When Is Discrimination Wrong?

When Is Discrimination Wrong?

by Deborah Hellman


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A law requires black bus passengers to sit in the back of the bus. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approves a drug for use by black heart failure patients. A state refuses to license drivers under age 16. A company avoids hiring women between the ages of 20 and 40. We routinely draw distinctions among people on the basis of characteristics that they possess or lack. While some distinctions are benign, many are morally troubling.

In this boldly conceived book, Deborah Hellman develops a much-needed general theory of discrimination. She demonstrates that many familiar ideas about when discrimination is wrong--when it is motivated by prejudice, grounded in stereotypes, or simply departs from merit-based decision-making--won't adequately explain our widely shared intuitions.

Hellman argues that, in the end, distinguishing among people on the basis of traits is wrong when it demeans any of the people affected. She deftly explores the question of how we determine what is in fact demeaning.

Claims of wrongful discrimination are among the most common moral claims asserted in public and private life. Yet the roots of these claims are often left unanalyzed. When Is Discrimination Wrong? explores what it means to treat people as equals and thus takes up a central problem of democracy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780674060296
Publisher: Harvard
Publication date: 03/11/2011
Pages: 216
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Deborah Hellman is the D. Lurton Massee Professor of Law at the University of Virginia School of Law.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction: The Discrimination Puzzle

    Part I: When is Discrimination Wrong?
  1. The Basic Idea
  2. Demeaning and Wrongful Discrimination
  3. Interpretation and Disagreement

  4. Part II: Considering Alternatives
    Introduction to Part II
  5. Merit, Entitlement and Desert
  6. Accuracy and Irrationality
  7. It’s Not the Thought that Counts

  • Conclusion

  • Notes
  • Acknowledgments
  • Index

What People are Saying About This

Louis Michael Seidman

Deborah Hellman has produced one of the most thoughtful and engaging works on equality I know, beautifully written and meticulously argued. Anyone who thinks seriously about equality and discrimination must take account of her argument.
Louis Michael Seidman, Professor of Constitutional Law, Georgetown University

Rebecca Brown

Although democracy is committed to an ideal of equal treatment, we do not always agree on what that commitment requires. In this bold effort to work out when we may morally draw distinctions among people, Deborah Hellman unearths assumptions and unspoken biases that have invisibly corrupted political debates, such as those about affirmative action and the accommodation of the disabled. Cutting through misleading distinctions and false dichotomies, she gets to the heart of what equality means.
Rebecca Brown, Allen Professor of Law, Vanderbilt University

Matthew D. Adler

In a thoughtful analysis, Hellman argues that discrimination is a demeaning speech-act, and is wrongful on these grounds rather than in virtue of its motivation or effects. Her book is an important contribution to the literature on discrimination and expressive theories of law.
Matthew D. Adler, Professor of Law, University of Pennsylvania Law School

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