The Pimple on Adonis's Nose: A Dialogue on the Concept of Merit in the Affirmative Action Debate

62 Pages Posted: 17 Jun 2004 Last revised: 20 Apr 2009

See all articles by Tobias Barrington Wolff

Tobias Barrington Wolff

University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School

Robert Paul Wolff

University of Massachusetts at Amherst


Efforts at progressive educational reform in general, and affirmative action in particular, frequently encounter a rhetorically powerful objection: Merit. The story of merit proclaims that high-achieving applicants - those who have already made effective use of educational opportunities in the past and demonstrated a likelihood of being able to do so in the future - enjoy a morally superior claim in the distribution of scarce educational resources. Past achievement, in other words, entitles an applicant to a superior education. This moral framework of merit serves as a constant counterpoint in debates over affirmative action, including those contained in the Court's landmark decisions in Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger. It provides the first rejoinder to any suggestion that the race of non-White applicants might play a role in a university's admission policy. It is presumed by many to define the arena within which all admissions decisions must be made. That presumption, in turn, is the central principle from which affirmative action is said to derogate. The harm associated with affirmative action, under this received view, is not merely the consideration of race in the abstract. Rather, it is the use of race to distort or displace an evaluative process, the tenets of which are presumed to be an essential element of university admissions.

This Article challenges that received view. It offers a robust illustration of a principle that has long been recognized by philosophers but has yet to find effective voice in constitutional debates over educational reform: The distribution of resources that results from rewarding the most accomplished applicants is neither necessary nor inevitable, nor imbued with any a priori moral superiority. Rather, rewarding merit constitutes a distributive choice in the allocation of scarce educational resources, and there is good reason to think that, standing alone, it is neither the most efficient distributional policy nor the most just. Using the narrative device of a debate between two law professors punctuated by a keynote address at a conference, this Article draws a comparison between the vastly different distributional policies that our American systems of health care and education employ. It thereby exposes the distributional policies that predominate in American higher education - policies that the story of merit threatens to conceal - and subjects those distributional policies to rigorous analysis. Finally, the Article considers the implications of this shift of focus for the constitutional treatment of affirmative action following Gratz and Grutter and concludes that the Court should move away from strict scrutiny and adopt the type of predominance analysis that it already employs in reapportionment disputes.

Keywords: Affirmative action, merit, education, educational reform, race, diversity

Suggested Citation

Wolff, Tobias Barrington and Wolff, Robert Paul, The Pimple on Adonis's Nose: A Dialogue on the Concept of Merit in the Affirmative Action Debate. Hastings Law Journal, Vol. 56, p. 379, 2005, Available at SSRN:

Tobias Barrington Wolff (Contact Author)

University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School ( email )

3501 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States

Robert Paul Wolff

University of Massachusetts at Amherst ( email )

Department of Operations and Information Managemen
Amherst, MA 01003
United States

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