(N.B.C.) “Reverse” Discrimination: Morally Justifiable?

By Rosie Mulray

It seems that we, as a society, are embracing invidious discrimination in the form of Reverse Discrimination. This is a good thing according to a lot of people, but is it really morally justifiable to agree with reverse discrimination, or to take part in it?

Any of the PHIL1008 students worth their salt should be able to tell you a thing or two about discrimination. Firstly, that discrimination can sometimes be perfectly acceptable, just so long as the characteristics you are discriminating against (or for) are relevant to the issue at hand.

For example, choosing to add sugar to your brownie mix instead of salt is not to say that salt is inferior, but that sugar will taste better in the brownie mix than the salt. The taste of each is the relevant characteristic and this is the factor used to discriminate.

Similarly, sports events are separated by sex because the physical limits of each sex are undeniably different, and so it would be unfair to have a woman or women competing against a man or men. Here the discrimination has a justification, a legitimate reason why we should discriminate in this case, making it completely acceptable. (An interesting anomaly here is separating the men and the women in sports like lawn bowls… it seems to me that there is no relevant difference affecting the ability of a man vs. a woman, assuming here that men and women have the same ability to be accurate with a lawn-bowling-ball. Then again, I’m no expert in lawn bowls…). This is particularly applicable to professional sportspeople. If men and women competed together, women would have a very hard time getting employed.

According to Michael Levin, “Any time you make a moral distinction based on a morally irrelevant grounds, you discriminate invidiously”, meaning if you have no morally justifiable reason for your discrimination, you’re discriminating invidiously, or being offensive (I’ll assume here that that is bad/intolerable). Assuming that Levin knows what he’s talking about, the two previous examples are in the clear, they aren’t invidious as they both have a moral justification.

If we now turn to “reverse” discrimination and examine what it’s actually doing, it becomes obvious that its name is misleading. Reverse Discrimination is not aiming to do the reverse of discriminating, it’s actually increasing the incidence of discrimination. And not just discrimination, but invidious discrimination.

Take Affirmative Action as an example. I’m not quite sure of the legal status of Affirmative Action, but I assume that under its application, employers will be required, by law, to employ a certain percentage of women in each rung of the corporation’s ladder. This means that women have been invidiously discriminated FOR, because they have been chosen over men based on a morally irrelevant characteristic, that is, their ability to fulfil the parameters of their employment. Even if there were 3 men who would make better employees than a woman, the men would be disregarded only because they are men. This hardly seems morally justifiable.

Therefore, by definition, reverse discrimination has no moral justification.

Those who argue for Affirmative Action and reverse discrimination in general make that point that its point is to counteract the discrimination of the past. i.e. fighting fire with fire. That’s just the same as hitting someone only because they hit you first. And, as Plato says in the Crito, injury as injury is wrong – regardless of how the action may be described. To truly reverse discrimination, it only seems logical that it should be removed altogether, not encouraged, and certainly not morally tolerated.


16 responses to “(N.B.C.) “Reverse” Discrimination: Morally Justifiable?

  1. It’s a crying shame that no-one has yet commented on this lovely post. Presumably that’s simply because everyone is bowled over by the argument and can think of no adequate response.

  2. A late reply…

    In the interest of brevity:

    – Your example of the professional sportsperson is sound, but simplistic. To consider: perhaps an anomaly, some individuals are born chromosomally one sex, but posses the sexual organs of the other sex. Should a female-looking (sexual organs) person who is chromosomally male and/or produces male hormones be limited to a female-only competition? Equally, should a male-looking person lacking said hormones be limited by an all-male competition? You assert it is appropriate to discriminate when in relation to relevant characteristics. Surely gender is an inadequate and uncomprehensive means of doing so in sport.

    – You do not acknowledge the root purpose of Affirmative Action. Such was instigated to amend cases of discrimination, for instance where (to use your example): employers were hiring less-qualified men over more-qualified women. There are in fact few cases where employers have been obligated to hire a specified proportion of men or women; rather Anti-Discrimination laws were introduced to ensure relevant skills, not gender, were used to determine employability. ‘Affirmative Action’ is more commonly used in reference to race relations.

