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Is it OK to discriminate? Do you do it? Is it always wrong or are there cases where it can be acceptable? Today we’re talking through several tricky cases and different philosophical perspectives on this issue.


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We’re living in a world of “Black Lives Matter” versus “All Lives Matter”.

A world where presidential elections hinge on people’s views regarding the building of walls. And We should be open about the fact that issues like these – ones that involve our beliefs about sameness, equality, and difference – are sensitive, and can easily arouse our emotions.

One topic that always comes up in these conversations is discrimination. It’s one of those loaded words packed with negativity. Most people would probably tell you that discrimination is bad.

But they probably do it, whether they realize it or not. So, are they allowed to, morally speaking? And do you do it?

How can you tell if you do? Are there times when it’s OK to discriminate? Maybe even necessary?

When you answer questions like these, it can be hard to keep emotions from taking over. So, it’s worth taking some time here, when our emotions are at an even-keel, and reason is in the driver’s seat – right where Plato said it belongs – to think carefully about discrimination and what it really means. Morality demands that individuals, acts, or states of affairs that are the same should be treated the same.

But we don’t always do that. Discrimination is the favoring of one group – or member of a group – over another group, or other member of it, in the absence of any morally relevant differences. Morally relevant differences are things that would actually justify unequal treatment.

Like, if you work for an airline and you’re hiring a pilot, you can favor a person with sight over a blind person, because when the job is flying a plane, sight matters. You’re not discriminating against a blind person because they’re blind, but because they are literally unable to do the job. And someone who looks like me would be a fairly awful candidate to go undercover with, like, the Haitian mafia, which means skin color can matter, although very rarely.

So there are cases where we can see clear justifications for favoring members of one group over another. And there are plenty of equally obvious cases where favoritism seems clearly unjustified. But what about the not-so clear-cut cases?

What if there really are reasons why you might want to discriminate, but those reasons are relevant in one instance, and not another? So, let’s look at some tough cases. Contemporary American philosopher, Peter Singer, offers the example of a restaurant owner who doesn’t want to hire an African American because his clientele is racist.

He’s afraid that many of his customers will stop coming to his restaurant rather than be served by an African American. So, the restaurant owner himself doesn’t hold racist beliefs, but he worries the decision to be “color-blind” in hiring will harm his livelihood. It might make us uncomfortable to admit, but in certain parts of the country, this restaurant owner’s concerns are not at all unfounded.

Or consider a woman who refuses to be treated by a highly-qualified gynecologist, simply because he’s male. Now, what about a woman who refuses to be treated by a qualified gynecologist because he’s Asian-American? Or say there’s an all-male company that hires a qualified woman over an equally qualified man in the interest of fostering diversity in the workplace.

Or a bakery that refuses to make a Nazi-themed cake for a customer who’s a white supremacist? Some of these cases you probably agree with, some of them you probably don’t. Your gut intuition might be to applaud the bakery for refusing to make a Nazi cake.

But think about their reasons for turning down that job; probably a deep personal conviction that Nazi ideology is appalling, so they don’t want to contribute to its endorsement and celebration. But what if instead of a Nazi cake, it was a wedding cake for a same-sex couple? And what if the owners of the bakery have a deep personal conviction that same sex marriage is appalling and they don’t want to contribute to its endorsement and celebration?

Do you support their refusal too? Now, you might hold the view that we should all have the freedom to do whatever we want. Business owners can discriminate because of their personal convictions, or to maximize profits, or just because they’re straight-up racists.

The problem with this view is that it gives a great deal of freedom to only some people – namely, those in power, those who own the businesses and control the money. And the more freedom they have to act as they choose, the less freedom the people they’re discriminating against will have. So, if we actually want a country that’s free for all of its citizens, the freedom to act against some of our citizens is going to have to be held in check.

And that means reining in the freedom to discriminate. Now, there’s obviously a lot of disagreement about when discrimination is ok and when it’s not. Contemporary American philosopher, Judith Jarvis Thomson, offers this rule of thumb: Discrimination that favors a historically underprivileged class is more likely to be acceptable than discrimination that favors a historically privileged class.

