Friday, September 02, 2005

Why Discrimination is Wrong

I disagree most strongly with the standard left-wing position on "minority groups" and identity politics. The "multicultural" Left is racist, and the "feminist" Left is sexist. These conclusions can be obtained by reflecting on the nature of discrimination, and appreciating precisely why it is wrong. I will argue that the standard ideology of my fellow Leftists exhibits the same wrong-making feature as the arbitrary discrimination they profess to abhor.

As I argue in my post on the ethics of generalization, the problem with discrimination is that it is dehumanizing. If you treat me differently solely in virtue of my race or gender or age, then you are denying my agency as an individual person. You imply that my group affiliation is sufficiently informative for you to know who I am and what I am like. And this is incredibly insulting to my dignity as an individual. Just because your statistics indicate that young males are disproportionately violent, this doesn't mean that I am violent. If you prejudge me, you deny my individual agency. You deny that I am a distinct person, a free agent, an individual, who cannot be exhaustively specified in terms of my group affiliations. If you prejudge me, you shrink me as a person, down into your little 'box'. And that's insulting.

So that's why arbitrary discrimination is wrong. Obviously none of this applies to non-arbitrary discrimination. If you refuse someone a job because they're too short to use the current equipment, that's no insult to their dignity as a person. It's just unfortunate because it prevents them from getting what they want. (And, ideally, we should want to enable people to achieve what they want in life.) It isn't a discrimination issue, it's an opportunity issue.

Moreover, to try to reframe this as an implicit discrimination issue is itself wrong. Why? Because in doing so, you shrink the individual down into the restrictive little box that marks their group affiliation. If a short woman is prevented from doing what she wants, this is unfortunate because she is valuable as a human being. When feminists turn it into a gender issue, they instead say she is valuable insofar as she is a woman. They ignore the real individual person, and see her merely as a token of a type. She is so much more than that, but this is denied by sexists who see the individual solely as a member of some group. Feminists care about woman-tokens. Other Leftists more generally care about minority-tokens. I think that's perverse. We ought to care about people for who they are, not for what groups they belong to.

Sexism occurs when one fails to see the individual beyond the gender they belong to. An excellent example of this is Don Brash's recent comments to the effect that he went easy on Helen Clark in the debate because she was a woman. As Ghet insightfully notes:
I think he genuinely believes what he says, and that's the really alarming thing. Because any assessment that Helen Clark is somehow weak and can't handle the cut and thrust of politics has to be based on seeing her as a woman first, and as the person she is a distant second. She can be justifiably accused of a lot of things, but 'weak' simply isn't one of them. He can't see past her being a woman.

That, I think, is the essence of prejudice. And although the culprit in this case is of the standard Right-wing sort, I think many Leftists commit the same sin. When feminists go looking for implicit discrimination, they too can't see past the sex of the individuals. They fetishize this one characteristic to the exclusion of all else that makes us who we are.

And, indeed, this is the problem with Group Welfare more generally. Leftists want to improve the welfare of Maori qua Maori. Again, this is perverse and tokenistic. We should want to improve the welfare of Maori qua person. That is, we should have just the same concern for Maori individuals as we do for everybody else. A person does not become any more important simply in virtue of belonging to a minority group. To claim otherwise, as many Leftists seem to do, is wrong for all the reasons explained above. You're treating the person as a mere token of a type, and valuing them on that basis, rather than recognizing their worth as an individual person. To fetishize race in such a way is simply racist. That's what racism is, and why it's wrong.

Conservatives complain that the Left is racist because their discrimination unfairly disadvantages white people. This may be true, but it isn't the full story. Their fetishization of group characteristics dehumanizes everyone they assess in such a fashion. As such, Maori individuals are wronged by Leftist racism alongside non-Maori. We're all in this together.

Update: This post neglects some important considerations highlighted in my newer post, 'Widespread Discrimination'.


  1. While your analysis of the essence of discrimination is spot on, I do believe that you're unfairly straw-maning the Left, and most non-militant Feminists. There may, however, be certain authors that you intend to target that I am not familiar with.

    By and large, however, I don't think that anyone on the left is claiming that people from minority groups are inherently more morally valuable. The same goes for most feminist movements, although I am aware that there are exceptions. Rather, I see the work done by the left as a Machiavellian political move in an effort to restore racial equality.

    Statistics tell us that racisim is still a seginficant problem. Large liberal groups tend to support measures such labled "affermitive action" to restore a statistical balance. Surely this is a crude tool, and distasteful, but as far as I know, no one has proposed a more fair way to try to initiate racial equality in the work place. The merits of the policy may be questionable, but the underlying moral reasoning is, I think, sound.

    Smaller leftist groups might represent a single minority. These groups serve three perposes, in my view. The first, of course, is to work within the larger machinery of the left as a political group. The second is to serve as an affirmation of the humanity of a group, and restore pride to a group that has faced humiliation over the course of history (depending on the group of course). This is a neccessity of human psychology, not of morality, and is not a statement that those in the group are more valuable, but rather that they are as valuable as any other person.

