“It’s Discrimination”

Guest post by Ben O’Neill, originally published at www.mises.org on 9 July 2009 (with footnotes)


If there were a prize for the most boneheaded thing that one hears very frequently, it would have to be the astonishment and revulsion that is commonly expressed at the existence of discrimination. You are likely to have heard this horrified expression before: “It’s discrimination!” Heavens above! Alert the authorities!

Quite often, this tiny statement, without any elaboration or explanation, is enough to provoke looks of shock or revulsion from others, or at the very least, solemn looks of concurrence and disapproval. In many cases, it will provoke fervent denials and apologetic defensive maneuvers from those accused of this heinous act, even if the accuser has made no attempt to deliver his case. The mere charge is enough.

People do not often realize it, but when they disparage “discrimination” without any attempt to elaborate or justify what they are talking about, they are disparaging an abstraction. Moreover, they are disparaging an abstraction on which they rely to think — an abstraction without which they would be docile vegetables unable to make sense of the world around them. When someone shrieks “It’s discrimination!” the irony is usually lost on them, but without their own discrimination they would not be able to establish that others are discriminating, and be offended by it.

If one does venture to ask questions about why discrimination is to be condemned, one may be treated to a slight elaboration as to what is upsetting people. One may be informed that so-and-so is discriminating on the basis of race, sex, age, sexual orientation, political affiliation, attractiveness, or some other factor that should not be a part of his decision making, and that just settles the matter, consarn it!

But what is relevant to rational thinking, moral conduct, and justice is not whether discrimination has occurred, or even whether such discrimination is made on the basis of some particular set of purportedly prohibited criteria; what should ultimately be at issue is the reasons why the factors used in a decision were used, and whether these factors do indeed form a rational basis for the inferences that underlie discriminatory decisions (by which I mean, all decisions). In assessing the rationality, irrationality, morality, or immorality of particular instances of discrimination, it behooves us to ask the reasons for discrimination and to assess these reasons in the light of the logic of inference. This may sound trite, but it is a step rarely taken in the rush to disparage the ghastly abstraction of “discrimination.”

Discrimination and Statistical Inference

Discrimination is ubiquitous. It is not some conceptual defect or manifestation of hatred or stupidity. In its widest and most proper sense, discrimination is merely the drawing of distinctions between things, which is the basis for all concept formation and human knowledge. Whenever we form concepts from observations of the things around us and attempt to integrate these concepts into a consistent whole to form a sensible view of the world, we do so by differentiating between different things on the basis of their observable characteristics. In particular, when we form anthropic concepts — concepts pertaining to man — we do so by discriminating between different types of people on the basis of their observable characteristics. Discrimination between people is the basis for all anthropic concepts and all knowledge about man. It is the means by which we are able to condense all of our many experiences with other people down into some economized conceptual units that can be used to predict the unknown characteristics and behavior of others.

One of the reasons that discrimination is of such predictive value is that, like it or not, human beings have characteristics that are statistically dependent, meaning that, for whatever reason, these characteristics tend to occur with one another or tend not to occur with one another (as opposed to occurring statistically independently of one another). Sometimes these characteristics are causally related, and sometimes they are merely correlated, meaning merely that they tend to appear together (or in the case of negative correlation, tend not to appear together). Discrimination on the basis of observable characteristics can be rationally justified in any situation in which there is a statistical dependence between these characteristics and some other characteristics of direct interest to us, given whatever information is available. In such cases, the predictive characteristic gives us information on the characteristic of ultimate interest to us, even if there is no causal relationship between them.

I’ll give you an example: A study by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under the Law found that taxicab drivers in Washington DC are less likely to pick up young black males than other people, and are less likely to drive passengers of any race to areas of the city with larger proportions of the black population. Does this mean that cab drivers — including many black cab drivers — are incorrigible racists who see blacks as being genetically predisposed to crime? Not at all! To a cab driver in this situation, it doesn’t make a lick of difference whether a particular race of people are genetically predisposed to commit crimes or not. All that matters in this context is that race and crime are correlated — they tend to occur together for some reason. And because these things tend to occur together, in the absence of having some more detailed information about a prospective passenger, the driver is correct to use the passenger’s race, sex, and age as factors in his decision. He is correct to conclude that picking up a young black man in his cab (as opposed to picking up someone else) will increase the probability that he will be a victim of assault or other criminal conduct. The rational cab driver knows this, and acts accordingly, avoiding fares that he thinks are high risk, based on those characteristics he is able to observe about his prospective passengers.

Discrimination on the basis of predictive characteristics which are correlated with characteristic of direct interest is a form of rational discrimination. While it is often slandered as an injustice, rational discrimination is both rational and morally proper. In fact, since justice is the rational assessment and treatment of other people, rational discrimination is a necessary requirement for justice and the refusal to engage in such discrimination is itself an injustice.

Even sex and race discrimination, the coup de grande of modern taboos, often involve little more than the recognition that these characteristics are correlated with qualities and behaviors that are of legitimate interest in many decisions. When taxi drivers in Washington DC discriminate against young black men in their choice of passengers, they do so because they know that sex, age, and race are all correlated with violent crime, which they wish to avoid. These people are not bigots or morons — they are intelligent people who are implicitly applying the lessons of the science of statistical inference, even if they are only aware of these ideas on an intuitive or “common-sense” level.

Is it a breach of a person’s civil rights to be denied taxi service on the basis of their race, sex, or age? According to civil rights groups, it is. But unless one has some inherent right to service from others, then it cannot be a breach of rights when this service is denied, no matter what the grounds for the denial. Indeed, if rights are understood to be grounded in the nonaggression principle, then this must include the right to use one’s property in a discriminatory manner, a fortiori when that discrimination is rational.

