Derek Bok, in his defense of affirmative action ("Goals Aren't Quotas," op-ed, Feb. 25), makes three points:

1)That the goals and timetables required by current regulations implementing Executive Order 11246 differ from quotas because they do not require an employer to hire a female or minority applicant who is "plainly less qualified" than a white male alternative, but do encourage "conscientious employers" to hire such applicants when their "qualifications (are) reasonably comparable to the best alternative candidates."

2)That the use of goals contributes to the diminution of such key social problems as "jobless rates (which) exceed 40 percent for black teen-agers" and the resulting "problem for all of us that takes its daily toll through added crime, welfare payments, unemployment compensation and urban decay."

3)That these social benefits to be derived from affirmative action are worth the admitted costs of unfairness to white males (who, he says, continue to receive "unfair advantages . . . through habits of discrimination and oversight that persist to the detriment of women and minorities"), and the possible stigma for minority and female beneficiaries engendered by the policy.

All three of these points are flawed. Let me address them one by one:

1)The distinction that Bok draws between goals and quotas is illusory. Each involves the formulation of a numerical target for the employment of the favored groups. Each induces a change in the hiring behavior of the subject employer. And in each case that change is brought on by the employer's assessment of the consequences of failure to meet the target. Thus, one cannot distinguish a "goal" from a "quota" in those instances where the target is met; everything depends on what happens in the event of failure.

When the consequences of not meeting the target are minor, the change in hiring behavior by the subject employer will also be minor. When the penalty for failure to meet the target is severe, the change in employer behavior will be more extensive. For Derek Bok a "goal" is a target supported by weak penalties in the event it is not met, while a "quota" is a target with penalties for failure that are so severe that most employers will be induced to meet it. The distinction is one of degree, not kind.

Naturally, as a large employer with extensive government involvements, Bok prefers that his numerical targets be enforced by weak penalties. But if "quotas" imply deplorable reverse discrimination, as Bok tacitly acknowledges, then how weak must the penalties supporting a numerical target become before it turns into a "goal," and is thereby made morally acceptable? Put differently, how big must the difference in qualifications between two applicants be before they are no longer "comparable" and one of them becomes "plainly less qualified?"

Our legal and moral objection to racial discrimination against blacks is not conditional upon some minimal degree of injury being done by the act of discriminating. We believe it is wrong to treat people in that way no matter how severe the damage done thereby. Why should we reason differently when the injured party is a white male?

2)There is not a shred of evidence that Executive Order 11246 has had a positive effect on the unemployment rate of black teen-agers, on the poverty rates affecting minority populations, on welfare dependency or on the social disruption associated with inner-city crime.

Indeed, to assert that this could be so is to contravene Bok's claim that beneficiaries of the policy are given preference only when their qualifications are "comparable" to the best alternative candidates. Most victims of the deprivation which Bok rightly decries are in no position to present qualifications comparable to those of persons not subject to the disadvantages of lower-class urban life.

The Labor Department study that Bok cites finds employment effects from the Executive Order too small to imply any meaningful impact on overall minority poverty or unemployment rates. It is a cruel hoax to suggest to the American people that the profoundly serious problems of alienation and social-economic marginality represented by the inner-city ghettos of this country can be significantly affected by a policy that bestows benefits on those who are not poor.

3)By what reasoning or evidence does Bok conclude that the injury to white males from affirmative action "is likely to be more than offset by the unfair advantages they receive" due to ongoing discrimination against women and minorities? While this may be a plausible conclusion when considering the particular white male employees of a specific employer found to have been discriminating against women and/or minorities over a period of time, it makes no sense whatsoever when applied to white men in general.

It is a sign of how insidiously corrupting of our moral sensibilities the practice of racial preference can be that such an attribution could issue from one so commited to the cause of justice as Bok. For it implies that a white man, fresh from high school and applying for a janitor's position at Harvard, may be denied employment on the grounds that he has been the beneficiary of some generalized and unspecified discrimination against women and minorities. This conclusion, moreover, is drawn without reference to his social background or personal biography.

If all white men have benefited improperly from discrimination, why have not some white women also benefited? Would not such reasoning imply that black women should get preference over white women because the latter, while having suffered from sex discrimination, have nonetheless benefited from racial discrimination?

Finally, Bok's discussion of the problem of stigma is, at best, incomplete. He cites my own arguments in this area as carrying particular force, saying that I am one who "speaks with daunting credibility as a black who grew up on the South Side of Chicago."

Yet, my credibility to address this issue derives not from my Chicago origins but rather from my more recent experience as a black professional working in the upper reaches of a highly competitive, technically demanding profession. It was only after accepting a tenured professorship in Harvard's economics department -- a professorship extended on the condition that I accept responsibilities in the Afro- American Studies department as well, and one offered despite the views of some in the economics department that I was not quite ready for such a distinguished position -- that I began to learn firsthand what being an "affirmative action appointment" can mean.

It is not sufficient, when dismissing the "stigma" argument, to cite opinion polls showing that most blacks support the Executive Order as it now stands. For most blacks do not have direct experience with those environments in which the implications of being labeled an "affirmative action hire" are most debilitating. I know I speak for many blacks when I say that I resent being robbed of my opportunity to earn the highest honors my profession offers, being placed in a position where no matter what I achieve it can be said: "He would never have gotten that job if he hadn't been black."