Confronting nepotism: Why it is okay to have favorites

I, along with college students nationwide, am in the process of finding work for the coming summer. I’ve noticed that my process for getting job offers is not entirely composed of filling out applications and submitting resumes, but also includes making connections and networking. When there’s an opportunity that could be interesting, one of my first thoughts is, “Who do I know?” I browse the College’s Career Center page, ask my parents or call friends. Throughout our lives we make a plethora of friends and acquaintances whom we ask for and for whom we volunteer to do favors, but is this system of reciprocity really a good thing? Everyone I have ever known has, at some point in time, benefitted from favoritism. So, given its relevance, what can we say about its place in our society?

I first learned the term ‘nepotism’ when I was in eighth grade US history. It was used in reference to the political state of the country following the Civil War and the assassination of Andrew Garfield. We talked about its negative effects on our politics and progress as a nation. By allowing our decisions to be influenced by our personal opinions of people and electing officials, hiring employees and granting admission to those whom we favor, we undermine the inherent benefit of a meritocracy. We are no longer selecting the most qualified applicant; we are simply selecting our favorite, and in doing so, we detract from the efficiency of the organization in question, which would have greater benefited from the addition of the option with the greatest merit. This in mind, I’ve tried to rationalize, and to some extent validate, the undeniably prominent role that nepotism plays in all of our lives.

Everybody in this world has favorites. Parents care about their children more than someone else’s kids, and a Democrat likely cares more for Hillary Clinton than for Donald Trump. The simple existence of the terms ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in the English language is indicative of our human tendency for favoritism. It is precisely this distinction between the positive and the negative that compels us to have different reactions to different people. Moreover, we treat those we favor differently than those we do not. This may in fact be the root of the issue, the natural transition from identifying preference to acting on it. I hold that such behavior, however, is not only acceptable but unavoidable, for I have never met nor heard of a person who can successfully treat everybody in the world with complete equality.

It follows naturally from this that one would treat their favored circle of people better than anybody else. Often this means using one’s resources (be that time, money or position) to help out those they care about. Now, this is a tricky step to take, as one could argue that the morality of nepotism lies in which resources you choose to use, and if their use results in someone else’s loss. This is a valid concern, but defining those resources which are permissible to use is a difficult task. For any act of kindness, regardless of the resources used, there is often someone for whom that kindness would have done more good or someone who has been hurt by that kindness.

Take, for example, giving a friend a t-shirt for their birthday. Your friend will be happy, but the shirt could have done someone else far more good than your friend, the act of buying the shirt could be creating demand for unethically-manufactured textiles and the money you used to buy the shirt could have been made from an organization that profited from amoral action. Nothing exists in a vacuum, and so few things exist without some amoral aspect. Therefore, there are essentially no resources that can be used without causing harm.

I realize that this is a very jaded way of looking at the world, but the enormous complexity of every action we take is rarely considered. If we cannot hope to understand the exact measurements of net moral gain and loss to every action, then how are we to make the best decisions? I cannot answer that question for you, as I believe everyone must consider it individually. But what I can say is that there is a definite discrepancy in my opinions of others, and I will always try to do right by those I care for. I cannot find a reason that anyone should feel poorly about trying to better the lives of those who are important to them. The world may be a more efficient place in the absence of nepotism, but such a situation is wildly improbable and could only exist with the sacrifice of our humanity.

Nevin Bernet ’20 is from Topanga, Calif. and lives in Garfield.