Wednesday, February 6, 2013


78 How to differentiate

 At several places in this blog (items 15 - 17, for example) I have opposed universalism, including universalist moral rules, and I have pleaded for differentiation; for taking into account variety of individuals and conditions. I also argued that in human affairs there are multiple dimensions of merit that cannot all be added and subtracted (are incommensurable). I have pleaded for collaboration between people that rests at least in part on personal trust.

How far does all that go, and how would it work? What are the limits of bypassing strict and universal rules? What are the implications for justice? Can we do without universal rights?

In an article in The New York Times of 7 January 2013, Stanley Fish pleaded for outright favouritism and nepotism, in granting appointments, rewards, and projects, and in imposing sanctions. Accepting articles for publication should not be ‘double blind’ (reviewer and author not knowing each other’s identity) as the rules require, but should take into account personal experience and views, and knowledge about past research performance, educational background, etc. It is in any case an illusion, he says, and I agree, that reviewers are fully objective. They have their prejudices, hobbies, vanities and methodological and programmatic preferences. The single standard of merit, he claims, disregards ideology, politics, shared history, personality, authority, and trustworthiness.

In the light of what I have been saying in this blog, must I agree with Fish? I don’t.

Fish confuses two things. On the one hand there is the use of personal, informal information on a variety of dimensions of conduct that are relevant for judging some-one’s performance and potential, other than only narrow and imperfect objective measures. On the other hand there is sheer favouritism that discounts or disregards aptitude. I agree with the first, not the latter.

How would warranted differentiation work? One rule is to show what role personal considerations have played and to submit this to independent others, to judge relevance and reliability. That is why for appointments and projects there are, or should be, committees with independent, outside members, and for accepting publications there are teams of reviewers or editors. That should help to reduce the effects of prejudice and bias.

Then there still is asymmetry of rights and access. Let us consider appointments. Candidates that do not happen to personally know any of the decision makers should then be invited to submit references to people they know who are then invited to take part in the process and give their views. And if candidates cannot specify such references, they should be personally interviewed with additional care.

In sum, one can oppose strict universalism and allow for special pleading, to differentiate, taking into account individual variety and variety of conditions, without surrendering to favouritism. There can be fairness without assumptions of equality. A distinction should be made between equality of quality and equality of access to candidacy and to pleading. The first is nonsense and the second is to be carefully maintained.