Bioethics Blogs

Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: What Makes Discrimination Wrong? Written by Paul de Font-Reaulx

This essay was the winner in the Undergraduate Category of the Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics 2017

Written by University of Oxford student, Paul de Font-Reaulx


The question of this essay is this: What makes discrimination wrong? Most of us intuitively take discrimination based on gender or ethnicity to be impermissible because we have strong rights to be treated on the basis of merit and capacity rather than e.g. ethnicity or gender. I argue that this suggestion is indefensible. I show that well-informed discrimination can sometimes be permissible, and even morally required, meaning we cannot have absolute rights not to be discriminated against. In the last part I suggest an alternative account, arguing that acts of discrimination are wrong because they violate individuals’ weak right to be treated fairly and create negative externalities which – analogously to pollution – there is a collective responsibility to minimize. These results are counterintuitive, and require further attention.

1.     What is Discrimination?

I take discrimination to be to treat someone very differently based on an irrelevant trait. A trait is relevant if and only if it by itself provides reasons for different treatment in some instance, such as constituting a difference in merit or capacity. Otherwise it is irrelevant. For example, in the case of boxing the trait of weighing 70kg is relevant for finding opponents, while as the trait of hair colour is not. Of the two, only different treatment on the basis of the latter would constitute discrimination[1].

Discrimination based on bigotry such as racism is often indefensible simply because it rests on ungrounded beliefs about the relevance of traits such as ethnicity.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.