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Tuesday, June 04, 2013

When (And Why) Is Discrimination Acceptable?

When (And Why) Is Discrimination Acceptable?

“Dear obese PhD applicants: if you don’t have enough willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation #truth“.

... I’ve been previously rejected from Miller’s lab – on more than one occasion, mind you (I forgot if it was 3 or 4 times now) – so clearly, I was discriminated against. Indeed, discrimination policies are vital to anyone, university or otherwise, with open positions to fill. When you have 10 slots open and you get approximately 750 applications, you need some way of discriminating between them (and whatever method you use will disappoint approximately 740 of them). Evidently, being obese is one characteristic that people found to be morally unacceptable to even jokingly suggest you were discriminating on the basis of. This raises the question of why?

Let’s start with a related situation: it’s well-known that many universities make use of standardized test scores, such as the SAT or GRE, in order to screen out applicants. As a general rule, this doesn’t tend to cause too much moral outrage, though it does cause plenty of frustration...

There doesn’t seem to be any widely-agreed upon rule as for precisely how predictive some variable needs to be before its use is deemed morally acceptable. If obesity could, controlling for all other variables, predict an additional 1% of the variance graduate performance, should applications start including boxes for height and weight? While 1% might not seem like a lot, if you could give yourself a 1% better chance at succeeding at some task for free (landing a promotion, getting hired, avoiding being struck by a car or, in this case, admitting a productive student), it seems like almost everyone would be interested in doing so; ignoring or avoiding useful information would be a very curious route to opt for, as it only ensures that, on the whole, you make a worse decision than if you hadn’t considered it...

Tetlock et al (2000) who were examining what they called “forbidden base rates” – an issue I touched on once before. In one study, Tetlock et al presented subjects with an insurance-related case: an insurance executive had been tasked with assessing how to charge people for insurance. Three towns had been classified as high-risk (10% chance of experiencing fires or break-ins), while another three had been classified as low-risk (less than 1% chance). Naturally, you would expect that anyone trying to maximize their risk-to-profit ratio would change different premiums, contingent on risk. If one is not allowed to do so, they’re left with the choices of offering coverage at a price that’s too low to be sustainable for them or too high to be viable for some of their customers. While you don’t want to charge low-risk people more than you need to, you also don’t want to under-charge the high-risk ones and risk losing money. Price discrimination in this example is a good thing.

The twist was that these classifications of high- and low-risk either happened to correlate along racial lines, or they did not, despite their being no a priori interest in discriminating against any one race. When faced with this situation, something interesting happens: compared to conservatives and moderates, when confronted with data suggesting black people tended to live in the high-risk areas, liberals tended to advocate for disallowing the use of the data to make profit-maximizing economic choices. However, this effect was not present when the people being discriminated against in the high-risk area happened to be white.

In other words, people don’t seem to have an issue with the idea of using useful data to discriminate amongst groups of people itself, but if that discrimination ended up affecting the “wrong” group, it can be deemed morally problematic...

People with the moral qualms about discrimination along the weight dimension might themselves tend to be fat or obese and would prefer to not have that count against them. In much the say way, I’m fairly confident that we could expect people who scored low on tests like the GRE to downplay their validity as a measure and suggest that schools really ought to be looking at other factors to determine admission criteria. Relatedly, one might also have people they consider to be their friends or family members who are obese, so they adopt moral stances against discrimination that would ultimately harm their social ingroup. If such groups become prominent enough, siding against them would become progressively costlier. Adopting a moral rule disallowing discrimination on the basis of weight can spread in those cases, even if enforcing that rule is personally costly, on account of not adopting the rule can end up being an even greater cost...

One could be left wondering why this moralization of judgments concern certain traits – like obesity – can be successful, whereas moralization of judgments based on other traits – like whatever GREs measure – doesn’t obtain. My guess in that regard is that some traits simply effect more people or effect them in much larger ways, and that can have some major effects on the value of an individual adopting certain moral rules. For instance, being obese effects many areas of one’s life, such as mating prospects and mobility, and weight cannot easily be hidden. On the other hand, something like GRE scores effect very little (really, only graduate school admissions), and are not readily observable. Accordingly, one manages to create a “better” victim of discrimination; one that is proportionately more in need of assistance"

Also, this is more evidence that liberals are racist (against white people); similar logic should hold for heterophobia and misandry.

The author's hypothesis, though, leaves out the fact that just because a social group is prominent does not mean that it is not alright to discriminate against it. Smokers, for example (besides the 3 examples in the previous paragraph) are rather prominent - so it also depends on how virtuous or sinful the group is considered to be (this is related to Bertrand Russell on "The Superior Virtue of the Oppressed". Another omission is that some traits which matter a lot (e.g. a university degree) are happily used as dimensions of discrimination (again my former point clarifies why).
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