Or something like that.
I take it that there are impersonal and imperfect procedures all around us, including all sorts of stuff going on now: hiring, admissions and so on. But to take it away from any immediate concerns for most of us, let’s suppose you have responsibility for distributing the ballots in a very important faculty election and adding up the results as they come in. And let’s focus on cases where the alleged mistakes are really fairly egregious.
So suppose you put the ballots in the university mail and, lo and behold, the day after the results are finally added up, a small group of faculty come to you and say that they didn’t receive the ballots and they think it was due to the incompetence of a staff person, who has failed to distribute mail correctly in their department before. And let’s suppose that indeed not all the ballots that were put in the mail have come back.
What should you say and do? Take them at their word and add in the ballots? Initiate an investigation? Or tell them that the institution followed proper procedure and that’s what you are responsible for.
You can probably easily see how very different situations can have the same structure. TA grading, journal refereeing, committee decisions about hiring and on and on are all fallible. And some can have instances of engregious mistakes – ballots not distributed, a TA who just screwed up on some of the grading. Or it might be the lab processing results from yearly physical exams or looking at potentially important evidence in a crime.
Let’s suppose the alleged errors are not really massive enough to invalidate the whole procedure. The labs mess up in only a few instances, the TAs are generally quite reliable, etc. The question, then, is: in such cases, do the people in charge have any obligation to pay attention to alleged cases of egregious errors?
Why ask this question? Well, one reason is that answers to such questions might separate those of us attracted to a “care ethics” from others. And another reason is that there may be political dimensions to such situations that are worth noting.
One is that very often those pointing out egregious errors may be the supposed victims. Does their first person perspective lessen the value of their claims? Are they to be thought suspiciously self-serving?
Futher, are there groups more apt to be victims of egregious errors? Is a student’s ethnic background revealed in a choice of unfamiliar examples more likely to trigger a “kiss this off” reaction? Might the fact that a sample is supposed to come from an alleged rape case mean the evidence is more or less likely to be treated in the best professional fashion?
So I’m not a moral philosopher, and perhaps I should start off by re-reading Rawls, whom I haven’t thought of for decades. But maybe enough has been said to ask this question: Are those implementing an impersonal but imperfect procedure under any obligation to consider reasonable allegations of egregious errors?
If you can, please do give us some indication of why you have selected the answer you have.
And, to be perfectly up front: I’m concerned that pleas on behalf of women in academia may be floundering in part because of the stress put at times on impersonal procedures. Some procedures, of course, may be revealed as discriminatory at their foundation. But others might be so only in their execution. If we think impersonal procedures are fair and that claims about alleged abuses are inclined to be self-serving, then we may be perpectuating inequalities despite what we intend.
An implication might be that those implementing such procedures should check to make sure that the disadvantaged are in fact not subject to egregious errors. I suspect this will look like suspicious “special pleading.”
Enough! What do you think?