Ready for fight night: a thought experiment on privilege, affirmative action, reparations and meritocracy

My hobby outside of my work is training in Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), so it is a pleasure to create a thought experiment which involves the sport of MMA.

Imagine two amateur MMA fighters. Both fighters have an equal level of skill, experience, fitness, strength, size, dedication, and so on. In one year the two MMA fighters will have an opportunity to compete professionally, but only one will be successful. At the end of one year, the two MMA fighters will compete against each other for the opportunity to become professional.

I happen to be the coach that will prepare both fighters for their match one year from now. Let’s call the first fighter Chris and the second fighter Sam. Once a day I dedicate an hour to each fighter. However, I happen to like Chris more than Sam, so in my training sessions with Chris I give better advice, correct technical errors and give more effective exercises than I do in Sam’s sessions.

6 months has now passed. Sam has become aware of my unequal treatment of him and has made a complaint. From this complaint, I have rightly been removed from coaching and been replaced by someone else. This new coach has been fair and treated both Chris and Sam equally for the remaining six months.

The first question I ask from this thought experiment is: would Chris have an unfair advantage over Sam when the fight night arrives?

I would say that Chris does possess and unfair advantage. This is because even though both were treated fairly for the remaining six months, Chris was being given an unfair advantage for the first six months. And this would give Chris a significant advantage since both fighters started off equally.

The second question I ask is: What could be a fairer way the new coach could deal with this situation?

I would say a fairer way would be to give Sam some additional assistance, either through time or attention, to make up for the unequal treatment given for the first six months. This would give a far greater chance of equal opportunity for both fighters on fight night rather than merely treating them equally for the remaining six months.

The third question I ask is: If you were Chris, what would be your reaction to the approach I proposed in the previous paragraph?

If it were me, I would have no issue with this approach. My reaction would not be “it wasn’t my fault, I didn’t know, so why should Sam get special treatment now!?”. I would accept that I do have an unfair advantage, even though I was unware and did not participate in attempting to get such an advantage. Furthermore, the knowledge of possessing an advantage I know was unfairly gained, would make me feel less deserving of my potential success on fight night.

I say potential success, because it could still be possible that in spite of such an advantage, Sam could still win at fight night even though Chris possessed an advantage. Sam could just be lucky, or just worked extra hard in the remaining six months himself driven by the indignation of being treated unfairly. Nonetheless, these possibilities are irrelevant to the fact that Chris still possesses an unfair advantage. Sam emerging victorious would be seen as something in spite of an unfair disadvantage, not evidence against it.

Affirmative action and reparations

I argue that this thought experiment is analogous with the concept of affirmative action and reparations. Affirmative action being giving particular groups of people, for instance African Americans, advantages or additional services in acknowledgement of past disadvantages. Reparations is the giving monetory compensation to members of groups based on past wrongs. For those who may object this kind of approach is ‘racist against white people’ or ignores white disadvantages, there are two responses to such a charge. The first response is the complaint of being ‘racist against whites’ would be the same as Chris complaining that giving additional help to Sam is unfair to him. As for ignoring disadvantages possessed by whites, this interview with Martin Luther King Jr gives a compelling response:

Privilege and meritocracy

Under a capitalist structure, existing inequalities are attempted to be justified by appealing to meritocracy, which is the belief that everyone has been given an equal opportunity to succeed in life. Hence , if one does not succeed, then it must be due to not working hard enough, lacking natural abilities, or just bad luck.

The concept of privilege challenges meritocracy, because the existence of privilege by definition assumes the existence of advantages one has not necessarily earned. This why the existence of inheritance is contrary to any claim of true meritocracy, since your opportunities are significantly influenced by the wealth of your parents.

Defenders of a capitalist structure will concede some degree of a lack of equal opportunity due to inheritance, but will claim as long as the wealth has been fairly attained, then that is fair game.

There are responses that can be made to this claim, but even if we assume that is true, the thought experiment illuminates the argument for affirmative action and reparations, since it has placed certain groups of people in a more privileged position than other groups which was unfairly attained.

A response may be that these injustices were ‘a long time ago’, hence the unequal opportuniy no longer exists. Understanding the intergenerational nature of inequality challenges this claim. Intergenerational, appropriately enough, means things that get passed on from generation to generation. Assuming things are truly equal for African Americans (which many would, I think rightly, reject), then we would have 2-3 generations of equal opportunity against a previous 10-12 generations of unfair inequality.

This is where in the thought experiment the six months of fair and unfair treatment of Sam is relevant. If we are willing to accept the existence of unfair advantage with an equal six month split of unfair/fair treatment, then a split of 10 generations/3 generations of unfair/fair treatment must result in the same conclusion. The accumulation of inherited wealth created from generation to generation can hardly be seen as something that can disappear after a few generations.

I should note that there are Marxist socialist criticisms of this approach, which are compelling (see Adolph Reed’s take on antiracism: ). However, the point of this post is to use a thought experiment to demonstrate the inconsistencies with being against affirmative action and repartions whilst also claiming to live in a meritocracy.

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Andrew Tulloch

I have a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Philosophy and Sociology, with a Political Science minor. I also have an honours degree in Philosophy. I am currently studying for my PhD in Philosophy.

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