DISCRIMINATIONAL RELEVANCY BY ANALOGY WITH TRUTH
To make a relevant or irrelevant distinction is one
thing, to intend to make it quite another: someone may make an
irrelevant distinction while intending to make a relevant one.
Similarly, to make a false statement is not always the same as
intending to make a false statement. We do not even call someone
"a liar" who merely utters a falsehood.
A scientist, for instance, whose hypothesis turns out to be false
is not a 'liar' because
'e always did as if it were true.
To be called "a liar" 'e must have had the intention to deceive or to
create a false impression. The present language does not have an analogous,
simple expression with respect to acts of distinction, that
is, for intentionally or knowingly making an irrelevant distinction,
or it must be the word discrimination itself when the intention
of making the irrelevant distinction is incorporated into its meaning.
Underlying the wrongness of lying is obviously the wrongness
of intentionally making an untrue statement, or rather the
normative imperfectness of falsity and the perfectness of truth.
A person may lie to make someone else happy but if this is the
right thing to do, it is only so for eudaimonist reasons. Even
if it is right to make someone happy, for example, by creating
an untrue impression or belief, it remains wrong to knowingly or
intentionally make a false statement (and also to carelessly do
this). Similarly, underlying the wrongness of (intentionally
and/or carelessly) discriminating is the imperfectness of irrelevance
and the perfectness of relevance. Discrimination may also
make a person or sentient being unhappy, or happy, but this is
again a eudaimonist consideration, and purely on the basis of a
eudaimonist calculus discrimination would be neither right nor
wrong as discrimination.
It would all be merely contingent on the total balance of
happiness over unhappiness.
From the point of view of the relevance principle alone all
manifestations of discrimination are equally objectionable,
whether a particular entity or class is treated as inferior and
excluded or ignored, or whether is is treated as superior and
made exclusive. The same holds for the making of nonrelevant
distinctions, not on the basis of one particular factor or
cluster of factors, but between different factors or clusters
of factors. This is not to imply, of course, that all these
forms of making nonrelevant distinctions are equally harmful in
On the contrary: a nonrelevant distinction may be
entirely harmless, or may even be made to avoid harming someone.
In that, again, it is not different from a lie. The point is,
however, that a special interest in harmlessness would oblige
us to adopt some kind of eudaimonist or related principle as
well. But if relevancy is to be an independent notion, such
a principle should, if endorsed, furnish the focus of relevancy
or one of its focuses. If it is the only one (as in utilitarianism),
no relevant distinction will be harmful to the whole
of all sentient beings of all times. But then, someone adopting
such a scheme would not be interested in the harm done
to individual sentient beings, and especially not in a large
imbalance in their feelings of happiness or the satisfaction of
Paradoxically, the very harm done to particular persons or
groups by certain practises does not make these practises
objectionable in themselves in utilitarianism if they are to the
advantage of the whole. To avoid these consequences of utilitarianism
other determinants are needed like equality in well-being
and, perhaps, the maximization of the well-being of the worst-off.
But having adopted one or more of these other goals, it would be
inconsistent to evaluate the diverse forms of discrimination
exclusively by their being more or less harmful. This
would lead us straight back to a utilitarian scheme. Consequently,
in every nonutilitarian doctrine recognizing truth and
relevance as separate, basic principles lies and discriminatory
actions or attitudes may be equally wrong or bad, even when they
are not equally harmful, or not harmful at all.
It follows from the principle of truth(fulness) that a lie is
wrong --as noticed before-- regardless of its
subject-matter, that is, regardless of what the sentence uttered is about.
But it follows from the principle of discriminational relevance that a
nonrelevant distinction made, or discrimination, is also wrong regardless
of its subject-matter, that is, regardless of the goal at issue and the
factor or cluster of factors on the basis of which the distinction is made.
Just as the subject-matter of a lie can be
any untrue proposition, so the subject-matter of a discriminatory
attitude or practise can be any nonrelevant distinction (or
class resulting from such a distinction). It is wrong to say,
for example, that there is a relation between race and intelligence,
or race and musicality, if there is no such relation (or
to say that there is no relation between these factors, while
knowing that there is one). This is not wrong because of the
subject of the conversation, not because the lie is a racial
lie, but because lying or making untrue statements is wrong.
