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Rationalizing Discrimination

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When I was young, discrimination had a good name. It was the ability to distinguish between the good from the bad and to prefer the former to the latter. My teachers tried to form my taste so that I could discriminate, and I am grateful to them – more grateful than I seemed at the time – for that.

Since then, of course, the emotional charge of the word discrimination has changed. It is now entirely negative. It means to treat people not according to their individual merits, but badly because of the supposed characteristics of their group as assumed by brute prejudice. To discriminate is to be unfair, unjust and cold-hearted. Discrimination is at the root of many ills, not least of them poverty and inequality.

But is it ever rational to discriminate on the basis of group characteristics? Recently I attended a talk by a statistician at the University of New South Wales, Dr Ben O’Neill, who gave an instance when such discrimination was rational (which was not the same the same thing as morally justified, of course, a point to which I shall come back).

The instance he provided was that of taxi drivers in Washington DC during the 1980s. Research showed that the drivers often refused to take young black men as fares; interestingly, black drivers were as likely to do this as white. Were they being irrational in doing so?

Drivers want and need fares, of course, but when someone hails them they have incomplete knowledge of his or her character. They have very little time to make up their minds, and few indications to go on. If in fact one visible group is more likely to assault and rob them, or at least not to pay their fares, then it is not irrational for the drivers to shun that group. Of course, their rationality depends on the correctness of their knowledge of the relative risks involved.

We all make judgments of this nature and would be foolish not to do so. We estimate the likely behavior of people according to appearances all the time. Who, walking down a dark street, would not be more wary of a young man than of an old lady? Even the Reverend Jesse Jackson, in one of his more candid moments, admitted that he was once relieved to see that the young man walking behind him was white rather than black.

Now it is only to be expected that the respectable young black man whom the taxi driver refused to take would be aggrieved by his refusal, especially if it were a frequent experience. He fully intends to pay just like any other fare and has no crime in his heart. Is any injustice committed against him?

It is difficult to answer in the negative. To act justly is to treat a man according to his desert, and this young man certainly does not deserve to be shunned. Indeed, there is no easily discernible group of whom the majority of members would act in the way that the taxi driver fears and wishes to avoid. In shunning young black men in general, the driver is likely to be committing serial acts of injustice; and which of us, suffering injustice, does not feel angry or resentful?

Dr O’Neill said that the shunned person should put himself in the place of the driver to understand that, in this situation, he is not being shunned as an individual and therefore suffers no injustice, for injustice is only suffered by individuals. But this seems to me to demand more of the shunned individual than can reasonably be expected: it is to expect him to feel as something other than as an individual. Moreover, said Dr O’Neill, he has no inalienable right to be taken in a taxi: a driver has a right to take whomever he pleases, and to refuse whomever he pleases. On this ground, too, the respectable but shunned young man has no grounds to complain of injustice, but this would only be so if the only possible ground of injustice were the infringement of rights.

If, then, not to take the young black man is to act unjustly, does it mean that the taxi driver is morally obliged to take him, assuming for the sake of argument that it is correct that young black men as a group are more likely to assault and rob taxi drivers or run away without paying than members of other groups? Again no, because to act justly is not the whole duty Man. Prudence as well as justice is a virtue. A man with responsibility towards others has a duty not to put himself in the way of danger except for a good reason.

It surely would be unjust to demand of drivers that they put themselves in the way of such additional danger for the sake of avoiding another injustice. Let us suppose that one in two hundred young black men assaults a driver when he is taken in a taxi. Let us suppose that a driver works two hundred days a year and is hailed by one different young black man per year. This means that, if he takes every young black man who hails him, he will be assaulted once a year. No one has the right to demand that he accept such a risk.

Discrimination (in the sense with the bad connotation) can thus be morally acceptable even when it involves committing injustice. Of course, it is a matter of judgment at what point such discrimination becomes morally reprehensible. The avoidance of a trivial risk, either because the thing avoided is itself trivial (let us say the risk of a smaller tip) or because it is statistically negligible, would certainly render such discrimination reprehensible, for then injustices would be committed for no good reason. But the precise point at which a risk is trivial is not discernible by science and depends on the point of view of the person running it. As the eminent British physician, Sir George Pickering, once put it, a minor operation is an operation performed on someone else.

