Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Punishing the Innocent

Often in discussions of affirmative action ["Affirmative Action or Negative Action," by Miriam Schulman, Summer/Fall 1996], proponents of these programs defend them as collective punishment for a society that commits a "crime." In this case, the crime is discrimination. I believe a good argument can be made for collective punishment—for example, compensation of Japanese Americans interned during World War II.

Affirmative action, however, is not collective punishment; it is reverse discrimination. Through these programs, we compensate not those who were discriminated against but others of that small group who may not have even suffered discrimination; and we ask those who may be innocent to pay the price for a crime committed by others.

For how long must the class who committed a crime be held responsible and compensate those who suffered from the crime? For instance, are we guilty of the crimes committed against Native Americans by our forefathers? If so, should we give back what was taken, with accumulated interest, to the Native Americans? Most would probably say this is too far in the past.

While in the short run, there may have been no other way to deal with discrimination, we cannot in the long run make class membership a reason for preferences. We will just perpetuate class as a distinguishing attribute. Are we really striving for a caste system like India's or a class society like England's, or are we going to promote a society in which race, religion, sex, etc., do not matter?

Only through legal principles such as those introduced in the recent California Civil Rights Initiative can we preserve the rights of individuals over class membership. Let us create a society where individual ability is the guiding principle.

Stig L. Nilsson
Los Gatos, Calif.