Discrimination (8): What’s Wrong With Discrimination?

Let me try out a few possible answers to the question in the title of this post:

  1. Is discrimination wrong because it’s differential treatment of persons? That can’t be the case, because we treat people differently all of the time: some people earn more than others, have better grades in school, have a lot of friends or none at all, etc. None of those types of differential treatment seem to pose a moral problem per se.
  2. Is discrimination wrong because it’s differential treatment of persons based on the mere fact of their membership of a group? That can’t be true either. We don’t allow the blind to drive a car, we don’t allow the mentally ill to run for political office, and we don’t allow inmates to move freely across the country. Again, usually this is done without violating our moral intuitions. Differential treatment based on group membership may be wrong in some cases but it’s not discrimination per se.
  3. Is discrimination wrong because it’s disadvantageous treatment of some relative to others? Again, the answer is no. We certainly impose a disadvantage on inmates when we confine them to a prison building.
  4. Is discrimination wrong because it’s disadvantageous treatment that is morally objectionable? If I, as the sole racist member of a tolerant society, refuse to eat at a restaurant owned by an African American or serve African Americans in my own restaurant, I act in a morally objectionable way, and impose a small disadvantage on some people. And yet these people are not discriminated against in any meaningful sense of the word.
  5. Is discrimination wrong because it’s differential treatment of persons based on some of their immutable characteristics, for example their gender or skin color? Again, the answer has to be no. Sometimes it’s justified to treat persons differently based on their immutable characteristics or on characteristics that are beyond their control. We don’t allow one legged basketball players to compete in the NBA. And, conversely, sometimes it’s not justified to treat persons differently based on their self-chosen lifestyle. Forcing vegetarians to eat meat, for example, is wrong.
  6. Is discrimination wrong because it’s differential treatment of persons based on characteristics that are superficial or irrelevant, for example when we refuse to eat somewhere simply because the restaurant owner is black? That can’t be the case either. If I prefer to marry a blond because I believe blond women are better wives, I’m not discriminating against non-blonds. And if I’m the only one refusing to eat in a black man’s restaurant, it’s hard for him to claim that he’s discriminated against.
  7. Is discrimination wrong because it fails to treat people as individuals and relies on inaccurate stereotypes? For example, because I believe African Americans can’t cook properly and I therefore don’t bother to check out the food of an individual African American restaurant owner? Again, discrimination must be something else, for two reasons. First, there are laws against discrimination based on correct stereotypes, so-called statistical discrimination. Employers can’t just refuse to hire young women simply because young women are more likely to have children and hence be absent from work. Second, I may rely on inaccurate stereotypes and not engage in discrimination. For example, if I organize a successful boycott of German classical music based on the erroneous belief that this music is inferior to French classical music, I don’t discriminate orchestras or record labels that produce German classical music.

So then, why is discrimination wrong? Discrimination is wrong because it is a denial of rights. Not all denials of rights are discrimination – for example I imagine that Kim Jong Il denies the rights of all North Koreans consistently without discrimination. But discrimination is a denial of rights, and a denial of a particular type, namely the unequal denial of rights.

But not every case of unequal denial of rights is a case of discrimination. For instance, if some people in police custody are beaten up and others aren’t that’s not necessarily discrimination. Discrimination is the unequal denial of the rights of members of a socially salient group, and for no other reason than their membership of that group. It must be a socially salient group, i.e. a group that is an important and stable distinction in society, not a fleeting and inconsequential identity such as the group of people with blue eyes or people of the age of 40. Those groups aren’t salient and hence won’t be discriminated.

So, discrimination occurs when rights are granted to some and taken away from others, for no other reason than their membership of a socially salient group.

What exactly is a denial of rights? It’s an action (or a law, a custom etc.) that makes it impossible or very difficult to exercise one’s rights. That means that there won’t be discrimination if for example one lonely racist shop owner refuses to service blacks. Those blacks can easily exercise their rights by avoiding the racist shop. Only if the number of such cases is high and those cases occur systematically will there be denial of rights and hence discrimination. The policy of an army to reject homosexuals is discrimination because homosexuals can’t simply go to another army to serve their country. Racial discrimination at the time of Jim Crow and segregation was real discrimination because it substantially reduced the options of blacks who could not exercise their rights elsewhere.

