A (quite complex, I must confess) definition of discrimination

In other entries in this blog, such as this one or this one I have pointed out that the key concept in animal ethics is that of speciesism, and that speciesism is the discrimination of those who do not belong to a certain species. But what is discrimination?

I think that an apt way to define discrimination is by claiming that it is the disadvantageous unjustified treatment or consideration of those who fail to satisfy a certain criterion. By saying this, of course, I’m considering here discrimination against, which is different from discrimination between.

You may say to be able to discriminate between blue and green things. But that’s obviously different from discrimination against women, black people or nonhuman animals.

Discrimination (against) is a comparative term. You can treat someone well yet treat her worse than others. If that’s unjustified, that will be an instance of discrimination.

Also, you may want to treat someone worse than others but fail to do it for reasons beyond your control. In those cases you may nevertheless be discriminating against that individual.

Finally, you may treat someone worse than others for a justified reason. Suppose someone pays 30€ to Alicia and 15€ to Barbara. That’s worse for Barbara. But if she does this only because Alicia has worked for her two hours while Barbara has worked 1 hour, that’s not a case of discrimination. If she did it, though, because Alicia is white and Barbara is black, that would be unjustified, and it would be a case of discrimination.

This means that even if we respect nonhuman animals, if we treat them worse than humans we’ll be displaying a speciesist position. It also means that if we think nonhuman animals count for less, we’ll be speciesist too, even if we eventually end up acting in ways that are good for them (for instance, if we refrain to eat them out of health reasons but we don’t really care about them). Finally, it means we’re not speciesist if we don’t grant dogs access to the university, though we are speciesist if we don’t grant them respect for their lives.

Those of you who want to explore this question further can check out the paper I link to below. In it I give a definition of discrimination as an (actual or intended) unjustified disadvantageous treatment or consideration, and then explain in detail how we could formulate each of the terms used in this definition. But I must warn you that it’s a very technical and tedious paper! For this reason, I have been very reluctant for a long time to post it here. Anyway, since after all no one is obliged to read it and it may be of interest to those doing research on this issue, here it is:

Discrimination in Terms of Moral Exclusion

It was published on Theoria: A Swedish Journal of Philosophy, 76 (4), 2010, pp. 314–332.



4 thoughts on “A (quite complex, I must confess) definition of discrimination

  1. No pude acceder al texto completo, pero me ha parecido muy interesante la cuestión del uso del término discrimimación “entre” y “contra”. No sé si sea obvio, pero creo que cuando se habla de discriminación se tiende pensarla en negativo (contra) y para casos positivos se emplea más el término diferenciar o distinguir.

    Intentaré de nuevo bajar el documento, para no seguir divagando. Muchas Gracias por poner a disposición de todas/os estos post para pensar.

  2. Gracias Lu, ya te aviso que el texto es muy técnico y, en definitiva, creo que tedioso y pesado a más no poder. Sí, esa distinción es importante, creo que normalmente el uso de discriminar es como “discriminar contra”, pero es importante clarificarlo para que no haya confusiones. ¡Un saludo!


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