Okay, let’s get this settled, once and for all. To discriminate is to ascertain the difference between two things and behave accordingly. So, for example, I have a discriminating taste for both wines and curries.

I’m also able to – and often I do – discriminate between people. For example, I have a discriminating taste for female pulchritude. Some women are simply more attractive than others. Of course attraction is a two-place operator, as in “Genevieve Bujold is attractive to me!” Though probably not, I regret to note, attracted to me.

Some people think the same can be said for beauty, as in “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder!” I’m not entirely sure about that, because I’m told that natural selection mechanisms play a role in these judgments. But this entry isn’t about the indexicality of our judgments. It’s about the between versus against distinction.

But that I’d rather have dated Genevieve Bujold than, say, Barbara Streisand – and yes, it’s because of her nose, or maybe because she’s Jewish – does not entail that I’m discriminating against Barbara Streisand. That expression is reserved for my treating her differentially unjustly. But physical attraction is not the kind of thing that can be just or unjust.

For that matter, neither is who I’d prefer to hang out with. As it happens I prefer to hang out with people closer to my values. As do you with those of yours. But it would be odd to say that we’re discriminating against people who do not share our values. This too is because hanging-out-with is not the kind of thing that can be judged just or unjust.

What kinds of things can be? Hiring and renting. That’s because we’ve decided these are the kinds of things that can be just or unjust. We could have decided otherwise. And in other times and places we have. And some day we might change our minds about this. That is, it’s unlikely we’re going to reinstitute slavery any time soon. But we might decide that prisoners are no longer entitled to organ transplants.

So what counts as discrimination-against is a political decision, not an analytic one. As such it’s one to be argued for or against, not taken, as the unreflective do, as some kind of given.

Categories: Critical Thinking


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