A cab driver who operates his cab without engaging in rational race discrimination, sex discrimination, or age discrimination does the world no favors. While he will probably end up giving service to people who are not criminals, and who may have been avoided by other drivers, he is also more likely to give service to those who will rob and assault him. If he ignores his own rational inferences then he will weigh the risks against the rewards incorrectly, playing into the hands of violent thugs.

Unfortunately, the cab driver has another set of violent thugs to contend with, since he is the target of the coercion of government and its activist minions. The government who punishes him for his rational inferences not only does the world no favors; it violates his rights and entrenches a system of mandatory irrationality that compels him to ignore relevant information in the decision problem he is faced with. Its antidiscrimination laws not only involve an unwarranted aggression, but they involve aggression in the pursuit of mandatory irrationality.

The absence of discrimination between people would make it impossible to gain a conceptual understanding of man and would force us to operate at a purely perceptual level, either treating people as interchangeable blobs without differentiation, or treating each person as a completely new and exceptional phenomenon. It would put us in the position of starry-eyed infants who observe each new thing as a unique and unknown phenomenon to be stared at in vacant wonderment.

Trite allegations of discrimination, usually made without any elaboration, completely ignore the relevant issue. What is crucial in evaluating other people is not whether we discriminate on the basis of this or that characteristic but whether the characteristics we use form a rational basis for our inferences. Are the distinctions that we draw sensible inferences based on genuine causal or empirical relationships between observed characteristics, or are they arbitrary judgments based on spurious ideas with no basis in reality? In short, the relevant issue is whether the discrimination we engage in is rational or irrational, not whether it is discrimination on this ground or that.

Notwithstanding the shrieks of horror that one is likely to encounter from the equity-and-diversity intelligentsia, this applies as much to race and sex discrimination as to any other form of judgment and discrimination. What matters is not whether characteristics like race, sex, and age are used as means of differentiation and judgment but whether they are used rationally to infer other characteristics of interest on the basis of some known correlation or causal relationship between them.

The Antidiscrimination Paradigm

When you hear someone express with indignation that “It’s discrimination!” — without any attempt at elaboration — you may be sure that they have absorbed the basic ideas of the antidiscrimination paradigm which forms the basis for modern “civil-rights” legislation and the attendant drive for political correctness. At its root, the antidiscrimination paradigm asserts the abhorrence of discrimination per se, not merely discrimination on particular grounds. Article 26 of the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights makes this clear when it directs that “the law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” This explains why no further elaboration is thought to be needed once discrimination has been established. “It’s discrimination!” is all that is needed to establish a breach of civil “rights” and the consequent moral outrage.

To see the complete implications of the antidiscrimination paradigm, observe that, although race and sex are often used as the thin end of the wedge in public discussion, antidiscrimination laws and the accompanying moral crusade for political correctness both continue to expand to outlaw discrimination on the basis of more and more of the characteristics of man. From initially narrow and innocuous beginnings, antidiscrimination laws in most Western countries have now expanded to prohibit discrimination (including rational discrimination) on the grounds of race, sex, age, disability, sexuality, marital status, pregnancy, potential pregnancy, breastfeeding, and family and career responsibilities. There is no end in sight to this expansion, with calls to prohibit discrimination on the grounds of attractiveness and social status receiving serious attention.

The sole impediment to this expansion has been the normal inertia of political change, with each new expansion meeting withering resistance until it becomes a normal and allegedly indispensable part of antidiscrimination law. Throughout this process, the general philosophical principle that implicitly or explicitly forms the basis for change is that discrimination on any ground is abhorrent. This is what is said, and this is precisely and literally what is meant.

Unfortunately, many libertarians who oppose antidiscrimination laws accept the false position that discrimination on the grounds of race, sex, age, and other demographic criteria is necessarily morally abhorrent. While one may commend the delineation of moral and political issues that this entails, this position understates the seriousness of the issue. Antidiscrimination laws should not be seen as bad methods in the pursuit of good goals. They are bad methods in the pursuit of a tyrannical goal.

In fact, the only possible logical goal of the antidiscrimination paradigm is the complete elimination of discrimination and the institution of an all-pervasive quota system in every field of human activity. In such a context, it is not enough to remain agnostic about moral issues involving discrimination. One must fully analyze the inferential foundations of discrimination and defend the moral legitimacy of instances of rational discrimination from knee-jerk attacks.

One often hears the assertion that discrimination is based on ignorance and prejudice. While this is certainly the case for some forms of irrational discrimination, it is not true for discrimination that is based on a rational assessment of the relationship between observable characteristics and unobservable characteristics of legitimate interest in judgment and decision making. As I have explained elsewhere,

The antidiscrimination paradigm, which holds all discrimination to be irrational, is contradictory to basic principles of rational inference and prediction. Far from identifying irrational behavior based on ignorance and prejudice, the antidiscrimination paradigm is itself irrational and is itself based on ignorance and prejudice — ignorance of the principles of rational inference, and a baseless prejudice that there must be empirical equality among racial groups.

One often hears of the great danger of irrational discrimination based on false ideas like racism. But there is also a serious danger in the refusal to acknowledge the inferential and moral legitimacy of instances of rational discrimination. If instances of rational discrimination are falsely understood to be manifestations of bigotry and hatred, then this can only create and sustain acrimony and hostility between groups of people, a trend which has manifested itself in a repressive system of coercive planning known as antidiscrimination law.

46 thoughts on ““It’s Discrimination”

  1. Discrimination on the basis of race, sex, age etc should be strongly opposed when the discrimination is an artifact of the law or government policy. The law should not read as though it were written by bigots. A goverment policy that says woman can’t teach if married (which was the case in Australia in the 1960s) was an awful policy and was rightly ridiculed by progressive liberals. This is the form of discrimination that the likes of the UN charter originally sought to rightly attack. That such charters are now used to persecute taxi drivers just shows how easily good initiatives can be turned to perverse ends.

