ethics of human rights, justice, philosophy

The Ethics of Human Rights (80): The Limits of Justice, Non-Discrimination and Equality of Opportunity

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Here are 3 fake and somewhat ridiculous news stories. I’m asking you to suspend your disbelief for a moment – all this has a serious purpose which will become clear afterwards:

1.

Social activists have collaborated with one of the largest chemical companies in the country in order to produce a vitamin supplement for dogs. This supplement will modify dogs’ metabolism so as to produce dog feces that has a consistency similar to rabbit feces: granular and dry, as opposed to lumpy and greasy. The effect will be that when dogs defecate on sidewalks and when pedestrians step into the feces, the harm done to pedestrians will be less. More pedestrians will step into feces because of the granular type of the modified feces, but the damage to each individual pedestrian will be relatively small compared to the damage done by traditional dog feces. Think of it as a redistribution of feces damage. and a small but important improvement in the overall justice of our society. After all, there is no good reason why some of us should bear the full brunt. No one deserves dog shit on their shoes.

2.

Since High School, X has been almost universally mocked because of his appearance. Social scientist as well have confirmed that he lacks facial traits and bodily features typically associated with “beautiful” people. As a results, X has spent the first 20 years of his adult life fruitlessly looking for a female mate. Not only did he fail to find a willing female of his choice; he in fact failed to find anyone at all who was willing to marry him. Given that there are a considerable number of people in the same position as X, legislators have now proposed a subsidy for these people so that they can afford plastic surgery and improve their chances on the marriage market. Naturally, strict rules will be included in the proposed legislation so as to target the subsidies towards those who really need them. After all, if society pays for the equal opportunity to receive a good education, why not also for the equal opportunity to lead a happily married life?

3.

Mr. Smith (a pseudonym) is not a special case. He is not gay, black, female, indigenous, foreign or disabled. Nor does he belong to a minority religion. And yet, he is suing the Vatican for discrimination. Why? Well, it turns out he is in the habit of wearing short trousers and sleeveless shirts during warm days. Dressed like this, he attempted to enter Saint Peter’s Basilica and was refused entry by the guards. His lawsuit has received considerable support from US tourist organizations and tour operators. Some even suggest that Smith’s discrimination is indicative of the treatment of many US tourists by Vatican authorities. Smith’s lawyers argue that the groups of people protected by current laws against discrimination have been chosen arbitrarily or on the basis of past patterns of discrimination. If new patterns of discrimination occur – as may be the case here – then legislation should evolve.

These somewhat silly stories have the merit of bringing into focus a serious question: what are the limits of justice, non-discrimination and equality of opportunity? It’s clear from the stories that there are and should be limits. There are events that may seem unjust but shouldn’t be labelled as such. Perhaps those events – such as for example the unequal and undeserved infliction of dog shit on people’s shoes – look like they are unjust because the circumstances and structures of the events are very similar to real injustices. But then what are “real” injustices and why are some events not “real” injustices?

The same is true for equality of opportunity: we want to help people achieve an equal opportunity to do or have certain things, but not other things. Education but not a happy marriage. Why this difference?

And again the same in the case of discrimination: we want to help people avoid certain kinds of discrimination but not other. And again the question is why. How do we make the difference?

For me, the answer is clear: all considerations of justice, equality and opportunity are limited by human rights. If an injustice is also a human rights violation then it is a true case of injustice. If not, then not. If someone’s unequal treatment is also a violation of that person’s human rights, then we have a case of discrimination. If not, then not. Is someone unable to have the same opportunities as everyone else to do or have something? That’s a legitimate area of concern if that something is a right. If not, then not. (More here and here).

More posts in this series are here.

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5 thoughts on “The Ethics of Human Rights (80): The Limits of Justice, Non-Discrimination and Equality of Opportunity

  1. Sadly, if these stories were real it wouldn’t really surprise me.

    There are a lot of subjects here, but I’ll focus on one, and that is discrimination by private groups.

    First of all, discrimination, be it by race, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, or anything else really, are all abhorrent and I deeply hope we will socially evolve past them. They are a crude form of collectivism from tribal days.

    With that said, I think that if a business, institution, anything privately owned, wishes to discriminate in its hiring processes or who it lets in, it should be within their power.

    Again, let me stress that such behavior is disgusting, but its the principle.

    If you own a building, it should be your right to say who can or cannot come into that building, the same for your employees. To do otherwise is to force social norms onto the individual by means of law.

    In this particular case, it seems benign and downright good, but it sets a precedent of thought in how the government and society should dictate the behavior of the individual.

    It should go without saying, but this does not hold true for public matters.

      • A very strong argument. There is even more to this one, so again I apologize for only skimming.

        I guess what it comes down to is a matter of personal priorities in regards to law and the social good. As you stated, there is a large economic factor that comes into play when talking about businesses being allows to discriminate. Some could benefit, but I think most today would be shunned by consumers, because the consensus on equality has changed a lot since 1960. And this may be very well due to Anti-Discrimination Laws, and private movements, the most notable being Dr.King’s.

        And Anti-Discrimination laws help a lot of people who would normally have a much harder time due to the small mindedness of others. I do think such mandates can breed tension though, but I won’t bother with any “Plight of the white man” haha.

        I don’t think of myself as a Libertarian, mainly because I think labeling yourself to a party or movement can cause you to compromise on your ideals, or blindly follow ones you haven’t had time to digest. But I sympathize with them on this matter. When it comes down to it, it is a matter of fairness (universally) and equality. You can very rarely have both when you include enough people in the experiment.

        Its not morally right that a young man isn’t allowed to shop somewhere based on his skin tone, religion, or anything else. But is it morally right to force someone to behave in a way you think is right, if their original behavior is not causing physical harm to anyone?

        About the domestic violence and rape. In these cases, people are being injured, and their lives are at risk. This is an entirely different situation. When a bigot doesn’t allow a group into their store, they aren’t harming them, they just don’t provide a service.

        So all that’s really left is emotional pain. This is my most fundemental argument, and my weakest, because I can lack empathy at times. The law shouldn’t be called in because your feelings were hurt. Again, I don’t support the people who discriminate, its just a matter of principle. I know I sound like a broken record with that, but I don’t want to be misconstrued.

        I don’t like the argument of escalation, but it relates to the third story. If hurting someone’s feelings (by not providing a service, not intentionally, that is another story) is punishable by law, well, you can decide how that would turn out for yourself, good or bad.

        So in essence, you should have the right to be who you are, and live how you want, and run your business or institution the way you wish, so long as you do not cause physical or intentional emotional harm to anyone. That is all I’m saying.

  2. Pingback: The Ethics of Human Rights (83): The Snowball Effect of Equality of Opportunity | P.a.p.-Blog // Human Rights Etc.

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