Can Two Wrongs Make a Right?

Wolf of Wall Street

“So what do you say, Zara?” Ziggy asked his friend. “Can two wrongs make a right?”

The answer came back immediately. “To ask the question is to answer it: of course they can’t.”

Ziggy was in good spirits having taken a bit of a pounding from his self-appointed mentor and postmodern-day prophet of renown Zara in the last exchange they had had when Zara had come out on top, or at least got the last word… before throwing Ziggy out of his Lamborghini onto the road in exasperation with his friend’s insistence that he was being badgered unduly.

The episode had left Ziggy feeling a bit sore (in more ways than one). But reflecting on events later that evening over a few beers, he had managed to persuade himself through the application of postmodern logic [Isn’t that an oxymoron? – ed.] that his being chucked out of the car actually furnished him with victim status and by that token the moral high ground. Well, as a student of moral philosophy (albeit in its postmodern variety), nothing tastes as sweet as the moral high ground, the satisfaction of the experience being in no way lessened by the intoxication induced by a few bottles of Corona (or was it Bud? It was always hard to tell the difference after the first six-pack.)

One could be forgiven for thinking, given Zara’s peremptory dismissal of the moral dilemma presented to him, that he considered this to be an open and shut case. But this was more his hope than his conviction. Because, although Ziggy had put the events of the previous week behind him, this was not known to Zara who was concerned that the “wrong” his friend may have perceived was at risk of being “righted” to his disadvantage. In reality his fears in this regard were unwarranted. That is not to say, however, that the exercise of caution was not required of him in the exchange that ensued.

“I’m not sure I agree,” Ziggy ventured, exuding an air of studied caution. “And I’m not sure you do either.”

“Clearly you didn’t hear what I just said.”

“Oh, I did. I’m just not sure if you really believe it. Shall I explain what I mean?”

A small bead of perspiration at this point started making its way down Zara’s forehead. “Sure, go ahead” he replied. “But do you mind if I turn the air con up? It’s getting a little hot in here.” Ziggy didn’t mind.

“Well, what I was wondering was how well the arguments for affirmative action for the promotion of black and ethnic minorities stand up to scrutiny in the light of what you claim to believe. It was argued previously that ethnic minorities had been actively discriminated against in the job market, so we introduced equalities legislation which rendered that illegal.”

“Quite so.”

“But inequity has prevailed so now it is argued that active measures in the form of reverse discrimination are needed.”

“Yes, and clearly that is a right and good thing , so I don’t see there is any suggestion of any second wrong here?”

“But isn’t truth a function of narrative and lived experience?”

Zara was a little concerned that the solid ground which was evidently being ceded to him might not be what it seemed. A pre-emptive move seemed in order. “Yes, and we improve the lived experience of black kids by offering them jobs and a future rather than casting them asunder.”

“Well, let’s set aside the rather patronising attitude that ‘we’ are giving black kids a future rather than this being through their agency,” came back the riposte.

“Ouch! This guy is on form today,” Zara thought to himself. “He has managed to undermine me and forgive me in the same breath.”

Meanwhile Ziggy, on a roll, wisely resisted the temptation to slip in a “See what I just did!” and continued. “The problem is when you also consider the lived experience of white kids. Race-based discrimination in favour of some black kid inevitably means discriminating against some non-black kid who didn’t get the job or other opportunity as a result.”

“Hold on! You need to look at the big picture. As you can see, social justice is served as a result.”

“But surely either race-based discrimination is wrong or it is not. And if it is and we seek to justify the second wrong based on some other consideration, namely addressing the initial wrong, is that not a de facto claim that the two wrongs have made a right?”

Zara had argued his way out of this corner previously, so continued to push back with increased confidence. “Ah, but you miss the point that the affirmative action was to serve the cause of social justice, so cannot in that light be construed as a wrong”

“Just to be clear then, Zara, is your argument here that the discrimination was justified by the intention or by the actual result?”

This was easy. “Both,” replied Zara without losing a tempo.

But his adversary was better prepared than he realised. “So as I understand, your argument then is that the social justice at a group level which we as progressive activists are passionate about is served. But what about the lived experience of those in disadvantaged communities who were passed over in this process. For example, a hard-working white kid whose family lives off benefits loses out to a black kid from a middle-class family on account of affirmative action. Is that right or fair?”

This was not the line of reasoning he had been expecting. It was clearly time to deploy some active measures. “But that argument is just what-iffery and speculative theorising. And besides, you’re changing the subject from social to economic justice.”

“But surely these things are two sides of the same coin. Isn’t that what you always say?” This last was an understatement if anything. Ziggy could only sit in muted silence as the wrecking ball he had pushed out swung back at him.

“So, as it happens, I’ve been researching and it seems some of the worst youth unemployment in the country is in working-class mainly-white communities in Northern towns like Hartlepool and Hull. How can it be claimed economic justice is served by providing more jobs for black kids in London? Whatever the intentions might be, there is definitely a dearth of evidence in terms of the fairness of the actual results of affirmative action for some disadvantaged individuals and groups.”

Zara needed to find a new tack and quickly. “But it’s unfair to expect that every injustice be addressed at the same time by a single measure. As progressive activists we are committed to addressing all socio-economic injustice.”

“OK, so your position then is that race-based discrimination can still be considered right provided it is intended to bring about a desirable socio-economic outcome?”

“Well yes, that sounds like a more reasonable position,” Zara ventured reluctantly. Suddenly he was finding himself on unfamiliar terrain with his friend apparently in possession of the sole map. He, Zara, didn’t even know which continent he was looking to navigate, as he was about to find out…

“So, if race-based discrimination were proposed as a way to prevent a country falling from the highest to the lowest GDP per capita on the continent, would that be right or wrong?”

Zara declined to answer.

Ziggy pressed on regardless. “Well, my researches also tell me that it was just such an argument the racist regime which ran Rhodesia used to justify their holding on to power. Not only that, the argument they used was seen subsequently to be correct, after they were ejected and the country gained independence as the new Zimbabwe. It remains one of the poorest countries in Africa; and the discrimination based on race and ethnicity in the country continues to this day.”

Zara, perplexed, had to admit to feeling out of his depth. “So are you saying in the end that what happened in Zimbabwe was right or wrong by your way of thinking?”

At this point, it was Ziggy who had to stop and take stock. Should he press his advantage further or take this as acknowledgement of his having prevailed in today’s joust? There was an awkward silence. Just then he noticed a light in the distance, piercing the darkness of the trees enshrouding the road. As it drew closer he recognised it as emerging from the front window of the Coach and Horses Inn which was their ultimate destination. The car stopped with a screech of brakes as Zara slotted it into the last available parking place and turned to his friend with a quizzical look: “So?”

Ziggy finally made his decision. “Actually,” he conceded, “I don’t think I know either. Let’s agree to re-visit the question another day.”

And so they left it at that, at least for the evening. For, in the grand scheme of things, was the challenge of righting the injustices of the world really a big enough issue for Ziggy to fall out with his friend over? Particularly as it was Zara who was due to stand the first round.

By Colin Turfus

Colin Turfus is a quantitative risk manager with 16 years experience in investment banking. He has a PhD in applied mathematics from Cambridge University and has published research in fluid dynamics, astronomy and quantitative finance.

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