  2. >> In short, the relevant issue is whether the discrimination
    >> we engage in is rational or irrational, not whether it is
    >> discrimination on this ground or that.

    Collectivist twaddle.

    I have the right to discriminate on whatever grounds I like REGARDLESS OF WHETHER THAT DISCRIMINATION IS ‘RATIONAL’ OR NOT. As long as it’s not with someone’s money etc etc etc.

    I don’t have to justify my use of my own body and my own resources to you or anyone else on the basis of its ‘rationality’. If you think that I am being ‘irrational’ in my choice of sex partner, marital partner, playmate, business partner, employer, restaurant, TV manufacturer or any other voluntary interaction, good for you. Disapprove as much as you like – your disapproval doesn’t obligate me to justify myself, or to change my behavior.

    I have a right to make decisions in my life and my business which you regard as ‘mistakes’.

    In fact, let me suggest that anyone well endowed with ‘rationality’ should recognize that someone’s ‘irrationality’ generally creates opportunities for others. My insistence on marrying a less attractive marital partner because she is white means there is a more attractive available woman on the market of another color. My insistence on employing an Asian accountant means there is a more competent accountant available to my competitors for a reasonable price. Etc.

    Whether governments SHOULD or SHOULDN’T discriminate on certain grounds is an argument we could have, but why bother? Either way the solution is to have smaller government, so that any damage through making the wrong decision is minimized.

    Why are we wasting time talking about whether discrimination is rational or not, when the problem is clearly the initiation of force by large, powerful government?

    Okay, enough from me. Where’s my Prozac? *pop* Ahh, that’s better. Thank heavens for the pharmaceutical benefits scheme!

  3. How do you manage to call an anarchist a “collectivist”?

    Ben wasn’t suggesting you shouldn’t be allowed to discriminate for any reason, or that the government should discriminate. Indeed… he took that as entirely obvious because he was writing for a libertarian audience.

    The provocative point is whether it is ever morally appropriate to discriminate on the basis of race, sex, etc? I like the question because it makes people uncomfortable, and the obviously correct answer (“yes”) is the politically incorrect answer.

  4. Good article!

    (It is also very cool to see he is an academic in Australia – I’ve always wondered where all our libertarian academics are hiding!)

  5. John – I doubt that there are many people who are politically correct in such a shallow way that they would demonise taxi drivers for avoiding certain types of customers. People are generally irrational in far more complicated ways than I think you are giving them credit for.

  6. I’ve recently gone through one heck of a situation relative to weight discrimination at my FORMER employer: I resigned after some very cruel treatment. I did make a three segment video series on YouTube. My channel is EnvisionRevision, so take a look if you want and all the details are there.

    I am by no means a grossly overweight woman either. I am 5′ 10″ and look like like a slightly smaller body equivalent to Anna Nicole when she was heavy. I have not gained any weight in 3 years and have lost 35 pounds. I work hard; exercise and eat right. I still have to lose more weight; it’s a slow process.

    As a licensed healthcare professional, I am disgusted with what transpired at the facility that I worked for. I am going to make a positive out of the very negative experience I had to go through by writing government bodies that oversee these issues (discrimination). I am also working on a proposal to submit to lobby for these changes.

    Nobody should face discrimination in the workplace; everyone has a right to work. Keep up the good work with the info and spread the word. Feel free to visit my blog, or YouTube channel.

  7. Jill — I think you misunderstood the article.

    To say that everybody has a “right” to work means that somebody else has the “responsibility” to give them work. On what basis can you demand that I employ you? That seems to imply that you have a “right” to my life. I don’t agree with that.

    I think each person has a right to their own life. I think it would be nice if each person were allowed to make their own life decisions, and allowed other people to do the same.

    Of course, sometimes people are mean. Sometimes people don’t help you when you want them to help you. Sometimes people don’t want to be your friend, or neighbour, or lover, or teammate, or employer, etc. That is unfortunate. But, in a free world, people must be allowed to make their own decisions about their own life, even when it hurts your feelings.

    You do not have a right to my life.

    I’m sad to hear that you’re going to start lobbying the government for policies that reduce freedom, and take away people’s right to live their own life and make their own choices.

  8. John…I do understand and respect what you are saying. My connection to this, as with my response ties in to not having a “right” to my life; to tell me that I need to lose weight (although they hired me three weeks before) and to call me fat, has nothing to do with my job. They do not have a “right” to my life, as to tell me these things. I am aware that I have to lose some more weight, but in the nursing profession, there is nothing that says that I have to; it was not in my contract; whether I do/do not want to lose weight has nothing to do with my employer.

    The policies that I will lobby for have to do with employers not being allowed to harass employees based on weight. Current standards protect against race, religion, sex, etc., but nothing relative to size/weight.

    People are entitled to think what they want, but they need to leave it at the door when they clock-in to work. Such continued behavior results in low morale and an unproductive work environment.

    I see it this way: they lost a great employee when I resigned. My patients miss me, and in turn, I miss caring for them, however, they know that I did the right thing. I have no regrets.

    Thanks for the feedback; great thoughts.

  9. Jill, you’re still not getting it! Any and every single individual should be allowed to practice discrimination in their life, and over what they own, like workplaces. It would be great if people were smart and went only by ability, but they should have the freedom to be dumb, and learn better! I will try to treat people fairly, but I will not impose this standard through law! That is where we differ from you. Discrimination should be up to personal tastes, not legal definitions.

  10. Saying that you are fat is mean, but it is also a part of freedom of speech. I believe that freedom of speech (and generally the freedom to do anything so long as it’s voluntary and peaceful) is more important that the “right not to be offended”.

    I agree that other people don’t have a right to your life. But from what I can tell, nobody has claimed a right to your life. They have just said and done mean (but voluntary and peaceful) things. That makes them a mean person… but I don’t think we should introduce a law that makes it illegal to be mean.

    I understood what you would be lobbying for, and unfortunately you are lobbying to take away other people’s right to live their own life voluntarily and peacefully. Your reason is noble (you want to stop people being mean) but the method is, in my opinion, unacceptable. What you are asking for is the power to stop other people making their own decisions.

    As harsh as this sounds, the freedom to be mean is a fundamental part of being free. The freedom to do exactly what you are told is not real freedom.

    This rationale applies to all discrimination. I believe (as does the author) that all people should be allowed to discriminate against anybody for any reason (race, religion, sex, etc). Note that I said allowed. That doesn’t mean I will agree with their behaviour. But to be free, people have to be allowed to do things that I (or you) disagree with… so long as it’s voluntary and peaceful.

    I totally agree with you that irrational discrimination is unfair, mean and counter-productive (lower morale, losing good employees, etc).

    There has been some fascinating economics done which shows that in a competitive market people will tend away from irrational discrimination because it hurts the discriminator. For example, in business an anti-Semite will deal with Jews because it is in their interest… an anti-black will deal with blacks because it is in their interest, etc.

    But in a free world there will always be a diversity of outcomes and sometimes people will do mean things and take the ‘wrong’ action. If we don’t allow people to make mistakes… then we are banning freedom and self-ownership.

    My pithy little quote to sum up the issue: Even under Hitler or Stalin, people were always free to do exactly as they were told. Real freedom requires that you can do the ‘wrong’ thing, so long as it’s voluntary.

    I’m sorry that people prevented you from enjoying your job. But the best revenge is not to lobby for less freedom… but to go out and live a happy life despite the assholes that we inevitably sometimes meet. Good luck.

  11. Interesting perspective, John. I do understand what you are saying.

    I fully well intend on living a happy life, much as I have. This is just a bump in the road. Thanks for sharing your wisdom.

  12. Ben’s reference to ‘rational discrimination’ is also discussed by Tim Hartford in The Logic of Life (one of those ‘everyday economists/freakonomics’ books).

    Hartford describes it as ‘rational racism’ and uses the example of recruiters and employers discounting resumes with distinctly African American names eg Latoya, or Tyrone.

    I read this awhile ago, but from what I can recall the rational basis of this discrimination is that black applicants are more likely to have prior criminal convictions, less education/career acheivements, poorer work ethic, etc.

    Although recruiters are able to assess each applicant on individual merits by actually reading their resume, cover letter, interviewing them, etc, the reality is that many job advertisements potentially receive hundreds of applications that it is far more efficient to scan their names as a vetting tool.

    Accordingly, the rationality of the racial discrimination here is ‘moral’ under Ben’s statistical inference argument –

    “What is crucial in evaluating other people is not whether we discriminate on the basis of this or that characteristic but whether the characteristics we use form a rational basis for our inferences. Are the distinctions that we draw sensible inferences based on genuine causal or empirical relationships between observed characteristics, or are they arbitrary judgments based on spurious ideas with no basis in reality? In short, the relevant issue is whether the discrimination we engage in is rational or irrational, not whether it is discrimination on this ground or that.”

    “While this is certainly the case for some forms of irrational discrimination, it is not true for discrimination that is based on a rational assessment of the relationship between observable characteristics and unobservable characteristics of legitimate interest in judgment and decision making”

    However, Ben didn’t go into much detail on ‘irrational discrimination’. He is essentially saying it’s ‘okay’ (in the moral sense, in an attempt to redefine political correctness) to be a racist when we have statistical inference – in other words, acting based on stereotypes.

    So what makes a stereotype ‘rational’ or ‘irrational’?
    Ben refers to ‘sensible inferences based on genuine causal or empirical relationships’. I think the tax cab driver is a convenient example because the personal prejudice happens to align with the statistical reality – African Americans have significantly higher incarceration rates than any other minority.

    But let’s use a different example – are women as smart as men? This would be the subject of significant personal bias several decades ago, although the reality of statistical studies now would show average IQ’s between genders are essentially equal (although variance is not). Nonetheless, were employers in professional fields during the 60’s ‘moral’ by applying what they ‘believed’ to be statistical inference – when in fact, the correlation in reality would constitute irrational sexism?

    It seems to me that there is no real distinction because all discrimination is rational from the point of the discriminator, if we are using statistical inference as an argument for excuse.

    I don’t think anyone is really racist ONLY because someone has darker skin, or slanty eyes. The source of discrimination is always based on some underlying stereotype. If you read some of the stuff on stormfront, or white supremacy sites, you will find that many of the supporters are very well read, argue intelligently, and thoroughly research their arguments in favour of discrimination. Certainly, they undertake a lot more empirical research on race comparison than the casual new york cabbie.

  13. Winston — IQ is only one relevant factor in employment. Another important factor is the probability that your employee will take a few years off work to look after a mini-human. I don’t think it would be controversial to point out that this was done by women more than men. This seems to indicate a reasonable case for rational discrimination.

    Though I accept that some sexual discrimination has been simple bigotry.

    Saying that all discrimination is rational from the perspective of the discriminator is to obscure an important distinction between “noticing difference that exist” and “assuming differences that don’t exist”.

  14. Crap argument, Humphreys! I prefer Nick’s.
    Rational or irrational discrimination should not make you a criminal in the eyes of the law. Every person should have the right to hire or fire because of their own beliefs, even if others think this is unfair.
    Whilst Jill seems to have been treated unfairly, we would all be unfairly treated if we let governments dictate work conditions. (Private businesses keep mentioning the rising costs of compliance with bureaucratic regulations.)
    As for how libertarians can combat unfair discrimination, the Antislavery League had it’s first successes by organising voluntary boycotts of unfair stores, or goods produced through slavery. This is why we need more than a blog or party, but a society to spread the news, and co-ordinate activities- or at least a paper magazine to give to all!

  15. Hi guys,

    Thanks for commenting on my article. There seem to be a few misunderstandings of my views that have come up which I would like to address. For those interested, I have written a longer paper on this topic for The Independent Review, which covers some of the points that have come up (e.g. allegations of collectivism).

    Strawman: The objection that rational race discrimination (or other discrimination) is a manifestation of collectivism is dealt with in detail in the longer article. Suffice to say, attempts to infer the characteristics of an individual and make decisions on this basis are not a manifestation of collectivism, since collectivism is not concerned with individual characteristics at all.

    I think your post confuses political issues with wider moral issues. I certainly agree that one has the right to discriminate on rational or irrational (moral or immoral) grounds, so long as no coercion is involved. However, this does not invalidate arguments over the logical or moral legitimacy of discrimination. Moreover, contrary to your assertion, this is in fact a very important argument, since it is mistaken views on these issues which are primarily responsible for driving the government initiation of force that you mention.

    It also seems to me that your post is flirting dangerously with subjectivist ideas of rationality and moral relativism. The fact that you repeatedly refer to concepts like rationality and irrationality in smear quotes suggests that you are taking a subjectivist view which I would not agree with. In any case, thanks for sharing your views.

    Jill: I argue in my article that discrimination is not necessarily irrational, even if it is done on the grounds of race, sex, age, etc. That is, I argue that there exist at least some instances of rational race discrimination, sex discrimination, etc. (there would also exist instances of rational weight discrimination, though I didn’t describe any). However, this does not mean that all discrimination on these grounds is rational or that I would countenance any specific instance of discrimination (other than the one I describe).

    I the case of your weight discrimination, I am afraid that I do not have enough information to render an informed judgment, other than to say that I certainly would not be in favour of taunting a person over their weight or treating them cruelly. (Incidentally, I’m sure you look lovely.)

    I do not agree that nobody should face discrimination in the workplace, nor do I agree that one has a right to a job. Nevertheless, I would agree that no-one should (as a moral matter) face irrational or unfair discrimination in the workplace, or anywhere else.

    Winston: For reasons which I discuss in the larger article in The Independent Review, I do not regard racism as a synonym for race discrimination. Rather, I think that racism is a false idea about the biological determinism of people’s ideas and actions that leads to a collectivist methodology for judging others. For that reason, I would not say that it is okay to be a racist, and I would not agree that there is any such thing as “rational racism”. I think this is probably a dispute over terminology more than anything.

    You mention discrimination in employment, giving the example of an employer using names on a resume to infer the applicant’s race, and then in turn infer characteristics like criminal history, educational achievement and work ethic. I would suggest that, in this context, the employer could far more reliably get information by doing a police background check, and asking directly for educational and employer references, proof of degrees/diplomas/training and so on. In this case I think it is highly unlikely that race would have any remaining correlation with any characteristic of direct interest (conditional on this additional information) and so I think it would be unlikely that race discrimination in this context would be rational; a fortiori where there is a further level of inference from names to race. The same kind of reasoning would apply for any kind of race discrimination based on non-causal correlation, in circumstances where more direct and reliable information is available.

    I hope that covers most of the ideas that have come up. Apologies if I have missed any pertinent objections or comments.


  16. Judgement of others is critical for success in your life. Many times this is done as a generalisation. eg/ It’s 1am, bad part of town, homeless guy walking towards me.
    I make a judgement and generalisation and cross the other side of the road because I want to reduce my chances of getting mugged.

    Judging, generalisation and discrimination are all good things and necessary functions of the human mind.
    Like Strawman, I believe that I should be able to discriminate in any way I please on my property – even in irrational ways that ultimately would harm me in the long run.

    There’s absolutely nothing wrong with judging others and acting on those judgements in most contexts. Just be aware you are generalising. ie: You can be too quick to judge and make an error.

    Christianity says “Thou shalt not judge”. This is wrong – and just plain stupid.
    Just one quick example: without judgement you would destroy romantic love and friendship.

    In Jill’s case. I think that perhaps a job contract could reasonably include a section aggreeing that personal abuse in the workplace is unacceptable.
    However if you do receive abuse and the supervisor condones this, you should probably find another job because you shouldn’t take that shit.
    But the key point from a political perspective is that you do not have the right to another person’s property. If you want your perfect job, you should make it yourself and not expect someone else to hand it to you just because you happened to be born. ie: When it comes to property, society doesn’t owe you, and you don’t owe society.
    Life would be so much better if people simply accepted this basic, logical idea.

    Ayn Rand said something to the tune of “the smallest minority is the individual”. So anyone who truly cares about “discrimination” against minority groups should support individual rights in the law.

  17. Christianity says, ‘Do not judge, unless you are prepared to be judged, because you will be judged by the same standard you use on others’. Only hypocrites need fear this rule. If you are perfect, and what Objectivist would ever admit to being imperfect, then judge away!

  18. Christianity says, ‘Do not judge, unless you are prepared to be judged, because you will be judged by the same standard you use on others’. Only hypocrites need fear this rule. If you are perfect, and what Objectivist would ever admit to being imperfect, then judge away!

    Nick, objectivists say ‘judge like hell and expect to be judged’. I don’t think that’s too far from your position.

  19. The original article is collectivism by stealth.

    The obsession with demonstrating the ‘rationality’ of a particular form of discrimination implies that I have some kind of obligation to justify my rationality. Who would I justify it to if not some kind of Collective? Hence it’s collectivism.

    Further, consider the criticism of ‘subjectivist ideas of rationality and moral relativism’, why are these a problem? Provided someone is only using their own resources, I am happy not to interfere with their ‘subjective rationality and morality’. I am not going to waste my time arguing with someone about whether their use of their own resources is ‘objectively rational’ or merely ‘subjectively rational’. It’s their own stuff – they can do what they like with it. I might offer advice to them about their options, and which ones I would choose in their position, but if they didn’t want to listen then I would stop.

    As soon as you get on the ‘objective rationality’ bandwagon you are already on the path to telling other people what to do with their stuff (‘for the greater good’?). And that’s pretty much the basis of collectivism.

    >> the relevant issue is whether the discrimination we engage in is rational or irrational

    Sorry, whether my discrimination is ‘rational’ or ‘irrational’ (in your view) is irrelevant, and just detracts from the real issue: that you don’t have the right to tell me what to do with my stuff.

  20. Michael, Objectivists say lots of silly things over the years, so please be careful- don’t compare me to Leonard Peikoff! He’s one who thought that the Big Bang was more an act of magic than science! And quantum nonlocality is something he would have bet against, if he had understood it.
    As for judgement, some scholars now think that some people and towns were the kinds to keep detailed records of everything that they owed, or were owed by, everyone else! Does anybody want that sort of ‘judgement’?

  21. Strawman — no. You seem to be implying that morality is the same as politics, and so it is towards you (!!!) that I point the accusing finger of collectivism by stealth. 🙂

    It is reasonable for libertarians (and anarchists such as Ben and myself) to consider the morality of different sorts of voluntary human action. If you take joy from abusing nice people for no reason, then I will think you’re an asshole. That’s a moral judgment. It doesn’t require government. If you are a prude who avoids sex, drugs & alcohol, then I’ll think you’re missing out on life. That’s a moral judgment. It doesn’t require government. If you are living a strongly religious life for a sky-fairy, then I will think you have committed suicide of the soul, which is perhaps the greatest sin in my world view. That is a moral judgment. It doesn’t require the government.

    Many people believe that discrimination is morally bad (that’s a moral issue). Statists want to ban it, while libertarians will tolerate it (that’s a political issue). But even many libertarians think it is morally bad. What Ben has done is to show that not all discrimination is morally bad. I agree with him.

    You say that whether you actions are rational or irrational is irrelevant. If the question is “are strawman’s actions rational or irrational” then obviously the issue is relevant.

    You insist the “real issue” is whether we should ban discrimination. Actually, that is not the current issue. If you want to talk about a different issue, then feel free to write a different post. But it’s not appropriate to change the topic and then complain that the original post doesn’t address your changed topic.

    I think you’ll find that the reason Ben didn’t write about the legality of discrimination is that he thought it was painfully self-evident for a libertarian audience that it should not be banned… and he wanted to write about an issue that might be better at challenging how people think.

  22. If you lead a religious life, you will live longer, studies have shown, so a religious life would be a long one, and thus desireable. And if you atheists are right, then we don’t have souls, so there is no suicide of the soul! And you think of yourself as a reasonable person?

  23. >> If the question is “are strawman’s actions rational or irrational”
    >> then obviously the issue is relevant.

    Err .. no, the only issue should be (surely) whether my _argument_ is rational. Why would you care about my actions?

    >> You insist the “real issue” is whether we should ban discrimination. Actually,
    >> that is not the current issue. If you want to talk about a different issue,
    >> then feel free to write a different post. But it’s not appropriate to change
    >> the topic and then complain that the original post doesn’t address your
    >> changed topic.

    I accept this, but this forum is not just a support group for libertarians. Non-libertarians visit it too, and we end up debating the wrong issues. Like Jill for instance – who seems like a nice person who is upset, confused and seeking guidance.

    If you start a thread on a libertarian forum called “Should we all be forced to drive Holdens, or should we all be forced to drive Fords?” then don’t be surprised when someone answers “neither”, and then explains why.

    The main question/argument of the original article was: “Is it okay to discriminate if the discrimination is rational?”

    Sorry, but this is a trick question, and the answer is “it is okay to discriminate with your own resources, period.” Hence my post.

  24. Nicholas, no Objectivist has ever claimed to be perfect.

    Christianty’s interpretation and teaching over the years has been that judging others is bad in of itself. “Judge not, lest you be judged”, has led Christians to be overly hasty not to judge. Also, this teaching does not define any context. Obviously Christians would admit some level of judging is OK but historically and today, Christians pride themselves on forgiving the guilty (mercy) and not judging.

    Atheism is not an ideology, so you can’t compare it to a religious group. Atheism isn’t a way of life or philosophy. It’s simply a non-belief in an arbitary claim. I often find I don’t have a large amount of common ground with other atheists. Some atheists are subjectivists, most are statists, etc

    I doubt Objectivists would live shorter lives than religious people from the same socio economic group but I don’t think anyone has studied that. Personally I’d bet that Christians have more mental problems such as anxiety, fearfulness, guilt, low self esteem but only because that’s my personal experience. Although then again, I think alienated and/or unhappy people are more likely to discover unpopular philosophies such as Objectivism because they have less to lose and they are motivated to seek new ideologies. This was my experience. I was in a major depression (and a Christian) when I started exploring new ideas and philosophies about 10 years ago. So I can already see problems with any potential comparison. Although I’d love to see the results of such a study.

    If we do accept the idea that length of life is a key indicator on how good a life is, (and I do agree that it’s an important indicator) then you should be a Mormon. They live the longest of all Christians to my knowledge.

    I’m not aware of Peikoff’s statements on science. But what have they got to do with anything? Peikoff is a philosopher for starters and should be judged on his philosophical theories. Secondly, the type of physics you are eluding to is highly theoretical. My own view is that the universe cycles through contractions and expansions and that there would be an infinite number of big bangs. As to the exact nature of the big bang (singularity), I have no idea about that – and nothing is proven here to my knowledge – the conditions at the big bang are not exactly normal or easily studied.
    The bible implies the world is about 6000 years old. St. Augustine started this one I think. This is obviously about as bad as you can get when it comes to science.
    So if you are trashing Objectivism because of some comments Peikoff made on science, then why do you hold Christianity in such high regard considering its abysmal record on science and persecution of scientists?

  25. Science started as a rational inquiry into the world, because people believed that God was consistent and His laws were uniform through-out. But you can’t do that in Islam! God has the right and power to change HIS Mind at any time (hence the Mohammedan principle of Abrogation), and cannot bind Himself about future conduct! Would that belief lead you to science?
    Science started in Christian countries, and this was not an aberration. Islam has no Francis Bacon to extol science or the scientific method.
    Some churches mistreated or killed people for their beliefs, but extremist tendencies exist in most people. Even Ayn Rand was an extremist about Objectivism, as opposed to libertarianism.
    I mentioned Peikoff because the major work on Objectivism in our library has his name, and the introduction has Rand extolling him as perfectly understanding her philosophy.
    As for why I became an esoterically-inclined Christian, as a teenager, I read widely on and about (you guessed it) Edgar Cayce, and I was fascinated that many of his statements were validated after his death- like aluminium being a poison that can lead to Alzheimer’s, that the Nile river flowed into the Atlantic a long time ago, that the Essenes had female members (he claimed that Mary and Joseph were both Essenes), that the Great Sphinx is very old, etc. I have also met a few Australians who benefited from his written advice, where conventional medicine did nothing for them.
    And, as a believer, I’ll always have the last laugh, because I’ll live longer, so I’ll be dancing on your grave and laughing (metaphorically, of course).

  26. I recall once sitting on a train late at night and glancing over the isle to see sitting on the seat opposite this unshaved young bloke with messy hair and daggy clothes and I thought to myself he looks like trouble and the sort of bloke best avoided. So not wanting to make eye contact I faced the window next to my seat instead where I immediately saw on the darkened window a reflection of a different bloke who was also unshaved, had messy hair and wore daggy clothes. He looked just as menacing. Perhaps I would have judged the second fellow baddly also except he has followed me everywhere my entire life and in my mind I more readily let him off the hook. Even though for a brief second he freaked me out.

  27. Strawman… people might care about your actions because they want to morally judge you. This post wasn’t about your specific actions, but it is a perfectly normal moral question to ask “is action XYZ good or bad”?

    You say this isn’t a support group. I agree. But I can’t see anywhere that I have said or implied that. It is a discussion forum. We have discussed non-political topics before. I can’t see the problem.

    Your Ford/Holden analogy doesn’t hold, because this topic wasn’t about forcing anybody to do anything. The equivalent analogy would be “which car is better — Holden or Ford”. You might think the topic boring, or disappointingly non-political… but it’s a normal enough question. The equivalent of your answer is “how dare you discuss cars… you can’t force me to buy a Ford”.

    The fact that you want to answer a political question does not mean that the author has asked a political question. It was a moral question. Asking moral questions is not a trick. It’s just a moral question.

  28. >> The fact that you want to answer a political question does
    >> not mean that the author has asked a political question.
    >> It was a moral question. Asking moral questions is not a
    >> trick. It’s just a moral question.

    I think you are probably right, but that’s only because you and I know the difference. Many people coming to this forum can’t even distinguish between morality and legality. They don’t know the different between an inalienable human right and an act of parliament.

    They don’t understand that (so called) Bill of Rights has little to do with human rights, but is merely a list of limitations on government power designed to help protect those rights.

    Ask the average person “do you have the right to smoke marijuana?” and they will answer “of course not – it’s illegal!”

    Inalienable human rights? Aren’t they what the Americans were granted by their Bill of Rights? Shouldn’t we have some of those too?

    You say that “this topic wasn’t about forcing anybody to do anything” – do you think that this was Jill’s interpretation? For Jill it was all about forcing someone to do something – notable her ex-employer.

    This is a political discussion group. If you are making non-political points then that’s fine, but I invite you to fill the writing with caveats like ‘of course no-one should be forced to make this decision, but ..’

    Otherwise people will make that point in the comments. Like I did.

  29. I thought Ben covered that concern with the following paragraph:

    Unfortunately, many libertarians who oppose antidiscrimination laws accept the false position that discrimination on the grounds of race, sex, age, and other demographic criteria is necessarily morally abhorrent. While one may commend the delineation of moral and political issues that this entails, this position understates the seriousness of the issue. Antidiscrimination laws should not be seen as bad methods in the pursuit of good goals. They are bad methods in the pursuit of a tyrannical goal.

    But I was also biased because I had recently spoken with Ben (who has been to a previous Canberra libertarian dinner), and he made his position clear.

  30. The government is discriminating against discriminators. Surely there’s nothing wrong with that.

  31. Its obviously that most people (like Jill for instance) have no concept what Natural Law is. To them, having a job is a fundamental right of living in society. She resigned, good for her. I hope she find a better job, but above all else I hope she is able to reasses her mental condition. She is a slave to her own mind to be feel insulted over mere words.

  32. I think it’s normal and natural for humans to be insulted by words. I don’t think that makes you a slave. I feel sorry for Jill. It’s just that I don’t think the government exists to stop people hurting our feelings.

  33. Some very well-made points. As for telling them that it was not in my contract; I did just that. Mind you, the strangest thing about this is the fact that most people that see me for the first time (even the local news reporter who ran a full segment on this issue), do not even consider me “fat”. Curvy and tall, and standing to lose maybe 40 pounds, yes, but “obese” – no. Judge for yourself by watching one of my video segments on YouTube:

    There are three videos explaining what happened.

    The point that I am trying to make has nothing to do with feeling sorry for me; I can handle my self. The point is that people should be able to go to work and not put up with literal threats and cruel comments, regardless the reason. Hey, I’m all for constructive criticism, but what I (and many others), have experienced, was not constructive.

