In recent weeks, we have heard much talk of the debate within the Reagan administration over the efforts of Attorney General Edwin Meese to jettison the use of goals and timetables under affirmative action programs. Meese asserts that goals often turn into quotas and hence discriminate unfairly against better qualified whites. His opponents counter that goals are not quotas, only voluntary targets that help employers focus their efforts on improving their record in hiring women and minorities.

Thus far, Meese's opponents have the better of the argument. While the Justice Department has offered little evidence that goals are actually quotas in disguise, civil rights advocates have pointed to studies showing that employers who fail to meet their goals have not been penalized by the government. At the same time, supporters cite Labor Department reports heralding the success of affirmative action by showing that companies subject to its mandates have increased their employment of minorities and women more rapidly than firms not covered by the program.

Although the debate has produced some useful statistics, there is more to the problem than the arguments offered by either side.

As president of a large affirmative action employer, I feel sure that without goals and timetables we would never have been as aware of our deficiencies or had as much motivation to overcome them. As a veteran of repeated reviews under four administrations, I have never seen federal officials treat our goals as quotas even when my university failed to meet its targets. The most substantial pressure to hire more minorities and women has come not from the government but from private sources both inside and outside the university. If federal officials have erred, it has been through bureaucratic overkill that has forced my colleagues to spend too much time preparing reports and statistics and too little time trying to identify promising candidates whom we might hire.

But goals have a subtle effect on employment decisions that civil rights advocate do not acknowledge. Many judgments about whom to hire or promote are hard to make objectively. We are simply not that skilled in evaluating people and predicting their performance. Of course, some candidates are obviously better than others, but it is often unclear which of several candidates is the very best. Under a quota, an employer may be forced to hire even from among the applicants who are plainly less qualified. With a goal, one need not go that far. Yet, if minority or female applicants exist with qualifications reasonably comparable to the best alternative candidates, conscientious employers are likely to choose them in an effort to meet their targets.

Is this practice unfair? On balance, no. Minorities and women as a group benefit at the expense of white males as a group if they consistently get the nod in close cases. Nevertheless, this is not the reverse discrimination that the attorney general deplores. Any unfairness that exists is much less clear-cut and more diffuse than it is when a firm hires minorities or women whom it knows to be less qualified than white male candidates it passes over. Moreover, any unfairness against white males as a group is likely to be more than offset by the unfair advantages they receive through habits of discrimination and oversight that persist to the detriment of women and minorities in many firms and sectors of the economy.

Even if we can justify the mild advantages conferred by goals, some critics still argue that affirmative action stigmatizes those it purports to aid and undermines their self-respect by suggesting that they cannot succeed without government help. This is a view advanced with particular force by my colleague Glenn Loury, who speaks with daunting credibility as a black who grew up on the South Side of Chicago.

One cannot deny the risk of stigma any more than one can ignore the subtle preferences implicit in the use of goals. Yet despite Loury's concern, a recent Harris poll reports that 86 percent of blacks oppose administration efforts to weaken affirmative action. And well they might. Black unemployment is still more than twice that of whites. Jobless rates exceed 40 percent for black teen-agers. Over one quarter of all black men between the ages of 20 and 24 have dropped out of the economy entirely. This situation is above all a tragedy for blacks and other minorities who must endure the deprivations of living without work. But it is also a problem for all of us that takes its daily toll through added crime, welfare payments, unemployment compensation and urban decay.

Faced with existing unemployment rates and the persistence of discrimination in parts of the economy, one cannot brush aside the Labor Department's findings that firms subject to affirmative action have increased their minority employees more rapidly than firms outside the government's program. Granted, it would be better to find a way of attacking the problem of economic inequality that did not involve even the faintest sort of preference or the slightest threat of stigma.

In time, we may reach that happy state through better programs of housing, early education and training as well as greater self-help efforts within minority communities. Yet, we do not see enough progress of this kind today. Community-based programs are often underfunded, and federal programs have been cut and seem destined to be cut again.

Meanwhile, poverty rates for minorities have risen in the 1980s, and full-time female employees still earn only 63 percent as much as males. In these circumstances, until alternative programs are funded and working well, I, for one, will continue to set goals gladly, buoyed by the realization that they may at least make some contribution to diminishing an enormous problem for us all.