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It Falls to You

Rawls, Bartleby, and the Ethics of Affirmative Action in Charles Johnson’s “Executive Decision”
  • William Gleason
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Abstract

Although affirmative action remains one of the most divisive controversies within American law and Western ethics, literary fiction has by and large remained on the sidelines of this contentious debate with one striking exception: Charles Johnson’s 1997 short story “Executive Decision.” Johnson’s tale not only dramatizes the vexing question at the heart of every affirmative action workplace decision—between equally qualified candidates, should an employer give special preference to an applicant from an historically underprivileged group?—but it also explores the roles of moral and political philosophy in framing the relevant issues at stake. In this chapter I will focus on two crucial and interrelated aspects of Johnson’s story: its ultimate embrace of the social contract theory of John Rawls and its canny invocation of American literature’s most puzzling tale of preference, Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” I will suggest that while “Executive Decision” makes a case, through fiction, for the appropriateness of affirmative action as a workplace remedy against ongoing employment discrimination, Johnson’s story is no mere polemic. Instead it offers a thoughtful meditation—one that Johnson would also undertake in Dreamer, his 1998 novel on the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.—on a concept central to Rawls’s theory of justice as fairness: the profound responsibility, in a just society, that human beings have toward the least fortunate—or, one might say, toward the Bartlebys—among them.

Keywords

Affirmative Action Difference Principle Social Contract Theory Rational Discrimination African American Culture 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Copyright information

© Lovalerie King and Richard Schur 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • William Gleason

There are no affiliations available

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