Harm and Discrimination

Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 22 (4):873-891 (2018)


Many legal, social, and medical theorists and practitioners, as well as lay people, seem to be concerned with the harmfulness of discriminative practices. However, the philosophical literature on the moral wrongness of discrimination, with a few exceptions, does not focus on harm. In this paper, I examine, and improve, a recent account of wrongful discrimination, which divides into a definition of group discrimination, and a characterisation of its moral wrong-making feature in terms of harm. The resulting account analyses the wrongness of discrimination in terms of intrapersonal comparisons of the discriminatee’s actual, and relevantly counterfactual, well-being levels. I show that the account faces problems from counterfactuals, which can be traced back specifically to the orthodox - comparative, counterfactual, welfarist - concept of harm. I argue that non-counterfactual and non-comparative harm concepts face problems of their own, and don’t fit easily with our best understanding of discrimination; hence they are unsuitable to replace the orthodox concept here. I then propose a non-orthodox - comparative, counterfactual, hybrid - concept of harm, which relies on counterfactual comparisons of ways of being treated. I suggest how such a concept can help us handle the problems from counterfactuals, at least for my account of discrimination. I also show that there are similar proposals in other harm-related debates. An upshot of the paper is thus to corroborate the case for a non-orthodox, hybrid concept of harm, which seems better able to fulfil its functional roles in a variety of contexts.

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