    The last purpose is to serve as a special interest group. This is the most morally murky of the purposes. While in an ideal world, one would not need to arrange a voting block around race, a standard with which to unite people is a useful political tool. Other special interest groups abound in America for political and economic reasons, and this is one way to counterbalance their force.

    This last purpose does have boundries, however. I should think that I would be suspicous of any minority movement that was exclusionary in the extreme, or that claimed to speak for all of the people in a particular minority group.

  2. I think that 2) "and restore pride to a group" is in some regards an extreemly negitive thing.

    It seems to me that if you identify as being member of a group it must be in order to allow discrimination. (maybe you can dispute this but it may take some explaining)

    If race is not a legitimate reason for discrimination is should also not be a legitimate reason for pride or identification. (there may be some legitimate reasons such as in health care but these only loosely match race)

  3. Lucky, you're right that my criticisms don't apply to all on the left (such as myself, for instance!), but only those who show an instrinsic concern for group welfare and statistical equality of minority groups.

    Compare the following two populations:
    1) 50 blue-eyed people are poor, 50 brown-eyed people are rich.

    2) 25 each (of blue-eyed and brown-eyed people) are poor, 25 each are rich.

    In both cases, the total number of well-off people is the same. And surely this is all that matters. Why should we care about the group statistics? Is #1 somehow worse than #2 simply because there is an "eye-colour inequality"? That seems absurd.

    But now replace eye-colour with skin-colour. If the first option has racial inequalities, and the second doesn't, but both have the same individual welfare values (e.g. 50 poor people + 50 rich), then why is #2 any better than #1?

    You could only say this if the importance of an individual varied according to their racial group. Both populations have exactly the same total individual welfare values, after all. It's only the group statistics that differ. So why care about that? I am arguing that it is a form of racism to have any such intrinsic concern for group inequalities. Groups don't matter. Only people do.

    Of course, you might think the stats are evidence of discrimination. That's fine. I agree with that, we do have instrumental reasons to worry about such evidence. But, as I talk about in my post on group welfare, some leftists seem to go further than this. They don't just see that stats as evidence of possible discrimination. They think the statistical inequalities are intrinsically bad. That's what I'm arguing against. Do check the linked post for more details.

  4. Of course explicit discrimination is abhorrent. If any individual has been disadvantaged solely due to their eye-colour (or race, etc) then that is wrong and ought to be remedied. But I'm not talking about that here. I'm considering a situation where the inequality is due to brute historical fact. (Say blue-eyed people had disproportionately poor ancestors for whatever reason, but over the course of their individual lifespan they suffer no disadvantage compared to anyone else of the same socio-economic status.)

    In such situations, I say it would be wrong to benefit the blue-eyed group at others' expense. The group just doesn't matter. The individuals do, but they are being treated the same as anyone else would in their situation. (They don't matter more just for belonging to the group.) They aren't being disadvantaged because of their eye-colour, or anything like that -- we've stipulated that no explicit discrimination is going on. So why care about this inequality at all?

  5. >This is a whole class of people who, for now fault of their own

    the appropriate class is "people in gettos" not "blacks" the former are easier to identify (surely) and more fair to adress

  6. Yes, Genius is quite right about that.

    "A sharp delineation which says that legal discrimination is real discrimination and all the other stuff is irrelevant..."

    That's not what I said (cf. the comments to my previous post).

    What I'm saying is that real discrimination must affect a real (individual) person. If it just so happens that a disproportionate number of blacks are born into poverty, and that poverty then mucks up their life chances (and their race makes no difference whatsoever to this; they fare no differently to any white person raised in similar socio-economic circumstances), then that simply is not a race issue. No-one is being discriminated against here. To turn it into a race issue is, simply, racist. You are seeing the individuals as mere tokens of a type ("African Americans") rather than the people that they really are.

    But of course if a real individual suffers covert (and not legally recognized) discrimination, then that's certainly unjust and I oppose it 100%. But, again, that's not what I'm talking about here. And it's misleading to try to bolster your case by conflating these two very different issues.

  7. Quite the opposite: it is obvious that (at least in case of gender) systematic inequalities can arise because of the correlation of gender with some other (non-arbitrary) attribute such as height or strength -- see my previous post.

    Race is not obvious either way. It seems quite possible to me that historical oppression would lead to it being a brute fact that the current generation of black people (say) are disproportionately poorly-off (and all the other disadvantages that go along with this). But that's quite consistent with there being no racial discrimination whatsoever in our present society. It could be poverty that keeps them down, not ongoing discrimination.

    (Presumably to test this, we would need to see how the stats for a race compare to those of other races and from the same socio-economic class. If disparities remained even after socio-economic status has been controlled for, then we would have evidence that race is a contributing factor. Until then, it's very much an open question.)

  8. > Much of the reason that African-Americans are in such a poor situation when compared to White Americans is the historical legacy of being, you know, enslaved and living in an apartheid state.

    Not that this entirely negates your argument - but I note that black americans generally have a higher standard of living than black africans who's ancestors were never enslaved and never lived under apatheid (obviously I am excluding some parts of africa here - like south africa).