If we revisit some of the examples given above we can see that they are not necessarily cases of discrimination as it is defined here. Giving people low grades or low salaries can be justified if it’s done for good reasons, i.e. not simply because of people’s membership of groups. But even if it’s done because of membership, it’s not discrimination if it’s isolated and if people can easily go elsewhere for their proper grades or salaries. Discrimination isn’t just about unequal treatment but also about options. Not all unequal treatment is discrimination. It’s discrimination when it also takes away the rights of those treated unequally. And their rights are taken away, not when there’s a single instance of unequal treatment based on group membership, but when there are many such instances and people can’t easily exercise their rights elsewhere. Their rights in these examples are the right to education and the right to fair wages. The same is true in the case of the sole racist member of a tolerant society refusing to eat at a restaurant owned by an African American. The restaurant owner isn’t denied his right to sell his food because one guy refuses to eat there.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics (29): How (Not) to Frame Survey Questions, Ctd.

Here’s a nice example of the way in which small modifications in survey questions can radically change survey results:

Our survey asked the following familiar question concerning the “right to die”: “When a person has a disease that cannot be cured and is living in severe pain, do you think doctors should or should not be allowed by law to assist the patient to commit suicide if the patient requests it?”

57 percent said “doctors should be allowed,” and 42 percent said “doctors should not be allowed.” As Joshua Green and Matthew Jarvis explore in their chapter in our book, the response patterns to euthanasia questions will often differ based on framing. Framing that refers to “severe pain” and “physicians” will often lead to higher support for ending the patient’s life, while including the word “suicide” will dramatically lower support. (source)

Similarly, seniors are willing to pay considerably more for “medications” than for “drugs” or “medicine” (source). Yet another example involves the use of “Wall Street”: there’s greater public support for banking reform when the issue is more specifically framed as regulating “Wall Street banks”.

What’s the cause of this sensitivity? Difficult to tell. Cognitive bias probably has some effect, and the psychology of associations (“suicide” brings up images of blood and pain, whereas “physicians” brings up images of control; similarly “homosexual” evokes sleazy bars, “gay” evokes art and design types). Maybe the willingness not to offend the person asking the question. Anyway, the conclusion is that pollsters should be very careful when framing questions. One tactic could be to use as many different words and synonyms as possible in order to avoid a bias created by one particular word.

Religion and Human Rights (22): The Proper Role of Religion in a Democracy

For me, as an agnostic, the question of the place of religion in a democracy is an important one, although I believe the question would be just as important if I held a religious belief or if I were an atheist. There’s no doubt in my mind that the full protection of human rights and civil liberties for all citizens can be jeopardized by misconceptions about the proper role of religion. Take, for example, the rights of homosexuals, the rights of non-believers or adherents of other religions, women’s rights etc.

At the most basic level, this is a problem of tolerance. We should not impose our beliefs, moral values and practices on others if these others don’t inflict harm, even if we think other people act immorally from the point of view of our religion. And neither should we discriminate people when they act or speak or think in ways that are incompatible with our own beliefs. These two prescriptions are based on the need for respect. We would show disrespect for other people if we were to force them to act according to our own beliefs. And the need for respect is, in turn, based, on the importance of freedom. Other people value their freedom to act according to their own beliefs. Let’s take two examples:

  • A Muslim father may, as long as his daughter is underage, impose certain religiously inspired rules of behavior on this daughter, and he can even hope that the girl internalizes these rules and respects them for the rest of her life. But when the girl reaches adulthood and chooses to live according to her own rules, she will be protected to do so by her human rights and civil liberties, even against the wishes of her father. The proper role of the religious beliefs of the father has reached its limit. The father should tolerate and respect (which doesn’t mean agree with) the choices of his adult daughter, and the laws of the democracy in which they live will enforce this tolerance and the girl’s freedom of choice if necessary.
  • A Catholic human resources manager in the recruitment department of the army of a democratic country, refuses to hire a perfectly qualified candidate because of her homosexuality. Again, this would be a sign of disrespect on the part of the HR manager and the law should intervene.