The reasoning, she says, is that those who have historically been denied privilege could use the advantage. So, if a woman is getting hired over a man, well, that’s not a big deal, considering that men have been hired over women so many times in the past. As long as a historically underprivileged group continues to suffer from the disadvantages of the past – even if those disadvantages are not currently being imposed on them – Jarvis Thomson says a little special treatment is okay.

Not everyone agrees with this view, however. Like contemporary American philosopher, Robert Nozick, who we talked about last time. After all, what if I happen to be a member of a historically privileged class?

That’s not my fault. So why should I have to be passed over for jobs because of my gender and my pale skin? Isn’t that also unjustified discrimination?

One response to Nozick is to argue that justice isn’t always the same as being fair. If I’m a white guy passed over for a job that I’m qualified for, that sucks, and it’s unfair. But the reason it feels unfair to me now is because I’ve reaped the spoils of white male privilege for so long.

When you’re already so far ahead, it can feel really bad to be held back and asked to wait for others to catch up. But if we’re actually aiming at equality, that’s exactly what the people at the front are going to have to do. Now let’s go back to the gynecologist cases.

Many people’s intuition is that women should be able to choose against male gynecologists, because being examined by a man in such an intimate way might make a woman feel uncomfortable. Yet, many people might report the same level of discomfort being examined by someone of another race. These cases tug at the feelings we have about our personal beliefs, and what happens when those private things butt up against the public sphere.

You might think that every individual should be free to choose, and choose against, doctors for whatever personal reasons she might have. But, we should also consider what these discriminatory mindsets are really based on. The reason customers might not want an African American to bring food to their table is the same reason that a patient might not want to be examined by an Asian-American doctor, fear of the unknown.

But we know, intellectually, that these fears are unfounded. Spend some time around people who are different from you in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable, and you realize that, despite those differences, there’re actually a lot more similarities than there are differences. So, the restaurant owner from Case #1 could allow his patrons to decide who they’ll be served by, and not give the African American applicant the job.

Or, he can say, “this is my new employee, so if you want to eat here, you’re going to have to get over yourself and your racism.” And this might cost him some business, but, over time, his customers will get over themselves and probably be a little more accepting of other races as well. Which is exactly what happened, by and large, when racial discrimination in hiring became illegal. It might seem unfair that a small business owner should have to take on that fight, though.

Why is it his job to educate his racist clientele? Likewise, when it comes to discriminating against customers, or job applicants, is there a difference between a business being able to choose who they do or don’t hire, and who they do and don’t serve? How do we balance this right – if it is one – against a person’s right to be employed, and served?

One response is to say that people have a negative right to employment, and to service – that is, people can’t be stopped from obtaining those things. But that does not entail a corresponding right to this job, or to be served at this business. Like, we don’t all have a right to any particular job.

And similarly, businesses don’t have to serve everyone. You don’t have a right to tickets to a sold-out concert. And if there’s still a line at the ice cream stand when closing time rolls around, the business has a right to turn customers away.

So, it seems like it matters why you’re being denied the job or service. Is there a morally relevant reason for the discrimination? Think back through the cases.

After reflecting on what we’ve talked about today, has your response to any of those cases changed? And if so, why? It’s an issue that deserves your thought.

And if you share those thoughts in the comments, please do so as kindly and thoughtfully as possible. Today we learned about discrimination. We talked through several hard cases, and explored our responses to them.

We considered the views that everyone should be free to discriminate if they want to, that it’s never ok to discriminate in any case, or that discrimination should occur when it’s done to advantage a historically underprivileged group. Next time, we’re going to talk about our moral obligations regarding animals. Crash Course Philosophy is produced in association with PBS Digital Studios.

You can head over to their channel and check out a playlist of the latest episodes from shows like PBS Game / Show, The Good Stuff, and Gross Science. This episode of Crash Course was filmed in the Doctor Cheryl C. Kinney Crash Course Studio with the help of these awesome people and our equally fantastic graphics team is Thought Cafe.