complex equality. A society exhibits complex equality when “no citizen’s standing in one sphere or with regard to one social good can be undercut by his standing in some other sphere, with regard to some other good. Thus, citizen X may be chosen over citizen Y for political office, and then the two of them will be unequal in the sphere of politics. But they will not be unequal generally so long as X’s office gives him no advantage over Y in any other sphere – superior medical care, access to better schools for his children, entrepreneurial opportunities and so on” (SoJ Walzer, 19). Within the scope of this essay, I assume this conception of equality to be good and uncontroversial.

However, it is both undeniable that Harvard violates this conception, and that there is a substantial case that tertiary education necessarily enables favorable access to a wide variety of social goods. In a general sense, this accords with the accepted mission of universities like Harvard (we should be skeptical whether this mission is upheld beyond a superficial public statement, but that is beyond the scope of this essay). The converse of the pejorative Kingmaker label is that these universities are meant to educate leaders and changemakers, with a lesser focus on teaching precise technical skills. These kinds of institutions are meant to educate leaders across the arts, law, politics, business and so on, largely without predetermination of their area of choice from students beforehand.

Since there is no other clear way to judge A and C’s equal claim to moral desert through hard work, we must judge what attributes ought to map onto the broad power dominance of admission to Harvard. Thus, I suggest that a formal separation between ambition and hard work is required. Should individual A and C attain relatively close credentials, C could displace A due to C’s higher innate ambition. By innate ambition, I mean the sustained desire to pursue excellence that is completely contained within the individual being considered. This would exclude the effects of the work-nudge-gland. Among a wide plethora of traits and qualifications, I posit that innate ambition, the desire to change and achieve is perhaps the only attribute that seems suitable to dominate so widely. Thus, the endowment should be innate ambition sensitive, and endowment insensitive, with education focused parents treated largely as a positive endowment. In this light, the affirmative action policy can be viewed as a blanket reduction in credentials applied to account for ambition that is not innate and is likely being induced by parental factors.

Of course, this conclusion deals with one specific issue within the affirmative action debate, having excluded the messier details. However, this distinction between innate and induced hard work allows us to further differentiate levels of desert to judge policy, especially in contexts as competitive and sought after as college admissions.


Works Cited

Dworkin, Ronald. “What Is Equality? Part 2: Equality of Resources.” Philosophy & Public Affairs, vol. 10, no. 4, 1981, pp. 283–345. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Walzer, Michael. Spheres of Justice: a Defense of Pluralism and Equality. Basic Books, 2010.

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Articles were originally submitted as course papers for Professor Sandra Field’s classes Contemporary Egalitarianism and Democratic Theory.

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