It wasn’t that long ago that discrimination was a desirable sort of thing. One learned about art, music, and wine in order to acquire a “discriminating” taste. One could, presumably, distinguish good wine, art, and music — separate these from the wanna-bes. But those times have passed. Much like the word “discipline” which has acquired negative connotations, “discrimination” has become a nasty word, reflective of a determination to deny folks their inalienable rights. No one should be discriminated against, no matter what.
This is a classic example of a half-truth that has taken on all the feeling of an axiom in this culture. To be sure, there are cases in which discrimination is without grounds and ethically unacceptable — as when a black couple is denied access to an apartment, not because they don’t have references or are unable to pay the rent, but simply because they are black. And we know this happens, to be sure. In fact, it happens more than we like to admit. We don’t want to accept the fact that people would be that narrow-minded, but many are.
On the other hand, there are cases in which discrimination would appear to be the better part of wisdom. Consider the following cases. You are interviewing candidates to broadcast the evening news and a young woman appears with her lower lip pierced and she is unable to pronounce foreign names or read the teleprompter without squinting and considerable hesitation over two-syllable words. Bear in mind that as the person responsible you need to be aware of your audience, and your sponsors are certainly going to make sure you are. Your audience wants to see a pleasant face, someone who seems relaxed, and is able to pronounce the names of a great many folks who make the news each night — not one whose appearance is off-putting and who cannot seem to do her job. This would appear to be a legitimate instance of warranted discrimination, as opposed to unethical discrimination. You refuse this women the job. You are discriminating. But you are not discriminating against this person because she is a woman, but because she will not be able to do the job required of her — much like a 98 pound man who is refused a position in a heavy construction company because he cannot lift, as required, 200 pound bags of concrete eight or nine times each day on the job.
In a word, there are cases in which discrimination seems not only proper, but warranted. It is not always the case that it raises ethical red flags. Those flags are raised when the determination not to hire, let us say, is based on arbitrary criteria, such as gender, race, or creed — things that do not affect the person’s ability to perform the job at hand. And that seems to be the key. Can this person do the job he or she is applying for? It would be wrong to assume that a woman, let us say, should not be hired for a job in heavy construction just because she is a woman. But if the job requires her to do things she is physically incapable of doing — not because she is a woman, but because she is simply not strong enough — then one would seem to be justified in turning her down for the job, assuming that the woman is given the chance to show she could do the work and is not being dismissed on the grounds of prejudice. The determination is not to be made a priori.
To return to our original point: discrimination is a key to a good education. One learns about good art and good music and literature. But one also learns what criteria are applicable when it comes to the determination of whether a person is fit for a job — or political office. A well educated person is able to separate the relevant from the irrelevant; sound reasons and solid evidence from the bloat and rhetoric which issues forth from the mouths of so many political candidates. One learns how to discriminate against those who are incapable of doing the job they are asked to do, namely, lead the country in times of great need. Discrimination is not always wrong: it is sometimes the sign of a person who is well informed and able to make sound judgments. The key is to know when discrimination is ethically wrong and when it is central to a well-reasoned argument — when the criteria applied are arbitrary or when they are pertinent.