The essays by Thomson and Nagel defended the use of preferences but on different grounds.
Thomson endorsed job preferences for women and African-Americans as a form of redress for their past exclusion from the academy and the workplace.
Likewise, after 1965 federal contractors had been subject to President Lyndon Johnson’s Executive Order 11246, requiring them to take “affirmative action” to make sure they were not discriminating. The Executive Order assigned to the Secretary of Labor the job of specifying rules of implementation.
In the meantime, as the federal courts were enforcing the Civil Rights Act against discriminating companies, unions, and other institutions, the Department of Labor mounted an ad hoc attack on the construction industry by cajoling, threatening, negotiating, and generally strong-arming reluctant construction firms into a series of region-wide “plans” in which they committed themselves to numerical hiring goals.
In 1972, affirmative action became an inflammatory public issue.
True enough, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 already had made something called “affirmative action” a remedy federal courts could impose on violators of the Act.
Preferential policies, in her view, worked a kind of justice.
Nagel, by contrast, argued that preferences might work a kind of social good, and without doing violence to justice.
If the affirmative action required of federal contractors was a recipe for “proportional representation,” then Revised Order No. Some among the professoriate exploded in a fury of opposition to the new rules, while others responded with an equally vehement defense of them.
As it happened, these events coincided with another development, namely the “public turn” in philosophy.