Discrimination (16): When Is It OK to Discriminate?

Discrimination is generally blameworthy and therefore often illegal as well. However, there are situations in which it’s acceptable to discriminate and unacceptable to legislate against discrimination. I’m not referring to rules that apply unequally to different people in order to produce a more equal outcome, such as rules regarding affirmative action (which are sometimes claimed to be a form of positive discrimination); nor am I referring to rules regarding different height requirements for male and female candidate police officers. These are two examples of rules that discriminate in order to make outcomes more equal, and they can therefore, paradoxically, be seen as anti-discriminatory. Conversely, rules that apply equally to all can have a “disparate impact“: e.g. one uniform and “neutral” height requirement for police officers would mean that fewer women will be allowed in the police force and would therefore have a discriminatory impact on women. Even if such rules are not intended to discriminate against women, they obviously do. (I’ll come back to intent in discrimination at the end of this post).

So, I’m thinking about rules like those, or rules that not only have unequal outcomes but also apply unequally (take the rules against gay marriage for instance). Can some such rules, which clearly discriminate some groups of people (given a certain understanding of discrimination), ever be justified?

I think they can. Discrimination can be unobjectionable if the benefits outweigh the harm done by discrimination. “Benefits” meaning not the benefits from the discriminator’s point of view, since those always, by definition, outweigh the harms for others – that’s the point of discrimination. We have to look at the benefits generally speaking, from a neutral point of view. For example, the safety of airline passengers and hence their rights to life and physical security outweigh the discrimination imposed on people who are not allowed to be pilots because of their bad eyesight. Another example: the importance of a good education for our children outweighs the discrimination imposed on people who want to be teachers but don’t have the qualifications. Discrimination of people with a physical disability or intellectual deficiencies is acceptable and even beneficial in these cases, not because those who can become pilots and teachers benefit from the exclusion of rivals, but because society as a whole benefits, and because this benefit outweighs the harm done to those excluded.

The downside of the consequentialist balancing inherent in these examples is that it is seldom clear what the exact harms and benefits of discrimination are. After all, every historical instance of discrimination was once defended on the basis of its beneficial consequences: equal voting rights for women was supposed to lead to irrational politics; legalization of homosexuality would lead to immorality; miscegenation would lead to the downfall of the white race etc. However, these examples don’t prove that there can’t be any forms of discrimination that can have some real and overriding benefits, and in fact we daily assume that they have: we give good teachers a job as a teacher, we give talented people higher wages etc. because we believe that society as a whole benefits from this.

Maybe we shouldn’t talk about discrimination in cases of acceptable and beneficial discrimination. I argued here that we should probably limit the concept to those cases in which the equal rights of those who are discriminated are violated and, more specifically, are violated for no other reason than their membership of a socially salient group. The would-be pilots and teachers in the examples above don’t have an equal right to be pilots or teachers or to any other specific job. There is no such right. There is a general right to work, but that right isn’t violated since people with bad eyesight or without the qualifications to become good teachers have ample opportunities to find a job elsewhere (under normal economic conditions).

Also the second condition for discrimination is absent in these examples: the people in question are certainly not part of socially salient groups (which is another way of saying that people with bad eyesight or without the qualifications to become good teachers are not regularly put at a disadvantage in society). Hence they are not discriminated when they are excluded from certain jobs on the basis of qualifications.

If, however, the would-be pilots and teachers were black – and therefore part of a socially salient group – and if they were excluded for no other reason than their skin color, and if this exclusion would violate their right to work (or any other right), then there would be discrimination. Their exclusion would violate their right to work when they regularly face this kind of exclusion, not when that sort of things happens only exceptionally and when they therefore have ample opportunities elsewhere.

This last point about alternative opportunities is crucial. Single instances of discrimination usually don’t violate people’s rights and therefore aren’t really discrimination according to the definition given here. Discrimination requires violations of people’s rights and violations based on people’s membership in socially salient groups. And violations of rights imply the absence of alternative opportunities  (I once gave the example of one lonely restaurant owner refusing to serve blacks, or the isolated landlord refusing to rent a house to Italian immigrants).

In this older post I argued that forcing some people to stop discriminating would violate their rights, such as their right to free association, to property, to religion etc. and that it can only be acceptable to force them to stop if the discrimination they inflict is so widespread and historically deep that it limits the rights and options of the targets of discrimination.

Nevertheless, this rule still leaves us with a few hard cases. The rights of discriminators may still receive priority even when the discrimination does severely limit the options and rights of target groups. Suppose there’s a general disapproval to marry “outside of one’s race” among the majority white population in a society. Most of us would not want legislation against this kind of discrimination because that would drastically limit the right to marry of the discriminators. Discrimination here severely impacts the choices and opportunities of non-whites, and yet seems acceptable. The whites in question may be immoral and repugnant, but this doesn’t render their rights null and void and doesn’t justify legislation prohibiting an exclusive preference for white husbands and wives. The reason, I think, is that it’s very difficult to do something about the actions of the whites. You can force people to hire blacks, serve them in your restaurant, admit them in your school etc. But you can’t force people to marry someone. So, the system I set up here to separate cases of discrimination from other cases isn’t perfect. It won’t solve some hard cases, but maybe those can never be solved.

A final word about intent. There’s no mention of intent in the definition of discrimination given here. That means that rules with a disparate impact can be cases of wrongful discrimination even if there is no intent to discriminate. Take again the case of height requirements for police officers: a single height requirement for both genders is not necessarily discriminatory, but when it is part of a wider social pattern of gender inequality, then it may violate women’s equal rights because the total set of gender biased rules makes it difficult for women to have ample employment opportunities elsewhere. Women are then a socially salient group. Intent is irrelevant here. Even if the height requirement is motivated by efficiency reasons, it contributes to discrimination and rights violations. The goal of anti-discrimination is equal protection of rights, whatever the causes of rights violations.

Now, imagine the height requirement isn’t part of a wider pattern of gender inequality. In that case, women have ample opportunities elsewhere and their equal right to work is therefore not violated. Hence there is no discrimination.


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