Dissent: The Good Society, not the Good-Looking Society

Mr. York offers a wonderfully vacuous standard for when employment discrimination is unjustifiable: if the basis for discrimination is both an immutable and irrelevant trait. Denying someone opportunities based on a characteristic outside his control is just fine, it seems, as is discrimination based on a trait wholly unrelated to job performance. Yet somehow these two bases for discrimination, which on their own give rise to not the slightest hint of moral discomfort, become uniformly unjustifiable when they are conjoined. What hogwash: No wonder the best Mr. York can do to reason out his argument is appeal to “common sense norms of fairness.”

The explanation for this Swiss-cheese reasoning is obvious: It’s a logician’s version of reverse engineering, i.e. a post-hoc rationalization. Mr. York knows that he cannot defend race- or sex-based discrimination, so to save sexyism from moral disapproval, he must start with the conclusion that those practices are unacceptable and then invent some standard by which they are condemned while sexyism is permitted.

Mr. York gets so caught up in intellectual gymnastics, unfortunately, that he fails to recognize the real reason some bases of discrimination are acceptable while others are not. Simply put, particular hiring criteria are unjustifiable if they have a degrading effect on the human species. Those forms of discrimination that tend to reward virtue, to cultivate desirable qualities of character, and to encourage the best in humanity are morally proper; those forms that tend to debase and degrade, to bring out the worst in us, and to treat humans like objects or chattels are morally improper.

Race-based discrimination is not immoral for reasons of immutability or irrelevance — in pockets of the Deep South, having a black employee may well be highly relevant to a business’s ability to attract customers. Acts of racial discrimination are wrong because they degrade everyone involved, while lowering the condition of humanity writ large. We have decided, as a political and moral community, that judging one another according to skin color and assigning opportunities on that basis is not in keeping with our notions of the good society; and of course, this societal judgment is not born of speculation, but rooted in a long and ignominious history.  It is true that this history may not be as identifiably present with looks-based discrimination. But as Mr. Benavides points out, sexysim is a close cousin of racial discrimination: It objectifies and degrades in the very same way.

This is all to say that there is no convenient, ready-made formula — e.g. immutability + irrelevance = illegal — to determine what traits are and are not fair game in allocating scarce resources. It is rather a question that demands the type of collective introspection that the political process should be about. We must ask: Do we want to be a society with a caste of beautiful people and a caste of the aesthetically challenged?  Does this practice bring out the best in humanity or degrade and divide humanity? Does it encourage virtue or empty citizenship of moral meaning? My objection to Mr. York’s piece is not that he gets the answers to these questions wrong; the real problem is that he fails to grapple with them at all.

One Comment

  • Felix York wrote:

    Two responses:

    1. Your standard for whether sexyism or any other form of discrimination is permissible begs the question. You say we need to ask whether the discrimination has a “degrading effect” on humanity, but that’s the very question of the topic: is sexyism degrading and therefore immoral? I have attempted a standard, albeit one that is not rigorously proven, for when employment discrimination is okay, while you have simply restated the question in different terms.

    2. While I concede that I have not deductively proven the two essential elements of pernicious discrimination, I think the burden is really on you to disprove it rather than for me to prove it. Clearly we have an intuition that racism and sexism are immoral but that discrimination on the basis of actual talent is valid. What features, then, seem to distinguish the two? I submit that irrelevance and immutability constitute the difference, and I am yet to be convinced otherwise.

    And no, that’s not “intellectual gymnastics”–it’s a transcendental argument. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transcendental_arguments.

Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *