Sunday, January 27, 2013

'Discrimination' - always a wrong?

I recall teaching in South Africa, in this case a large class of medical students (likely 300+ were in the lecture theatre). For some reason or other that I do not recall a student replied in response to a particular scenario (I think it was a resource allocation justice case study) that that would be discriminatory, implying that that in its own right would make it a wrong.

Indeed, in common language usage people often wield the discrimination flag when they think they have been wronged in an unfair way. Gay people in Russia claim that they are discriminated against, and that therefore they have been wronged. Some religious people claim discrimination in various contexts, for instance when they are asked to do certain things that their profession requires of them as professionals. They consider this form of religious discrimination wrong. British readers will see these sorts of claims frequently pop up in reporting of the Daily Telegraph.

What people tend to miss is that discrimination simply describes that someone is making choices for or against something. Say, I choose coffee over other beverages in the morning, that means I discriminate against those other beverages. Or I choose to fly in the front of the bus if I can afford to avoid the back of the bus, certainly on all flights longer than, say 5 hours or so. I discriminate against the cramped seating conditions in the back of the bus.

Discrimination is about making choices between options, it is about drawing distinctions.

Now, it seems to me that someone just claiming 'discrimination' is begging the question then. What question? The question of whether or not a particular discriminatory act is justifiable or not. Many people claiming 'discrimination' tend to beg this question. Think of discrimination based on ethnicity. Is it always wrong? If so, most affirmative action programs in operation today would then be wrong, too. Perhaps we should try, in our common usage of the term, to distinguish between 'just discrimination' and 'unjust discrimination'. 'Discrimination' claims without the qualifier should probably be ignored because it is unclear wether there is a problem to begin with. They constitute mere handwaving in the public sphere kind of activities. Once someone claims 'unjust discrimination' we should ask for a justification of the 'unjust' claim. It certainly is not the case, that 'Discrimination of any kind is wrong.'

Simple enough, isn't it?

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