    – You have also neglected to recognise the benefit of Affirmative Action. If an ethnic community, our indigenous population for instance, is disadvantaged by past exploitation, is there not an inherent benefit in breaking this trend? For example: Australia’s Aborigines are historically and genetically unused to alcohol (for which there is a genetic relation to tolerance). Alcoholism is greatly present in (many) indigenous culture/s. Can one justify using government funds to operate Aborigine-specific Anti-Alcoholism and Alcohol-Awareness programs? These programs support a minute percentage of the Australian population, though a very high percentage of Aborigines. Is it right to have Aborigine-specific programs when Alcoholism is not specific to ethnicity?*

    *An argument against this line of thinking would be that as Alcoholism is highly prevalent in the indigenous populous, ethnicity might be treated as a characteristic relevant to Alcohol-centered programs. This does not offer a reason for Affirmative for a minority however.

    Regards, Travers

  3. To clarify a confusion:

    genetic tolerance to alcohol is hereditary (therefore different in different communities), but not specific to ethnicity in a genetic sense.

  4. Hey there Travers, thanks for the comment =)

    – I would have to completely disagree that gender is an irrelevant characteristic in sport. I’m not quite sure what you’re talking about… if someone is genetically (or, how you put it, chromosomally) one gender, then they MUST have the sexual organs and all other characteristics coded for on that genetic sex chromosome. This will often affect (as empirical experimental results have shown) the ability of the person do physically DO things, and more often than not this will affect the ability or capacity of this person to play a sport. I agree that there are some women who are naturally strong and there are of course men who aren’t, but that doesn’t matter when you’re looking at professional sportspeople, because selectors are ONLY concerned with the best in their field. Because of men’s greater physical capacity, it follows that there will be more elite players who are men and not women, AND that it would take less effort for men to reach a certain level of fitness or strength than women. That’s not to say that men will always be better at sport, rather it is more likely that a man will be better than a woman because of his physical advantage. This means that it would simply be unfair for men and women to compete together because women are limited by their genetics in a way that men aren’t.
    So, it is a good thing (or rather, a more fair thing) that professional men’s and women’s teams have been separated.

    – I was under the impression that Affirmative Action had its roots in feminism… and, yes, I do acknowledge its purpose: “Those who argue for Affirmative Action and reverse discrimination in general make that point that its point is to counteract the discrimination of the past…”
    I don’t know the statistics of reverse discrimination employment schemes, but I have a feeling that it’s more popular than you think. Or, at least, was.

    – I neglected to mention the benefits of Reverse Discrimination for two reasons. (a) I was running out of words and (b) the benefits are in fact irrelevant to my point. In this essay I am directing my attention to the principles of reverse discrimination and not the consequences. This is engaging in top-down reasoning. However, your example still speaks of justifiability and so I’ll answer your question.
    Based on what I said in the essay, one could justify using government funds to create treatment centres and programs for the people who need their services, namely, alcoholics. Statistically, the majority of people being treated would be Aboriginal people and so should be catered for accordingly. What I would argue against is a creation of centres and treatment programs that exclude people who AREN’T Aboriginal. What I’m trying to say is that treatment should be available for anyone who needs it, regardless of their race because race itself isn’t a relevant characteristic, it’s the tendency to alcohol dependence, or, it’s the gene that codes for alcoholism and/or alcohol intolerance. It is quite possible for a white guy to have a family history of alcoholism, in which case he should be able to access help just the same as anyone else who shared his problem.

    hope that clears things up,

  5. Hi Rosie, there are two points that I would like to make about your argument.

    First, you claim that the name “Reverse Discrimination” is misleading. “Reverse Discrimination” is not intended to mean “the reverse of discriminating” and I think that to make this claim is misleading. Those who advocate “Reverse Discrimination” are aware that this involves discrimination, however they would argue that this discrimination is not invidious.

    Which brings me to my second point. You argue that reverse discrimination is invidious because it discriminates on morally irrelevant characteristics, for example race or gender. It is true that ordinarily these things would be irrelevent characteristics upon which to discriminate and would indeed result in invidious discrimination. In the case of reverse discrimination, however, the morally relevant characteristic is no longer just race or gender. What is relevant is the fact that there exists a past history of discrimination upon that irrelevant characteristic. It is this criterion that is used to decide whether there is call to discriminate for a certain group, to redress that past history of invidious discrimination. Therefore, reverse discrimination is in fact not invidious discrimination at all.

