How to Discriminate Properly [Good Life series]

Irrational and unjust discrimination in the workplace deserves exposure and condemnation. But what about rational discrimination? Consider the following cases.

* You are the chair of the hiring committee for a new president of a historically-black college. So you discriminate in favor of black candidates and against non-black candidates.

* You are the owner of a fitness club, and you want to hire an attendant for the women’s locker room. In screening applicants, you discriminate on the basis of sex: no males are considered.

* You are the chief of detectives in a city where there has been a series of unsolved crimes in a Latino neighborhood. You decide to send one of your detectives undercover to investigate. So you discriminate against all other ethnicities and assign a Latino detective.

Discrimination is an essential cognitive function, and like all cognitive functions it can be done well or poorly. We are an intelligent species, and our intelligence works by noticing similarities and differences, categorizing things according to those similarities and differences, and acting appropriately.

Our senses work by discriminating patterns in light energy (sight), sound waves (hearing), chemical composition (smell and taste), density and texture (touch). We speak of those who have a discriminating palate in culinary matters and those with a discriminating ear in music, and an ongoing goal of active learners is greater proficiency at perceptual discrimination.

Our conceptual faculty works by categorizing abstractly on the basis of discriminated similarities and differences. One mark of an educated person is his or her ability to define and deploy a large repertoire of abstract concepts, including the ability to exercise discriminating judgment in borderline cases. What, for example, precisely distinguishes liberals from conservatives, the igneous from the sedimentary, the envious from the jealous, virus from bacterium, and so on?

And, most complicatedly, our intelligence works by forming and applying evaluative distinctions. We need to discriminate the nutritious and the poisonous, friends and enemies, the competent and the incompetent, the innocent and the guilty.

So in our efforts to lessen irrational and unjust discrimination, it’s important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Saying, for example, that no one should never discriminate in the workplace or calling for the elimination of all discrimination is, at best, intellectual sloppiness. At worst, using discrimination as a blanket negative term undercuts our ability to make the distinctions we often need to make in law and in the workplace. (And in love, we might add: when dating most of us discriminate ruthlessly on the basis of sex.) We must discriminate, but we must discriminate properly, and for that we need clear standards for distinguishing rational from irrational discrimination.

So let’s return to our three initial workplace examples — the black college president, the female locker-room attendant, and the Latino detective — and identify what makes those arguably cases of rational discrimination on the basis of race, sex, and ethnicity.

In each case, the person’s race, sex, or ethnicity is relevant to the person’s ability to perform the task. So let’s try that out as an evaluative standard in our three cases:

1. A college president performs several executive functions — strategy, administration, fundraising — but also plays a figurehead role as a symbolic representation of the college’s educational mission. A historically-black college has as it core mission the education of black students. So taking a presidential candidate’s race into account is relevant judging his or her ability to be an effective leader for that kind of college.

2. In a fitness club’s locker room, customers change clothes and shower. For the psychological comfort of most female customers who use the locker room, an attendant’s being female is important. So the fitness club owner is rational to hire attendants on the basis of sex.

3. The Latino detective’s ethnic characteristics enable him or her to blend into the Latino neighborhood in a way that would be nearly impossible for a non-Latino. So ethnicity is directly relevant to the performance of undercover work in attempting to solve the crime, and it is proper for the chief of detectives to decide whom to assign on that basis.

By contrast, workplace discrimination is wrong if the feature one uses in judging has no relevance to the person’s ability to perform the task.

Here are three more candidates. Do you judge the discrimination in these as appropriate or inappropriate?

4. You are a director at a theater devoted to historically-authentic performances of Shakespeare’s plays. This season you are doing Othello, so you hire a black actor to play Othello. (You’re also doing Romeo and Juliet, and you hire a young woman to play Juliet — it’s not Romeo and Dave, after all.)

5. You are a woman entrepreneur who works mostly alone and in your home office. Business is good and you want to hire an assistant to work with you. But having a male alone with you in your home raises risks of personal safety and sexual attention that you do not want to have to worry about. So in your job advertisement you indicate that you will consider only female applicants.

6. You are a restaurateur opening a Chinese restaurant in New York. But not just any Chinese restaurant: you want your dining customers to have as authentic a Chinese cultural experience as possible. So you spend a million dollars on decor, importing linens, tableware, and art from China. You hire at great expense a head chef from Shanghai and a hostess from Hong Kong. Now you are now hiring waitstaff — and one applicant is a tall blond man of Scandinavian extraction with a strong Bronx accent. You do not hire him.

Our question today is not political. Governments should protect their citizens’ rights to life, liberty, and property irrespective of race, sex, or ethnicity. One such liberty right is the freedom of association, and that means from the government’s perspective that it must protect each individual’s right to associate (or not) on the basis of race, sex, or ethnicity.

Our question is moral: When is it proper for individuals to discriminate?

Judgments about whom to associate with are often complex. We need discriminating attentiveness to all relevant factors about our associates and potential associates, and we need carefully defined standards to judge those factors. In the workplace, decent people want to judge others and themselves be judged according to merit and relevant qualifications — that is, according their ability to get the job done — and decent people are appalled by irrational discrimination.

But sometimes discrimination is rational: if race, sex, and ethnicity can sometimes be relevant to job performance, then decent people will also strive to exercise discriminating judgment in determining when those factors are relevant, when they are not, and how to act accordingly.

[This article was originally published in English at and in Portuguese at]

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