Does systemic injustice justify Robin Hood strategies?
Many injustices arise because of patterns of behaviour, single instances of which seem harmless or at least pardonable. For example, if professors help the kids of their friend get access to university programs – and given the fact that professors and their friends tend to come from the same socio-economic background – this can lead to structural discrimination against applicants from other backgrounds (as discussed by Bazerman and Tenbrunsel here, p. 38-40). Other examples concern implicit biases against women and ethnic minorities. Much work has been done recently that helps us to understand how these mechanisms work (see e.g. here). Given how pervasive these mechanisms are, it is understandable that they cause moral outrage. The question is, however, what individuals should do in reaction to them.
Imagine that you are in a situation in which you have some amount of power, for example as a reviewer or as a member of a search committee. You might be tempted to use a “Robin Hood strategy”, i.e. a strategy that breaks the existing rules, for the sake of supporting those who are treated unjustly by these rules. Given how structural injustices work, many such “rules” are not formal rules, but rather informal patterns of behaviour. But it is still possible to work against them. For example, could it be justified to reject male applicants not because of the quality of their applications, but because they are white and male and come from a rich Western country?
One has to distinguish two levels of what such a strategy could imply. The first concerns correcting own biases that one might have, despite all good intentions (to check them, the various tests offered by Harvard University on this website can be helpful). The best way to do this, if possible, seems to be anonymity. When this is not feasible, the alternative is to scrutinize one’s patterns of thought and behaviour as best one can. The more power one has, the more it seems a requirement of justice to do this.
This is different from a second level of Robin Hood strategies, for which the name seems more appropriate: these concern not only own biases, but biases of the system. The idea is to work against them on one’s own, in one’s little corner, maybe hoping that if enough of us do this, the problems can be solved or at least attenuated. Could this be a defensible strategy?
The problem is, of course, that one risks introducing new injustices. One consciously deviates from what are supposed to be the criteria of selection, for example a candidate’s performance in previous jobs or the likelihood of being a good team member. In some cases, however, it is reasonable to assume that if a candidate comes from a group that suffers from discrimination, achieving the same level of merit as a candidate from another group takes much more effort. So according to this argument, and as long as these problems are not recognized by the official selection criteria, it seems defensible to privately factor in these previous structural inequalities.
But one’s epistemic position in judging such cases is often a weak one. For example, standard application material for many jobs includes a CV and some letters of reference. These materials are often insufficient for understanding the details of a specific case and the degree to which discrimination or stigmatization might have had an impact on the candidate’s previous career. One risks making mistakes and importing one’s own subjective biases and prejudices; taken together, this can make things worse, all things considered.
Robin Hood strategies do not provide what seems most needed: good procedures and public accountability. They do not get at the root of the problem, which is to create collective awareness of the issues, and to find collective mechanisms for addressing them (the gendered conference campaign is an example). Collective mechanisms are not only likely to be more effective, they also bring things out into the open, and create a public discourse on them. Although public discourses also have their weaknesses, there is at least a chance that the better argument will win, and there are opportunities for correcting what end up misguided strategies. Robin Hood strategies, in contrast, fight fire with fire: they remain within a logic of power, trying to find ways in which one can use counter-power to subvert the dominant power elites. But this does not change the fundamental logic of the game.
Thus, our preferred strategies should be different ones: strategies that really change the logic of the game, openly addressing problematic patterns of behaviour and looking for collective – and maybe formally institutionalized – solutions. Nonetheless, and despite all the reasons mentioned above, I cannot bring myself to thinking that Robin Hood strategies can never be justified in today’s world. Of course one has to be very careful with them, not only with particular cases, but also with regard to the slippery slope one might get onto. But are they ruled out completely? What do you think?