  6. Hey there Holly,
    Your second point is what I identified at the end of the essay: that discriminating for women (in the Aff Action example) is justified because of the discrimination in the past. This may be PRACTICALLY justified, but not MORALLY justified. Women are being invidiously discriminated FOR in this case so it’s not a bad thing (for the women), thus giving it a practical justification. However, there is a flip side, the men are being discriminated against just because they are men. That is, they are being invidiously discriminated against, and so it isn’t morally justified. What policy makers need to decide is does the practical benefit out-weigh the moral injustice (towards men)?

    thanks for commenting =)

  7. Dearest Travers.
    upon reading your comment, which would have me belive it was “in the interest of brevity”, if in any interest at all, i found myself inspired to point out how unnecessary your comment was.

    let us review your first point.

    “some individuals are born chromosomally one sex, but posses the sexual organs of the other sex.”

    someone who is “genetically”(chromosomally??) a man, but posseses the female organs, which i’ll point out now is a contratiction in terms, just doesn’t make sense.

    if someone is genetically a man, they do not posses female organs, by definition.

    what i think you were trying to say, was someone who is born a man, but mentally feels they are a woman, and cant perform in a womans sport. a tragic story to be sure, but an unfortunate truth. generalisations aside, people who are born one gender, but consider themselves another, wont make it into the relm of professional sport. why? because a woman who thinks she is a man opperation or not, is still a woman. and therefore at an unfortunate dissadvantage, and would most likely be outclassed by her “true” male comrades. sport is one of the few things that must be gender specific, its not invidous discrimination, it is simply the way it must be to keep things running.

    my heart goes out to that poor woman/man however and i’m sure kevin rudd will have a solution soon.

    your second issue with the essay,

    “You do not acknowledge the root purpose of Affirmative Action.”

    well sir. she does. furthermore, she acknowledges the purpose of overcompensating the women who were originally discriminated against, hence the essay on ‘”reverse” discrimination’. you may have noticed the topic as you commented.

    and your final point was well covered by RosieM.

    to RosieM, well done on the essay, i’m sure your lecturer loved it.

  8. I have to say that I disagree. I am aware that you talked about the issue at the end of the essay, but I think it is simplistic to see reverse discrimination as merely “hitting someone because they hit you first”. Hitting someone back achieves nothing, whereas positive discrimination attempts to redress an imbalance that has serious consequences. It has a real, positive benefit for the people being discriminated for.

    Also, I don’t see how you have made the distinction between something being ‘practically’ justified and ‘morally’ justified. I am arguing that reverse discrimination IS morally justified – as in it is not invidious or unfair as it is based on the morally relevant characteristic that a past history of discrimination exists. In the case that you mention, men are not being discriminated against on the basis that they are men. Rather, they are being discriminated against for the reason that past instances of invidious discrimination against women and FOR men have resulted in a significant disadvantage for women in the workplace; in their ability to gain employment in the upper levels of an organisation and their ability to gain equal pay for equal work and equal skill. This discrimination against women has become institutionalised in the workplace and postive or reverse discrimination attempts to address this.

    Thanks for writing back – it is an interesting topic.

  9. I think I should just clarify that my last post is directed to Rosie, in response to her last post.

  10. Holly-

    “…positive discrimination attempts to redress an imbalance that has serious consequences. It has a real, positive benefit for the people being discriminated for.”
    I whole-heartedly agree that women are justifiably benefited, that’s the whole point. They have suffered enough and deserve equal pay for equal work and equal skill. The problem is that Affirmative Action guarantees that employment is NOT equal; women are receiving higher paying executive jobs is favour of men only on the basis of sex (an irrelevant characteristic). Women benefit at the expense of men who, regardless of what degree of involvement they had prior to reverse discrimination efforts, have every right not to be discriminated against.
    Surely it is better to try and get rid of discrimination altogether, rather than encourage it.
    I also think that it IS like fighting fire with fire. Discriminating to counteract discrimination seems as contradictory as fighting for peace or screwing for virginity.

    I think what I’m trying to say is:
    Is it really morally justified to deny a person a job just because of their sex? If the answer is no for women then the answer is no for men, regardless of the history.

  11. Rosie –

    I’m glad that we agree that women are justifiably benefited by positive discrimination in employment.

