Moral Disagreement, Affirmative Action, and Meaningful Educational Opportunity
Michele S. Moses

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship

Award Year



Arizona State University

Primary Discipline

The purpose of this philosophical analysis is to investigate the enduring moral disagreement over affirmative action in light of the 2003 United States Supreme Court rulings in the University of Michigan cases in order to make sense of the different policy prescriptions that emerge despite ostensible agreement on key moral and political values. The Supreme Court’s decisions in the Michigan cases, Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger (2003), affirm the importance of racial and ethnic diversity to higher education. Nevertheless, the disagreement over race-conscious admissions policies persists; as a result, educational opportunities for the least advantaged students remain tenuous. The rulings provide a substantial opportunity to get beyond the ideological debates and shift the moral conversation in a new direction. The debate over affirmative action exposes important common concerns by those at various points on the political spectrum. For example, both proponents and opponents of race-conscious admissions policies claim to value the ideal of equality of opportunity. Similarly, each supports diversity (see Amicus Curiae briefs in the Michigan cases by American Council on Education, 2003 and United States, 2003). A central question thus emerges: How is it that those on either side of the affirmative action debate share significant moral ideals yet endorse opposing policy prescriptions? In a related vein, how are important ideals like equality, liberty, opportunity, diversity, and merit conceptualized within the political debate?I aim to bring political philosophy to bear on reshaping the moral landscape around affirmative action and other deeply contested education policy issues that affect equality of educational opportunity. Scholars no longer need to focus singularly on arguing for or against affirmative action itself. Such analyses will do little to advance the moral conversation around affirmative action. What is needed and what I propose to tackle is an examination of the underpinnings of the disagreement that goes beyond those arguments to get at the deeper moral and political conflicts that shape how we view what justice requires of education policy. This is a pivotal time for affirmative action policy. The Supreme Court has made a momentous ruling in the Michigan cases. Based largely on the principles of libertarian political theory, affirmative action opponents are waging state campaigns to abolish affirmative action in higher education admissions despite the Supreme Court’s rulings. The political debate rages on. My aim is to shed new light on the persistent moral disagreement over affirmative action and other race-conscious policies so that, for example, equality of educational opportunity can be understood in a meaningful way, rather than just a slogan that can be easily endorsed by people with quite different policy ideas.This research is intertwined with a larger project that analyzes other policies affecting educational opportunities for the least advantaged students, such as college outreach programs, welfare-to-work policy, and high stakes high school graduation/college entrance testing policy. A deeper understanding of the nature of the disagreement over such education policies constitutes an important step in negotiating policies that honor educational opportunities for all students.
About Michele S. Moses

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