    As for the mental assessment comment as made by someone; it is that type of mentality that constitutes the source of ignorance. For one; I am mentally sound. As a healthcare provider, I, along with others, must undergo a physical and mental health evaluation in order to fulfill licensing requirements.

    I have a healthy appetite for humor, but there is nothing funny or PROFESSIONAL about the behaviors that were exhibited. Staying in a situation like that is the likeness of wanting to remain a ‘victim’ – NO THANK YOU. I have counseled enough people through time, as well as have talked to major company executives who agree with my reaction and decision.

    Opinions are fine; you’re entitled, but the workplace is not the venue to take out your personal problems. People who dish that garbage are the ones who need mental health assistance. They obviously get off by belittling others because they feel inferior and have to throw stones at others, to make themselves feel good, so, check the ‘tude at the door when you punch-in.

  34. Hi Jill, I think most people here would be of the opinion that a business owner should be able to fire someone for any reason, seeing as they should have the right to do whatever they like with their own property.

    If it crosses the line to become abuse or harassment (I’m not sure it has in this case, I tend to agree with John that it was mean what was said to you, but not necessarily abusive, further information could enlighten us further on this) opinions may differ.

    If the employer didn’t like you for whatever reason, I think they should have just let you go without the comments which have obviously hurt you (that should remain a moral issue rather than a legal issue), but no one has a “right” to a job. You do, however, certainly have the right to leave and get another job if you don’t like how you have been treated.

    All the best.

  35. Jill has the right to ridicule this employer in the press. I think she should go for it. However I agree with others that there should be no law against an employer making rude remarks. The law should mediate contracts and prevent coersion however it shouldn’t attempt to deal with the finer details of relationships, for practical as well as philosophical reasons.

  36. Jill,IMO, there should be no facet of the state that assists you in your pursuit of punishing the discrminating behaviour of your ex-employer. This would only be possible if the state stayed out of the business of generating laws that punish or regulate discrimination in our society (obviously this is an unrealistic proposition and you may well use all the weapons at your disposal including the states power). Otherwise, you can do as you please without threat of violence or threat to property, such as a contract that explicitly protects against discrimination.

    Sharing my philosophical perspective on discrimnation may help you to be less angry about this situation. See, when you lable yourself (and others) in the “overweight discriminated against” category you immediately take away from the many other qualities you possess. Sighting “Discrimination” is literally dehumanising to you. You are denying that you are a distinct individual, free agent. People should be looked after based on who they are not what groups they belong to (which is what the state does) . So consider it a lost opportunity not an issue of discrimination.

  37. Science did not start in Christian countries.
    Science can in no way be attributed to the primitive philosophy of Christianity.
    Astrology was present in many ancient civilizations.
    But the polytheistic ancient Greeks made the biggest scientific advances. The ancient Greek, Thales was the first historical record of an attempt at a scientific law. The Greeks were the first to derive mathematical theories of the natural world using the empirical method (eg/ Archimedes discovery of specific gravity). This all pre-dates Christianity.

    The middle ages where people actually took the bible seriously and Christianity was practised in its most logically consistent form, saw a reversal in science. eg/ The art of building out of stone was lost to the world. Colds were treated by “blood letting”. Demons abounded.
    There are many examples of famous scientists persecuted by the church.
    Even in this day and age when the benefits of science are so obvious we find Christian opposition to science and technology. eg/ teaching creationism in schools, opposition to genetic engineering, cloning, stem cell research, RU486 etc, not to mention the way Christian leaders attempt to make people feel guilty for being “materialistic”.

    I agree that Islam is currently a far worse religion than Christianity, even though you’re not allowed to say that in public.
    And I agree that people are far too generous these days towards Islam by attempting to attribute the reaissance to Islam, or by trying to argue that Islam has free market roots. This isn’t true, the revival of ancient Greek works was the main driver leading to the renaissance and then the enlightenment.

  38. This isn’t true, the revival of ancient Greek works was the main driver leading to the renaissance and then the enlightenment.

    I tend to agree with this interpretation of history. The important qualities of western civilisation in terms of political science and the physical sciences pre-dates Christianity and had to be liberated from the oppressive grip of Christianity rather than having been somehow forged by Christianity.

  39. >Dan — are you saying you think it should be illegal to be verbally abusive to somebody?

    I would make no apologies for saying that I think certain forms of verbal abuse should be illegal, especially if the abuse could be considered threatening or harassment. It’s obviously better if the abused person can get away from the abuser, but they aren’t always able to.

    You could make an academic argument that if a property owner made every person who entered their property aware that they would be subject to immense amounts of verbal abuse, then the person who entered the property has made that choice. Fine. I agree with that. We do have a few “default” things we expect in the absence of such warnings: I expect not to be killed where I don’t see a sign that says “trespassers will be shot”. I think that it’s reasonable to expect the law to protect someone from serious verbal abuse/threats/harassment in usual circumstances.

  40. Whilst I agree that there were individual people whom we would call scientists, they were a lot rarer than we would like- and wasn’t Socrates given the choice of expulsion or death by poison, simply because his ideas were heretical? Sounds like the Greek Inquisition to me!
    Whilst Plato’s house became the basis for our idea of a University, it did not do well in Greece, and it was only cocsistently applied in Christian Europe. Why was this? Well, I think that a lot of science and technology develops from problems with machines, and Europeans developed machines because they didn’t have a slave-reliant culture- unlike the Romans or Greeks, or Muslims. In fact, slavery seems to have stifled innovation in the ancient world. Heros of Alexandria was a thinker of Roman times who almost developed the steam engine, but he quit because there was no call for that sort of machine, because slaves could push things for you.
    Science was only systematically taught in Western Europe after philosophers like Francis Bacon had laid the groundwork, and in response to real problems- and it didn’t develop in non-Christian cultures.
    There must be a reason for that.

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