The situation of the Washington taxi driver in the 1980s and the respectable young black man shunned by him has a tragic dimension, a dimension that is not often recognized in public life. Perhaps the lesson we should learn is this: that our good or bad behavior reflects not just on us, but on the various groups to which we belong, and that by behaving badly we may, in effect, create difficulties and even injustices for people whom we do not know.

Reader Discussion

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on September 24, 2014 at 11:14:30 am

"that our good or bad behavior reflects not just on us, but on the various groups to which we belong, and that by behaving badly we may, in effect, create difficulties and even injustices for people whom we do not know."

equally true re: the actions of the assaultive / non-paying rider as it is for the rider declining driver, n'est ce pas?

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gabe
on September 24, 2014 at 12:01:03 pm

Perhaps the lesson we should learn is this: that our good or bad behavior reflects not just on us, but on the various groups to which we belong, and that by behaving badly we may, in effect, create difficulties and even injustices for people whom we do not know.

That seems reasonable enough. But I see further lessons.

Emotions – indignation, shame, defensiveness – may signal something about appropriate ways to behave. And race and racism trigger strong emotions. But emotion may obscure more than it clarifies. We can sometimes gain greater clarity if we can transcend emotion.

Thus, I’d suggest that the ego-centric perspective of fault and blame (and the curious notion that “injustice is only suffered by individuals”) may limit our perspective. I’ll offer a different perspective.

Statistical discrimination can be rational. That doesn’t mean that it is harmless. Rightly or wrongly, people who suffer as a result of statistical discrimination will feel aggrieved. Rightly or wrongly, people who engage in statistical discrimination will feel defensive about being stigmatized for engaging in discrimination.This problem is intractable. Thus, the beginning of wisdom comes from acknowledging that the situation must inevitably result in harm.

If we understand this, we can shift away from the goal of trying to devise rules/norms that eliminate all harm, and instead devise rules/norms that minimize the harm, or allocate the harm to people who are in the best circumstances to bear it.

The first step in minimizing harm is to avoid expressing the idea that if I am justified in my conduct, then my conduct must be harmless. This fallacy arises from a libertarian view that people are atomistic, not social, creatures – and is contradicted by all evidence. I may be entirely justified in my conduct, yet still harm others. But even if I can’t avoid harming others, I can avoid compounding the harm by telling people that their grievances are unjustified. If I can summons the fortitude to transcend defensiveness, I can express compassion and sympathy for the people I harm, even as I harm them.

Second, we can recognize that anyplace we draw the line regarding exercise of discretion may have some arbitrariness. For example:

[H]e has no inalienable right to be taken in a taxi: a driver has a right to take whomever he pleases, and to refuse whomever he pleases. On this ground, too, the respectable but shunned young man has no grounds to complain of injustice, but this would only be so if the only possible ground of injustice were the infringement of rights.

This reflects one understanding of “rights.” But as I understand it, the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 redefined this “right” for legal purposes. If the person sued the taxi driver, and the driver acknowledged that he 1) provides a public accommodation and 2) refused to extend his public accommodation on the basis of race and gender, I expect a judge or jury could find the driver (or his employer) liable for violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Is it unfair to require taxi drivers to bear a burden that results from eschewing statistical discrimination simply to benefit others? Well, the taxi driver doesn’t bear the burden solely by himself; he shares it with all other taxi drivers. In principle, this law benefits the driver by 1) spreading (“pooling”) the risks involved, and 2) reducing the competition he faces from taxi drivers that decide to get out of the business rather than comply with the non-discrimination policy. In this manner, the cost of this non-discrimination policy is socialized. Given the choice between having the burden of racial discrimination borne entirely by members of the oppressed minority group, or socializing that burden, the law socializes it.

With this understanding, I hope you can see that a taxi driver that engages in statistical discrimination is shirking a duty at the expense of his competitors, and of society at large. He gets the benefit of shifting a share of the risk to other drivers that refrain from discriminating. He gets the benefit of reduced competition from drivers who quit rather than abide by the non-discrimination policy. So a driver that refuses to comply with the non-discrimination policy, but also refuses to quit, is soaking up social benefits without bearing his share of the burden. He’s worse than a free rider; he’s a parasite.

For this reason, I regard his conduct as antisocial. Race is really incidental to my analysis.

