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Living with Moral Disagreement

The Enduring Controversy about Affirmative Action

How to handle affirmative action is one of the most intractable policy problems of our era, touching on controversial issues such as race-consciousness and social justice. Much has been written both for and against affirmative action policies—especially within the realm of educational opportunity. In this book, philosopher Michele S. Moses offers a crucial new pathway for thinking about the debate surrounding educational affirmative action, one that holds up the debate itself as an important emblem of the democratic process.
Central to Moses’s analysis is the argument that we need to understand disagreements about affirmative action as inherently moral, products of conflicts between deeply held beliefs that shape differing opinions on what justice requires of education policy. As she shows, differing opinions on affirmative action result from different conceptual values, for instance, between being treated equally and being treated as an equal or between seeing race-consciousness as a pernicious political force or as a necessary variable in political equality. As Moses shows, although moral disagreements about race-conscious policies and similar issues are often seen as symptoms of dysfunctional politics, they in fact create rich opportunities for discussions about diversity that nourish democratic thought and life. 

144 pages | 2 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2016

Education: Education--Economics, Law, Politics, Higher Education, Philosophy of Education

Philosophy: Ethics

Political Science: Public Policy


“A unique book on affirmative action, one that sees this polarizing topic through the lens of deliberative democratic theory, as an opportunity for civic dialogue among those with divergent opinions that can strengthen democracy. Moses draws on a fascinating study of community discussions that she and her colleagues initiated in the run-up to a statewide referendum on affirmative action, integrating her findings with philosophical analysis of both affirmative action and democratic theory. The result is exemplary scholarship, a fusion of the empirical and the theoretical that is the hallmark of the best work in contemporary philosophy of education.”

Lawrence Blum, University of Massachusetts Boston

“A highly readable yet deeply analytical account of the nation’s inability to resolve its persistent disagreement about affirmative action. Moses’s analysis shines important new light on broad and deep divisions over the meaning and relative value of equality and individual rights in social policy. Locating recent litigation and ballot initiatives about diversity in higher education in theories of justice and democracy, she unearths fundamental moral disagreements that lie below the intense volume of the nation’s debates about pervasive racial injustice. She offers a compelling argument that democratic deliberation and dialogue can help us build bridges to productive ways of living with these fundamental differences and arrive at new agreements that support our diverse democracy.”

Jeannie Oakes, University of California, Los Angeles

Table of Contents


One / “Who Isn’t for Equality?”
Two / The Case of Affirmative Action Policy
Three / The Nature of Moral Disagreement: Conflicting Ideals?
Four / Ballot Initiatives, Moral Disagreement, and Ideas of Equality
Five / Deliberative Democracy and Policy Dialogue (with Lauren P. Saenz and Amy Farley Lobue)
Six / What Should We Do about Profound Moral Disagreements over Education Policy?

Appendix A / Pre-Questionnaire
Appendix B / Post-Questionnaire
Appendix C / Post-Post-Questionnaire
Appendix D / Follow-Up Interview Protocol


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