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This month, Ben Andrew and I are joined by Nethanel Lipshitz (Tel Aviv University, Bar-Ilan University) to talk about discrimination.

If someone treats me unequally—that is, if they give other people a relative advantage but not me—am I the victim of discrimination? Our guest says yes. That is enough for me to count as having been discriminated against, and that is enough for it to be morally wrong. We don’t have to look at why the person decided to treat me unequally, or what social demographic I belong to, or any of that kind of stuff.

All fine and dandy. But then, what’s the big deal? Well, the standard view in political philosophy tells us that discrimination requires more. If a shopkeeper kicks me out of their store merely because they don’t like my hat, then according to the definition, I haven’t been discriminated against. Why? Because in order for this behavior to count as discrimination, I have to be treated unequally based on my membership in a salient social group. It’s maybe a bit tricky to define exactly what a ‘salient social group’ is, but some familiar examples might include e.g. LGBTQ people, women, people with a disability, or black people. ‘People with a funny looking hat’ aren’t a salient social group—that’s just a random category that popped up in this moment. So although I may have been treated badly, I haven’t been discriminated against.

Nethanel Lipshitz doesn’t see a good reason for including ‘you have to be a member of a salient social group’ in the definition of discrimination. Note that this is compatible with saying that being discriminated against qua member of a particular social group is typically worse than being discriminated against as an individual, maybe as part of a one-off. The idea is just that it still counts as discrimination, and that it’s still bad, even though we might think it isn’t as bad. The motivating idea behind Lipshitz’ inclusive definition is that the ‘I got discriminated against because of my hat’ situation and the ‘I got discriminated against because I’m gay’ situation have a key factor in common: in both situations, the victim is being singled out as someone not worthy of the same moral respect/consideration as everyone else.

It’s a fascinating discussion, and I hope you enjoy it. I think Nethanel Lipshitz provides lots of good reasons to rethink some of our contemporary assumptions about what discrimination is and why it’s wrong.

Matt Teichman


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Further Reading

Our guest recommends the following book, which presents a similar perspective on discrimination:

When Is Discrimination Wrong?, Deborah Hellman

The definition we poked and prodded at during this episode can be found in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry for ‘discrimination’:

Discrimination, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Finally, in case you’d like to look at the Bernard Williams or Cass Sunstein articles we talked about:

The Anticaste Principle, Cass Sunstein
The Idea of Equality, Bernard Williams

Happy reading!