(Footnote: Ok, ok -- in practice, no law is enforced perfectly, and some level of duty-shirking is normal. Indeed, the taxi driver that NEVER engages in statistical discrimination would likely place himself at a disadvantage relative to his competitors. So long as everyone engages in a comparable level of cheating, we can maintain a level playing field and a reasonably efficient market. This is the speed-limit principle: A 55 MPH sign doesn’t keep people driving at 55 MPH – but it tends to keep people driving at a more-or-less uniform rate less than 90 MPH. Perfect enforcement is not necessary – and may not even be desirable.)

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nobody.really
on September 24, 2014 at 16:14:06 pm

Ok, Nobody good enough until you get to the crux of your argument - which is that we should socialize the costs.
Whikle, like you, I do not support the atomisitic / individual rights excessess, still it is rather convenient for you, a non-taxi driver to offer to "spread" the poor driver(s) risk(s) across a given sector. Rather christian of you, isn't it?

So you are prepared to go to the opposite extreme - not only will we not tolerate "atomistic' rights seeking - heck we will not even allow reasonable defensive action based upon circumstance. Goodness, i wish I had such solutions to every little problem. oops, i did in my taxi days - took some and didn't take some others (of either race) based upon what my antennae told me. Of course, the same may be said for some of my prospective passengers when they looked in the cab and saw and ponytailed knucklehead blasting the popular tunes of the day. Dang it - I guess we will never reach that utopia to which you aspire.

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gabe
on September 25, 2014 at 06:09:56 am

[I]t is rather convenient for you, a non-taxi driver to offer to “spread” the poor driver(s) risk(s) across a given sector. Rather christian of you, isn’t it?

It is rather convenient for you, a non-black person, to offer to concentrate the burdens of discrimination so that they can be borne solely by members of minority groups. Rather Jewish of you, isn’t it? [ducking!]

You’re correct, of course: The 1964 Act reallocates burdens (and benefits) among employers, landlords/realtors, providers of public accommodations, and the rest of society. Note I say “reallocates.” The Act does not invent burdens. The burdens exist regardless.

Don’t want to bear those burdens? Feel free to choose a different profession. Does that seem burdensome? Feel free to tell of your burdens to members of minority groups – people who will bear a lifetime of burden with no choice in the matter at all.

I hope they give you a sympathetic hearing. Really. For as a wise man once said, “If I can summons the fortitude to transcend defensiveness, I can express compassion and sympathy for the people I harm, even as I harm them.”

(Upon reflection, he might have said it twice.)

So you are prepared to go to the opposite extreme – not only will we not tolerate “atomistic’ rights seeking – heck we will not even allow reasonable defensive action based upon circumstance. Goodness, i wish I had such solutions to every little problem. oops, i did in my taxi days – took some and didn’t take some others (of either race) based upon what my antennae told me.

That same man said, “[S]ome level of duty-shirking is normal. Indeed, the taxi driver that NEVER engages in statistical discrimination would likely place himself at a disadvantage…. Perfect enforcement is not necessary – and may not even be desirable.”

Quite a wise guy, huh?

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nobody.really
on September 25, 2014 at 10:27:59 am

Why do you assume (or posit) that I am being defensive. I simply state what seemed at the time to be a reasonable course of action for someone involved in such a situation.
You also posit a lack of empathy for others on my part. The evidence does not bear out such an assertion.
I would also point out that the approach I took was employed by cab drivers in NYC in the early 70's by drivers of all races and ethnic backgrounds and was utilized against all races and ethnic backgrounds - so stop injecting race into it.
Goodness, I guess it is true that the "first refuge" of a liberal is racism."

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gabe
on October 01, 2014 at 22:08:04 pm

You make some good points. Unfortunately such reallocation decisions rarely, if ever, recognise their negative effects (have you ever seen "it is unfortunately inevitable that the resulting obligation imposed on them will mean that employers, landlords, taxi drivers etc will not lawfully be able to make individual decisions to reduce their personal risk of suffering undeserved harm"?). Instead anti-discrimination laws are inevitably promoted as costless and self-evident. As you point out, there are costs whatever decision is made. It seems right to question the balancing of the socialisation of a cost if a widely spread benefit comes at the cost of particularly harsh outcomes for individuals, especially when those outcomes sustain bad behaviour by ensuring a supply of defenceless targets.

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Chris

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