Defining Diversity


Administrators and faculty are quick to appeal to and develop programs around “diversity.” But what is diversity? It is neither a virtue, nor a basic good, nor even a generally positive descriptor. The commitment to diversity at many universities requires more scrutiny than it is typically given.

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On September 28, Notre Dame’s president, Rev. John Jenkins, sent an email to the entire university community via the “urgent” listserv. The purpose of the email was to announce a new university-sponsored website, In introducing the site, Fr. Jenkins noted that Notre Dame’s “distinctive Catholic mission and identity compel us to work together” to make it “a place that is ever more diverse and inclusive.”

Statements such as these are now common at Notre Dame. In the past few years, it has crafted its own “Diversity Statement,” and Fr. Jenkins created an Oversight Committee on Diversity and Inclusion. We now boast a Diversity Council and a Staff Diversity and Inclusion Subcommittee, with a Director for Staff Diversity and Inclusion. Notre Dame speaks of diversity as a “moral and intellectual necessity,” and Fr. Jenkins believes “a fully diverse community  . . .  is a richer community for learning, discussion, and inquiry.”

One might conclude that any virtue extolled so forcefully, and amid heated debates about such controversial topics as hiring and firing policies and spousal benefits policies, has been carefully thought out, closely examined, and imparts precision and clarity to campus conversations, policymaking, and mores.

This would be a faulty conclusion. At many institutions, diversity functions as a trope that stifles important inquiry, sows confusion on central and sensitive issues, and reflects lazy, not careful, thinking.

What, then, is diversity? Why is it important for university communities? And how can members of the academy speak about it with more clarity?

Diversity and Human Flourishing

What is the relationship between diversity and human flourishing? Any sound approach to ethical thinking considers what actions must aim to achieve in order to fulfill human persons as such. These opportunities for fulfillment aren’t merely instrumental—they aren’t valuable merely because they enable further desirable fulfillments or block the privation of those fulfillments—but are “basic” in that they are fulfilling in themselves. Can diversity be such a thing?

Diversity clearly fails to meet this description: It is not intrinsically fulfilling. Nobody’s undertakings can take diversity as an ultimate end, serving as a (potentially) final and irreducible reason for action.

Diversity could still be an instrumental good, like wealth, which is sought for the sake of the benefits it makes possible, the hardships it eliminates, and the social status it confers. Wealth enriches a person’s life only so far as it enables him to realize other, more intrinsic goods—aesthetic enjoyment of expensive cultural opportunities, for example, or benefits to one’s friendships. Might not diversity do likewise?

The answer is a qualified “yes.” Diversity, which we might here take to mean a proliferation of distinct and more or less differing entities or qualities, can be sought for the sake of a further good: say, knowledge, or friendship (which can be realized in at least as many ways as there are people whom one can befriend), or aesthetic enjoyment. This diversity can be a target for rational activity: One can act so as to increase the diversity of one’s academic community in some respect, or can undertake to “diversify” one’s friend group, or taste a diversity of foreign cuisines. In all these cases one’s desire for diversity is a desire for a state of affairs that makes likely a greater and more extensive participation in other, truly basic goods: knowledge, friendship, or aesthetic enjoyment.

Even in this case, diversity is not intrinsically worthy of choice. It’s pursued as a means to more fundamental goods. Thus important questions still remain. What goods will this diversity enable us to pursue, and what sort of commitment to diversity is required to obtain those goods? Will it cause damage to other basic goods? In light of all that, is diversity still worth pursuing?

Diversity as a Description

To say that something is diverse, or that diversity is present, is to describe a state of affairs. Descriptions can sometimes be practically and morally relevant; for example, to attribute a virtue or a vice to someone is both to describe how he is and to praise or to condemn him. But diversity clearly isn’t a virtue or a vice, because it isn’t a habit of action at all. One can’t speak of—let alone praise—a “diverse” person as one can praise a knowledgeable woman, an excellent pianist, a loyal friend, and a humble athlete.

Diversity is a description of states of affairs denoting a variety that is in itself morally neutral. Moreover, a community might be diverse in some respects while not in others. To speak of a “diverse” community invites the further question of what kind of diversity the community expresses. The expression “It would be good to pursue diversity” is technically incomplete; in order for us to recognize this as a practical truth conducive to our broader aims, “diversity” must be followed by the proposition “of” and a further accompanying noun.

Recall Fr. Jenkins’s statement that “diversity” is a “moral and intellectual necessity.” How can that, in such unqualified terms, be true? To say that diversity is a moral necessity is to say that one has a moral duty to make one’s community diverse. But in what ways? In every way? Only in some?

An academic community in which scholars pursue various lines of inquiry, arriving at differing conclusions, can make for a vibrant culture of debate. Where there is robust communal discourse, the good of knowledge might be pursued to a greater extent, despite disagreement. An academic community whose student or faculty body is composed of persons of varying religious and spiritual backgrounds can enjoy the richness of different expressions of man’s relating to the divine and his pious observance of religious custom and cult. Even within the same religious tradition, one can enjoy this kind of diversity. A Christian from the Midwest can learn much from a Christian from the East Coast, or an American Christian can learn much from a Kenyan Christian, or a Bolivian Christian, whose matrix of faith and culture produces a different lived reality of discipleship and worship.