But the problem goes beyond the level of relations between citizens. The question about the proper place and role of religion in a democracy isn’t limited to the problem of how we treat each other in our daily lives, how we treat our wives and children, our gay or “infidel” neighbors or employees etc. In a democracy, the people translate their beliefs in legislation and government policy. Hence we should ask to what extent people can use their religious beliefs as the basis or reason for legislation.

Here I take a nuanced position between the two extremes: between a complete lack of restrictions on the role of religion in democratic legislation, and a complete exclusion of religion from democratic legislation. So the question becomes one of degree: to what extent can religion be the basis of law? When is it allowed, and when is it no longer allowed for religious reasons to be the reasons for government coercion?

I think that the problem arises when the legal coercion resulting from religious reasons violates the human rights and civil liberties of individuals, and that any religiously inspired legislation that stops short of such violations is acceptable. Some would say that even legal coercion based on religious reasons that doesn’t violate the rights of individuals is reprehensible, but I don’t agree. An argument in favor of this more restrictive approach could go as follows. Legislation based on religion automatically implies disrespect for people of other religions and for non-believers, since the religious reasons used as a basis for this legislation are likely to be exclusive to a particular religion. Only religious reasons which are sufficiently vague so as not to be exclusive to one religion can then be acceptable religious reasons for legislation. An example: charity can be an acceptable religious reason for legislation, because it’s not a reason that is exclusive to one religion, perhaps not even to religion as such. Laws regarding the sabbath, on the contrary, would not be an acceptable reason for legislation, even if it produces legislation that doesn’t violate anyone’s rights. Or the argument could be that only a law that is supported at the same time by religious reasons and non-religious reasons is acceptable, and that laws that are supported only by religious reasons are unacceptable, even if they don’t violate anyone’s rights.

I think that goes too far. Disrespect should be avoided, but I don’t see why the avoidance of disrespect should automatically override legitimate religious concerns. It’s not even clear to me that there’s necessarily disrespect involved in the use of exclusive religious reasons as a basis for legislation. It’s certainly not the case that such legislation necessarily means forcing one religion on people of other faiths or of no faith. If that would be the case, we would have legislation that violates the rights of individuals (namely the freedom of religion). And that would violate my own rule stated above.

However, legislation that is based on exclusive religious reasons does involve coercing people on the basis of a doctrine that they don’t accept. But, again, if this coercion doesn’t result in rights violations I can’t see what would be wrong with it. Laws by definition force people to do things they don’t accept or to abstain from doing things that are essential to them. I don’t see why there should be laws in any other case.

To summarize, religious people can advocate and – if they are in the majority – implement laws on the basis of their own, exclusive religious reasons, as long as the human rights and civil liberties of all are respected. A religiously inspired law banning same-sex marriage would therefore not be acceptable; a law instituting a religious holiday on the contrary would be acceptable. In the words of Habermas:

The liberal state must not transform the requisite institutional separation of religion and politics into an undue mental and psychological burden for those of its citizens who follow a faith. (source)

On the other hand, religious people should also refrain from imposing a burden on the rights of their fellow citizens.

Some would say that even my rule is too restrictive on religion. For religious people, religion is not only a personal and private conviction but also the law of humanity. Forcing them to forsake the legal implementation of their religious views means taking away their identity, forcing them to be what they don’t want to be. Their religious beliefs are political beliefs and always trump opposing political beliefs. It’s intolerable for them to be forced not to implement their beliefs by way of legislation, or to submit to political decisions that are not based on their religious reasons. It’s indeed a good question: can religious people really accept democracy, given that God cannot be in the minority and God’s commands are absolute and trump opposing majority decisions? Democracy seems to be unacceptable from a religious point of view. However, catering to this view would mean forfeiting democracy, majority rule, the free choice of others, respect for others, freedom of religion, and human rights, and replacing all this by absolute theocracy. I don’t think that’s a price many are willing to pay, and not even many religious people as I argued here.