Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Discrimination without disadvantage

The SEP’s article on discrimination talks of discrimination as involving the imposition of a relative disadvantage on a member of a group.

This seems incorrect. Suppose Bob refuses to hire Alice because Alice is a woman. But Bob’s workplace is such a toxic environment that one is better off being jobless than working for Bob, regardless of whether one is a man or a woman. Bob has paradigmatically discriminated against Alice, but he has not imposed a relative disadvantage on her.

One might object that losing an option is always a disadvantage. But that is false: some options are degrading and it is better not to have them.

Perhaps we should subjectivize the relative disadvantage and say that discrimination involves the imposition of what is believed or intended to be a relative disadvantage. Bob presumably doesn’t think that working for him is a disadvantage. But imagine that Bob has the sexist belief that women are better off as housewives, and further believes that being a housewife is as good for a woman as being an employee of Bob’s is for a man. Then Bob does not believe he is imposing a relative disadvantage and he is not intending to do so, but he is clearly discriminating.

I am not sure how to fix the account of discrimination.


Raf SB said...


I think that Bob puts Alice at a disadvantage in hiring, namely the fact that she is a woman. So being a woman was the reason she was not hired and that if she were a man, keeping the rest of her profile unchanged, she would have been hired.

Because he thinks his place is at home, he therefore places Alice at a disadvantage when hiring. Discrimination does not necessarily imply that one carries a certain hatred or contempt towards the person or the group discriminated. In the example, that would just be applying an arbitrary criterion for hiring Alice. Arbitrary because being a woman or a man would in no way affect whether Alice was qualified to do the job.

If the criterion were not arbitrary, then we would no longer speak of discrimination. A law firm that does not include a doctor in its team does not discriminate against the doctor. He just isn't fit to do the job of a lawyer.

The key notion here is the arbitrariness or not of the imposed criteria. Which I think can be objectified.

Alexander R Pruss said...

The problem is that a disadvantage seems to be something that makes you worse off. But working for Bob is so terrible that not getting the job is better, so how can it be a disadvantage not to the get the job? It's like not getting tortured: that's not a disadvantage.

My best solution right now is to replace "disadvantage" with "disadvantage or denial of opportunity".

Alexander R Pruss said...

The disjunctive move doesn't work once we realize there are degrading offers that are harmful to get. If I extend such an offer to men but not women, I give a disadvantage to men and limit the opportunity of women, so by the disjunctive account, I discriminate against both in the same pattern of behavior, which seems absurd.
So back to the drawing board.

Raf SB said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Raf SB said...

There are two different disadvantages here, not one:
a) The disadvantage imposed to obtain the job
b) The disadvantage imposed by having obtained the job.

- The woman is disadvantaged in (a), therefore can not be disadvantaged in (b).
- The man is disadvantaged in (b), so he could not have been at a disadvantage in (a)

- in (a) the disadvantage is related to hiring criteria.
- in (b) the disadvantage is related to working conditions.

It's therefore not the same pattern of behavior, so no absurdity involved.

Another difference is that
- In (a) we can say that there is discrimination because of the arbitrariness of the criteria imposed by Bob for hiring: women are at a disadvantage compared to men.
- In (b) all the people who work for Bob are in the same situation. No one in particular is at a disadvantage compared to another. And if there is a person who works for Bob and to whom Bob imposes harsher working conditions than others, Bob will have discriminated against him.

SMatthewStolte said...

Can you make a “type of thing” move? Denying someone a job is the type of thing that imposes a disadvantage on someone, even if there are exceptions.

Arath55 said...

Dear Dr. Pruss,

First of all, I hope your day is going great. Second of all, my next question will completely unrelated to the post above.

Would the following modal argument against Existential Inertia be a good one?

1. It is possible existential inertia is false.
2. Possibly, for every existant essence there is a cause which sustains it in existence.
3. So there is some possible world in which essences are sustained in existence by an external cause.
4. If existential inertia is false that which sustains essences in existence must not have an essence distinct from its existence.
5. So there is a possible world in which essences are sustained in existence by something whose essence is not distinct from its existence.
6. So there is a possible world in which somethings essence is not distinct from its existence.
7. To have an essence equal to existence is to exist necessarily.
8. So there is some possible world in which there is a necessary being whose essence is equal to existence.
9. If a necessary being whose essence is equal to existence exists in some possible world then it exists in all possible worlds.
10. So there is a necessary being whose essence equals existence in the actual world.
11. If there is a being whose essence is equal to existence then nothing can exist without being sustained in existence.
12. So existential inertia is false

Michael Gonzalez said...

I'm inclined to agree with Raf about this: Discrimination with respect to X involves a disadvantage with respect to X, regardless of whether attaining X is itself an advantage or not.

Alexander R Pruss said...

If I refuse to torture someone, I am not discriminating AGAINST them with respect to torture.