Yet an academic community in which some scholars advocate eugenic practice and genocidal policy is not a happier community for that reason. No university president who espouses diversity wants to introduce diversity into the faculty by swelling the ranks of those whose publications are poorly received, for example, even though their presence would make the community more diverse. Nor do champions of diversity want to spend time with more students whose religious outlook entails bombing major hubs of campus life, although a community in which at least one member believes (and does this) is more diverse in that respect than a community in which none does.

It is good to have some bacteria in one’s body, but only insofar as they promote the flourishing of one’s body; the presence of other kinds of bacteria is deadly. Is it sensible to brag about being “bacteria rich,” or to claim that one wants “more bacteria,” full stop? No, because the important questions remain unanswered: Are the bacteria good or bad? Are there too many or too few of them? What vital functions are enriched or damaged by the presence of certain bacteria?

A community that touts itself as being “diverse” without qualification, or that strives for “diversity” as a community goal, or treats “diversity” just as such as a “moral necessity,” is like a person who brags about being “bacteria rich”: Everything important remains to be investigated.

The Diversity Trope Stifles Conversation

A professor who has spearheaded several movements at his campus to promote diversity once told me that diversity functions as a “rhetorical trope” that “communicates a broader set of values.” I agree. This helps explain why and how that trope stifles important inquiry, sows confusion on central and sensitive issues, and reflects lazy thinking.

Most champions of diversity are content simply to invoke the term and to presume that the broader values it communicates—this professor mentioned tolerance, inclusivity, and justice—will silently and persuasively do the argumentative work. But we’ve seen that speaking of “diversity” in serious contexts leaves nearly everything to be articulated, distinguished, and defended. Diversity of what? What goods are at stake? Efforts to push through the diversity trope toward these questions and their answers are often fruitless or deemed “unwelcoming.” This is partially because one whose thinking has been engineered by the diversity trope and related rhetorical smokescreens actually unlearns how to think clearly past or through them, and may see resistance to that trope only as presumptuousness, nastiness, or an invitation to hopeless subjectivism.

This is also why the diversity trope sows confusion on central and sensitive issues. How can an academic community have clear discussions about difficult topics when its leaders treat as a “moral and intellectual necessity” a word whose possible meanings they don’t nearly capture or express, and which could not have the urgent import they ascribe to it?

Finally, thinking and speaking in terms of the diversity trope dampens the real need to make finer distinctions commensurate with the magnitude of questions that regrettably are currently decided as functions of “diversity.” Diversity, when it’s good and worth pursuing, is an instrument to aim at what is really good: knowledge, friendship, religion, and so on. Those wielding the diversity trope generally use it to bypass questions and obtain answers that can’t be reached on other grounds. Should universities distance themselves from “heteronormative” practices and encourage, as a fruit and flowering of “diversity,” more same-sex relationships, perhaps by calling them marriages? Doing so makes the community more diverse, as does increasing faculty hiring quotas for third-rate scholars, inaugurating a diversity quota for low-reaching ranges of applicants’ SAT scores, and encouraging a diversity of practice regarding plagiarism on term papers. The point here is that diversity is not good as such and that practices undertaken for the sake of diversity do not necessarily help a university achieve its substantive ends.

The Allure of Diversity

If they are so empty, then why are appeals to diversity so effective, and whence diversity’s visceral attractiveness to so many university communities? A few reasons can be quickly surmised.

One is that the legitimate value of diversity as an instrumental good in some cases is simply confused with other cases in which an increase in diversity of some sort actually harms either the same intrinsic values it purports to make (more) available, or else other intrinsic values.

A second is that “diversity,” as noted by the professor mentioned earlier, functions as a trope that promotes other popular academic virtues, tolerance and inclusivity among them, which university communities are eager to endorse, if only for reputation’s sake. This view has two related relevant offshoots. First, ours is an age tepid for truth, the “scandal of particularity,” and so we suppose that our support of “diversity” might signal a benign posture toward competing (and incompatible) judgments. Second, universities espousing stronger institutional commitments in the form of religious truth claims are eager to demonstrate that they can nevertheless be open to plurality and dialogue.

Whatever the reasons may be for its popularity, we can say that “diversity” as a descriptor of any community is devoid of positive meaning unless and until one carefully clarifies what is diverse, and why being diverse in that respect promotes the community’s holistic good. Rhetorical tropes that avoid or resist these lines of inquiry and smuggle other (vague) values shouldn’t be the cornerstones of any community’s decision-making processes. One hopes we can achieve uniformity on that.

Michael Bradley is pursuing a master's degree in the history of Christianity from the University of Notre Dame. He is editor-in-chief emeritus of the Irish Rover and a fellow with Ethika Politika.

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