    However, I absolutely disagree with the notion that positive discrimination in employment makes it less equal. Affirmative Action for women does not guarantee that employment is not equal, or becomes even less equal than it had been in the past for the fact that women are being discriminated for. On the contrary, in the case of positive discrimination, by discriminating for women employment BECOMES equal and men and women are given an EQUAL chance at gaining employment in the light of the past history of discrimination that still has negative impacts on womens’ present ability to gain employment.

    I am also trying to make the point that in this case men are NOT being discriminated against “only on the basis of sex”. If they were then I would agree with you that this would be a morally irrelevant characteristic. Men are being discriminated against on the basis that there has been a past history (whether the particular man or men in any particular situation had any involvement prior to reverse discrimination efforts or not – this seems to be irrelevant) of discrimination which WAS based on the irrelevant characteristic of sex (women were discriminated against). This past inequality IS morally relevant. It is relevant to making a decision about whether or not women should be given an advantage in gaining employment, as women already have a disadvantage and doing so would give them an equal chance at gaining a position in competition with men.

    I do not believe that men are disadvantaged by reverse discrimination in this case. Women don’t benefit at the expense of men, rather, men and women are brought onto an equal playing field. It may superficially appear that men experience some disadvantage, however, this stems from the fact that the past advantage that men had is being taken away. This does not amount to men being disadvantaged. It amounts to men being given an EQUAL chance with women at gaining employment.

    I also disagree that we should try and get rid of discrimination altogether. We should attempt to get rid of invidious discrimination, but, as with positive discrimination, there are times when discrimination can be a good thing.

    Discriminating to counteract discrimination is not contradictory, it is effective. Are we just supposed to allow women to have a disadvantage in employment? Should we do nothing to correct the imbalance that exists? Correcting the imbalance that exists between men and womens’ chances of gaining employment necessarily involves change. This change is only that an unfair advantage is removed from men and an equal chance given to both men and women.

  12. Holly –

    “This change is only that an unfair advantage is removed from men and an equal chance given to both men and women.”

    Here is the point in which we seem to have to agree to disagree:
    I see reverse (or positive) discrimination as being unfairly advantageous to women and you don’t.
    I agree that it could be a ‘good thing’ (i.e. practically justifiable) for a while, possibly even as a way of getting men used to women in their previously assumed male-dominated work space, but where do you draw the line? The fact that reverse discrimination is part of company policies would seem to suggest a degree of permanence. Who should decide how much positive discrimination is enough? There is a risk that the point of being ‘even’ will be surpassed and the scales will be tipped the other way (I’m assuming that we both see this as a bad thing). The question is, who can quantify the point where things are even, and is that even possible?

    “Women don’t benefit at the expense of men, rather, men and women are brought onto an equal playing field. ”

    In this paragraph you make the point: it’s ok, because they did it fist. By discriminating invidiously now, we’re even. This is simple “He started it” syndrome, and I don’t believe this somewhat immature mentality justifies discriminating invidiously against anyone.

    Also, I am not suggesting that we let discrimination against women continue, I am suggesting that we get to a truly equal playing field by eliminating discrimination (that is, invidious discrimination, including reverse discrimination) altogether. How can things be more equal than that? The unfairness of the past, however morally reprehensible, is in the past. Lawyers and diplomats can argue over compensation but I don’t think that a solution will be found by a justice that seems fundamentally immature.

    On top of all this there is the implication that women can’t do it on their own merit, that they need reverse discrimination policies to get jobs. But that’s hardly relevant here.

  13. Rosie –

    You are missing the point.

    Reverse discrimination IS NOT INVIDIOUS. It is based upon a MORALLY RELEVENT factor. This morally relevant factor is past discrimination.

    To suggest that because something is in the past it doesn’t impact on the present is false. There is a lot of evidence that women do not have an equal chance at gaining higher level positions – most of these are currently occupied by men. There is also evidence that women do not get paid as much as men for the same jobs. This is DIRECTLY related to past instances of invidious discrimination against women.

    “The question is, who can quantify the point where things are even, and is that even possible?”

    I think that your argument here is irrelevant to the point that you were initially making and the point that I am trying to make.

    The issue is whether or not reverse discrimination is invidious discrimination.

