Thursday, August 13, 2020

Innocuous vs Unjust Systemic Discrimination

It's now widely recognized that problematic discrimination need not involve malicious attitudes: certain political structures might systematically disregard the interests of ethnic minorities, for example, even if nobody involved was "racist" in the traditional sense of harbouring prejudicial attitudes.  Still, sometimes people -- even highly-respected philosophers! -- move from this to the opposite error of assuming that any disparity in group outcomes is in itself constitutive of unjust discrimination against the disadvantaged group.  I've found this especially common in debates about QALYs. (One may, of course, raise reasonable questions about how QALY values are determined in practice: perhaps they fail to accurately track the welfare facts in some cases, adjusting down for certain disabilities that are actually harmless. But my target here is the more sweeping complaint that any form of the metric will be "ageist" and "ableist" simply in virtue of its being systematically disadvantageous for the elderly and (detrimentally) disabled, relative to an alternative system that sought to indiscriminately save as many lives as possible.)

Granted, if a vulnerable group is systematically disadvantaged in some context, that will often be a sign of unjust discrimination: we know it's not uncommon for minority interests to be systematically disregarded, after all, so that will often be a natural hypothesis for explaining disparate outcomes. (I think this is true of the criminal justice system in the US, for example.)  But it's important to remember that it is the underlying failure to give equal weight to their interests that is the injustice here, not the mere disparity in outcomes.  Disparate outcomes can come about in entirely innocuous ways.

Here's a simple example: Compared to indiscriminate systems that ignore expected lifespan, QALYs (in prioritizing longer life-extensions over shorter ones) systematically disadvantage men, due to our having shorter average life expectancy.  But this is not the slightest bit objectionable.  It is not in any way disregarding or undervaluing the interests of men.  It is instead recognizing that men on average benefit ever so slightly less from a "life-saving" intervention than similarly-aged women. (You might object on the very different grounds of opposing allocation via such fine-grained discriminations, but you would also be wrong about that, I think.)  It is not unjustly discriminatory to prioritize larger benefits over smaller ones.  That's precisely the kind of discrimination we should want a rational allocation system to make.

If men end up worse off when everything is counted as it ought to be, that does not make correctly counting things sexist against men. And so it goes, of course, for the elderly and (detrimentally) disabled.  It's exactly the same principle.  Some people have a better future ahead of them than others. People generally don't like to acknowledge that it logically follows from this that some people are more harmed by premature death than others.  But it does follow. Death is bad to the extent that it deprives you of a valuable future, so if not all futures are equally valuable, then not all deaths are equally harmful.  If we want to prevent the most serious harms, e.g. in triage situations, it's important to acknowledge this fact.

(Of course, one might independently prefer prioritarianism over utilitarianism -- though, incidentally, you shouldn't. But even if you happen to think we really ought to overweight the interests of the worse-off, you still should take care to distinguish the reasonable utilitarian standard of counting interests equally as importantly different from the moral atrocity of disregarding or counting the interests of the worse-off as having less weight than an equal interest that belonged to someone more privileged.)


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