    I.e. for the ancestors (but probably not for the origional slaves!!) their genes being enslaved and living in an apatheid state and coming to america had a positive effect on their genes standard of living (if my use of the word genes sounds funny it is because I dont want to imply you are the same person as your parents ie slavery was not done to YOU or ME but to some ancient copies of our genes).

    This does not mean any ongoing discrimination is "ok" it is wrong for all the normal reasons - but it does indivate that there are lots of other things going on other than that.

    In fact many white people may have ancestors who never engaged in slavery, and many black people may have ancestors who actively engaged in white or non white slavery or indirectly benefited from it.

    Anyway - it is nonsense to spend time trying to untangle the messy web of blame.

  9. I wouldn't want to excuse past wrongs. But, as they say, two wrongs don't make a right. We should want to get rid of all arbitrary discrimination, not impose it on a new group for the sake of balance.

    Just because someone's ancestors were wronged and discriminated against, doesn't mean that the modern descendant has been wronged or discriminated against.

  10. I'm writing with New Zealand race relations in mind. But I guess it should generalize to America too.

    As for your propositions: I accept 1 & 2, reject 4 for reasons previously explained (most simply: correlation does not imply causation), and don't know what 3 means.

  11. Oh, yes, I agree that present discrimination can be a continuation of past discrimination, if that's what you mean by #3. (As with 1 and 2, I can't imagine anybody denying this. It isn't clear what relevance it has to the reverse-racism debate.)

    As for 4, the obvious thing to do is go out and check it, using the sorts of statistical methods (i.e. controlling for socio-economic status) that I suggested before. Until that is done, it's simply irresponsible to make any strong claims either way. The group differences could very easily be due to the combination of historical fact + poverty trap.

    The inequalities we see are exactly what we would expect if past generations were oppressed and current ones aren't. Of course, it's also exactly what we'd expect if the discrimination were ongoing. So, by itself, the fact of group inequalities simply doesn't provide any evidence either way.

    Anyway, this empirical digression is distracting us from the philosophical claims that I was more interested in discussing. Here are my central claims:

    1) So-called "domination" or implicit discrimination is not a discrimination issue, and in fact it's sexist/racist/whatever to try to frame it in such a way.

    2) Individuals matter; groups don't. We should be concerned to ensure that individuals are not discriminated against. But group inequalities are of no intrinsic import.

    If you agree with both those points, that's good. Not everybody does.

  12. > In all previous cases of these racial differences in quality of life, it is the result of arbitary discrimination.

    I dispute this.... You mean in a number of cases that you can think of this is true. this is a poor sample for you to make an absolute statement from. I can think of many where it is not true.

    > b) And further, in each of those cases, it is that discrimination (and the history of that discrimination) that causally explains why that group is in the inferior position.

    Again - not all but indeed some. However the main point is that the history of discrimination may dwarf current discrimination in its effect. your analysis would quite likely result in you over reacting to what is going on now.

  13. > In all previous cases of these racial differences in quality of life, it is the result of arbitary discrimination.

    I dispute this.... You mean in a number of cases that you can think of this is true. this is a poor sample for you to make an absolute statement from. I can think of many where it is not true.

    > b) And further, in each of those cases, it is that discrimination (and the history of that discrimination) that causally explains why that group is in the inferior position.

    Not all - but indeed some. However the main point is that the history of discrimination may dwarf current discrimination in its effect. your analysis would quite likely result in you over reacting to what is going on now.

  14. No, I'm just saying I don't know what their evidentiary import is. If you're right about the inequalities remaining even after poverty and such have been controlled for, then that's certainly cause for concern. That's the sort of thing we need to look into more. I was merely pointing out that we can't take it for granted that inequality entails discrimination, because in the absence of the other evidence you mention, it simply doesn't.

    Anyway, it sounds like we are agreed on the second point then. As for the first, concerns about non-arbitrary implicit discrimination are a pretty standard feminist position, or so I picked up from my political philosophy course (and reading Will Kymlicka's textbook). So I don't think I'm being unreasonable about calling this the "feminist" position. (It's not nearly so extreme as outright man-hating, of course. I wouldn't claim that that is a mainstream feminist position!)

    But sure, I have no problem with any feminists who don't share that position, and would instead agree with me about #1 as well. And I have a lot of respect for the cultural reformers who worry about restrictive gender roles and pernicious stereotypes. I'm right on board with all of that. (I probably wouldn't apply the label "feminist" to it, is all, since I think it's an issue for men too.)

  15. im only 12 but discrimination is wrong because people are getting killed because of it and what do you get out of it honestly? i mean im muslim and i have never discriminated against anyone but why do they discriminate aginst us? i have not done anything wrong have i?

  16. Im 14 and live in the uk but overall i think discrimination is distraught, discrimination is wrong; whether it is because of ones esx, race, religion, sexual orientation or any other reason, it is hatred in action!!.

  17. I understand that asians are significantly richer than white people in america, and this would certainly be true if broken down into a more narrow subset like japanese. Similarly jews who were subject to persecution were richer than those that percecuted them, as are chinese in indonesia or indians in Fiji.

    its a very common story throughout the world that those groups that are more sucessful may be discriminated against.



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