    I am not claiming that reverse discrimination is a silver bullet that will fix the injustice of the past simply and easily. Sure, there will be a point where we, as a society, will have to decide that things have equalised and there is no need to positively discriminate any more. That will be a great day, but we are no where near that yet. In any case, it will be the same as making the decision, as a society, that discriminating against women on the irrelevant moral characteristic of sex was wrong and that we should do something about it. This is how society works – we make these complicated decisions through the political/legislative avenues available to us.

    To do nothing because there is a risk is stupid. All change involves risk, but the value of trying to make these important changes outweighs the risk that the balance will be surpassed – which, I agree, would be a bad thing.

    To your second point. My argument here is certainly not “it’s ok, because they did it first.” You’re right, this is an immature mentality – but it’s your claim, not mine.

    My argument is this – discrimination, which as you claim in your essay “can sometimes be perfectly acceptable”, is acceptable in this case. The reason why it is acceptable is because it is based on a morally relevant characteristic – past discrimination. It has a further justification – that it does not disadvantage men, rather, it gives both men and women equal opportunity.

    Just because discrimination is used to counteract discrimination, does not diminish the fact that discrimination can be acceptable, or the fact that it is acceptable in this case.

    Eliminating discrimination won’t make things more equal – and I think that to assume this is puerile. Discrimination is not just going to magically disappear – we need to actively do something about it. Positive discrimination is a means of doing something about invidious discrimination, which, I think, is very effective.

    “On top of all this there is the implication that women can’t do it on their own merit, that they need reverse discrimination policies to get jobs.”

    Do you really believe that this is true? Reverse discrimination is not implying that women “can’t do it on their own merit”. Rather, it is recognising the fact that women are at a disadvantage. It provides women with an equal opportunity to get jobs based on merit, without the obstacle of an unjustified assumption that women aren’t suitable to higher level positions or that they do not have as much ability as a man applying for the same job.

    Perhaps we will have to agree to disagree, however, you have misrepresented my argument.

  14. Holly –

    First off, if I have misrepresented your argument, I apologise. But, I think you’ve also misrepresented mine. I’m not arguing for doing nothing about the inequality of men and women in the workplace (which would, as you say, be puerile), I’m arguing for legislating for zero invidious discrimination. And that, as I outlined in my essay, I believe to be inclusive of reverse discrimination.
    Also, I do believe that the past influences the present, I’d be a fool not to. I also believe that the past doesn’t JUSTIFY the present, from which stems my belief that reverse discrimination hasn’t got a MORAL justification (although it may certainly have a practical one) and is therefore invidious.
    Essentially I think we are looking at these from different perspectives; mine from a non-consequential and yours from a consequential, which would explain why we can’t agree, lol.

  15. Rosie –

    If I’ve misrepresented your argument then I also apologise. I’m not sure that I said that you argued for doing nothing – I only asked you to clarify what you thought should happen instead, as I felt it wasn’t quite clear.

    Essentially, I agree with you that we should aim for no invidious discrimination, I just don’t believe that positive discrimination is invidious.

    I also see positive discrimination as a means of doing something, whereas I don’t believe the broad legislation of zero invidious discrimination, while useful and beneficial in setting a standard, could have as much of a practical effect – helped, of course, by the fact that I don’t see positive discrimination as invidious.

    I think the difference between our arguments is just that you believe that past discrimination can’t provide a moral justification for discriminating positively now, and I do.

    I see past wrongs as the morally relevant factor used to decide in positive discrimination. I don’t see the fact that something occurs in the past as an obstacle to it being morally relevant now.

    Not sure about the consequential, non-consequential distinction, but all in all a good debate. I enjoyed it a lot.

  16. Thanks for this post. It helped me get my point accross in a feminist anthropology course I’m taking. I caution people not to make leaps and stereotypes against men while advocating for women…

    To fight discrimination by discriminating against those who have discriminated against us is hypocritical. It is also reverse discrimination. There is a difference between not being polite and stereotyping.

    Just because white men used to kill black men doesn’t give black men the right to start killing white men to teach them a lesson or prove a point. Humanity should be beyond an eye for an eye by now. (justice vs revenge is another debate we won’t go into now)

    Shouldn’t we learn from the mistakes of the past and not repeat them? Do to others what you would like to be done to you.

    Some think I want them to be quiet and have a decorum that was never given to them in the past by men.

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