Friday, January 18, 2008

Widespread Discrimination

I previously endorsed the 'individualist' line that discrimination is bad insofar as (and for the reason that) it involves ignoring individuality and treating people as mere 'tokens of a type'. I didn't see any necessary reason to focus on historically oppressed groups here (except insofar as they are more commonly the targets of arbitrary discrimination); the same kind of wrongful disrespect is found in affirmative action, or in arbitrary discrimination based on eye colour or anything else.

But I've since come to realize that I was overlooking a key practical difference: the greater harm of widespread exclusion. Scanlon states the problem especially clearly in ch.2. of his manuscript on permissibility:
One thing that seems crucial to racial discrimination in particular is that the prejudicial judgments it involves are not just the idiosyncratic attitudes of a particular agent, but are widely shared in the society in question and commonly expressed and acted on in ways that have serious consequences. The petty likes and dislikes of other individuals may be something we just have to live with, but it is another matter when the view that members of a certain group are inferior, and not to be associated with, becomes widely held in a society, with the result that members of that group are denied access to important goods and opportunities. (p.34)

If someone is idiosyncratically prejudiced against some arbitrary characteristic of mine, that kind of sucks, but it isn't such a huge deal. I can always just go to someone else instead. But if the prejudice is widespread in society, each act of discrimination is increasingly harmful, because I have nowhere else to go. If one grocer won't serve me, that costs me a few minutes as I head to another store down the road. But if no grocers will serve me, I starve.

On this view, acts of discrimination are wrong "because of their consequences", and so this impermissibility does not depend on vicious intentions. Scanlon continues:
Once a practice of discrimination exists, decisions that deny important goods to members of the group discriminated against and do so without sufficient justification, are wrong even if they express no judgments of inferiority on the agent's part. They are wrong even if done simply out of laziness, or a desire to avoid offending others by going against established custom.

Note that this objection only applies to discrimination that is part of a system of "widespread denigration and exclusion". A curious upshot: in a largely non-racist society, the odd racist is perhaps not acting as terribly as we might imagine. (Unless there is a risk of their repugnant attitudes becoming more widely shared once again.)


  1. does that put us in a position to say that a rampant feminist (one that discriminates actively against men) or 'affirmative action' (discriminating against whites) is almost neutral in terms of permissibility or possibly even a good thing?

  2. Potentially. Scanlon suggests that idiosyncratic discrimination (e.g. refusing to lease your apartment to a tenant who dresses unfashionably) is not necessarily impermissible. It all depends whether there is some other ground for objection in that case, e.g. if there is some "uniquely correct basis for allocating the benefits in question" - principles of desert, say - which the discriminator is violating.


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