When is Discrimination Wrong?

September 4, 2008

Societies routinely discriminate among people. It is done for public safety (individuals under the age of 17 cannot obtain a driver's licence), because resources are scarce (the University of Cambridge simply cannot admit all who apply), to ensure professional competence (only those with appropriate credentials can practise law), for practical business reasons (customers do not respond well to salespeople not fluent in English), and so on.

Many of these distinctions are benign, even necessary. Some distinctions, however, are cruel and unfair (police harassment of Muslims because of fear of terrorism, refusal to employ women between the ages of 20 and 40 because they might become pregnant and take maternity leave, and so on).

Sometimes the lines between benign and necessary and cruel and unfair get very fuzzy (a white woman living alone refuses to rent a room in her home to a young black man because she is afraid of being alone in the house with him, a company refuses to hire women between the ages of 20 and 40 for a job that involves exposure to chemicals that could harm a foetus before a woman even knows she is pregnant).

In When is Discrimination Wrong? Deborah Hellman has taken on the important and difficult task of trying to establish logically consistent rules for determining just where in that fuzzy territory the line between legitimate and illegitimate discrimination should be drawn.

Hellman's writing is clear and engaging, her examples relevant to the daily lives of many. Even so, the book makes inevitably dense reading because the logical distinctions presented are subtle and require evaluation.

Still, it is readily accessible to the generally educated reader who is willing to stop and think along the way.

Hellman's thesis is considered and provocative: discrimination is wrong when it demeans, regardless of the intent or motivation of the discriminator. Moreover, to Hellman, demeanment is possible only when discriminating acts tap into past sources of cruel and unfair treatment.

Consider a university admissions officer who took seriously recent data published in the highly regarded journal Psychological Science that students whose first names began with the letter "D" were more likely to get D grades than students whose names began with the letter "A", who in turn were more likely to get A grades. Suppose this admissions officer started rejecting applicants on that basis. To Hellman, this would not be demeaning to David and Denise because such an action would be too isolated; it would have no social "traction".

This is a major fly in the ointment. Psychologists have demonstrated repeatedly humans' creative and ready propensity to draw new distinctions among groups. They have also demonstrated repeatedly that these distinctions can rapidly become cruel and unfair, particularly when resources are scarce or situations dangerous. Society needs a way to hold new criteria for wrongful discrimination in check, and Hellman's thesis doesn't offer one.

This logical inconsistency may not be Hellman's fault. In 1931 the mathematician Kurt Godel proved two theorems showing that it is impossible to find a complete and consistent set of axioms for mathematics. Philosophers such as John Lucas have claimed that this idea extends to philosophy, cognitive science and even physics. If so, some contradiction, limitation or inconsistency in Hellman's thesis was inevitable, although this particular fly in the ointment was not.

Read Hellman's book as a very competent spur to thinking through for yourself the issues involved in appropriate and inappropriate discrimination. There'll probably be a fly in the ointment of the thesis you come up with too, but the process of thinking it all through can only be good for us all.

When is Discrimination Wrong?

By Deborah Hellman. Harvard University Press 216pp, £25.95. ISBN 97806740978. Published 6 June 2008

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