(Note that the noun lie is also used when the statement is
believed to be true by the speaker.) Similarly, it is wrong to
distinguish between races if the distinction is irrelevant (or
to refuse to distinguish if the distinction is relevant
while acting nevertheless). This is not wrong because of the
object of discrimination, that is to say, the factorial basis of
the distinction, but because discriminating itself, or making
irrelevant distinctions, is wrong.
To intentionally or carelessly say something about the female
sex or the male sex, or about the relation between them, that
is not true is also wrong.
This is not wrong --again-- because one says something about
the female or male sex, but because saying something that one knows to be
untrue, or which is not likely to be true, is wrong (if said as if it
That the lie is, then, a sexual lie, is not to the point.
Similarly, to intentionally or carelessly make an irrelevant distinction
between males and females is wrong. But this sexism is not wrong
because the distinction is one between males and females (let
alone because it is to the disadvantage of one of the two sexes),
but because knowingly, intentionally or carelessly making an
irrelevant distinction, or a distinction which is not likely to
be relevant, is wrong.
In short: racism, sexism, and so on, are not wrong because of
the factors concerned or because of the object of discrimination,
but because of the nonrelevance of the distinction made
(at least insofar as the nonrelevance is a necessary criterion
of its wrongness). But this means that any normative doctrine
which confines attention to the wrongness of racism and sexism,
and maybe a few more, similar, attitudes and practises, is as
faulty (and irrational) as one condemning only lies about, say,
other ethnic groups or the opposite sex, and about one's own
marital status and income, and perhaps a few more kinds of lie.
And just as a lie to someone's advantage is as bad as a lie to
someone's disadvantage (judging by the principle of truth
alone), racism which favors one's own race is as bad as racism
which disfavors it, gynocentrism as bad as androcentrism, a
state which imposes the symbols of our own ideology on everyone
as bad as a state which imposes the symbols of other people's
ideology on us and everyone else, and so on and so forth.
It is the obvious irrelevance, or the
circular relevancy of a distinction made which is
inherently bad, regardless of the factor concerned, just as it is the
falsity of a statement which is inherently bad, regardless of the subject
Ethical theorists have usually understood the importance of
truth but the general support for relevance as a principle,
maxim or requirement which can be found in linguistic pragmatics
in addition to the support for truth does not exist in
Yet, for those who are especially interested in the norms and values of the
(particularly the relevancy of discrimination) plays a role of
paramount importance. Discriminational relevancy may even make a
separate notion of moral relevancy superfluous dependent on the
normative doctrine espoused. A principle, maxim or requirement
of discriminational relevance does not only cover all questions
(altho not necessarily
solving them), but also many, if not all, aspects of equality, fairness,
(distributive) justice and universalization. In spite of this, there may
certainly be fundamental discrepancies in the application of
these divergent ideas and principles. Those endorsing a principle
of universalizability, for instance, tend to start from a
specific maxim and try to ascertain then whether or not it is
Now, the definition of universalizability --see
5.1.2-- shows that the
principle of universalizability attaches much weight to the distinction
made in each maxim under consideration (namely between x and non-x, or
everything that is like x and not like x).
It takes these distinctions as starting points.
However, such distinctions which are already made in
ordinary language (with words for 'x', or for 'being-like-x')
are traditionally but too readily accepted as 'normal' or
'natural'. All the distinctions have first been made, as it
were, and their relevance is then examined afterwards, while the
burden of proof is made to rest with those objecting that a
distinction drawn is irrelevant. When endorsing the relevance
principle, on the other hand, the procedure is quite the other
way around: the distinction is not made until it is (proved or
believed to be) relevant (unless one would opt for the different,
unless-approach). The end result of universalization and
the making of relevant distinctions should be the same, but from
the standpoint of the relevance principle universalization is a
process of repristination in which the original oneness which
should not have been divided in the first place (in the language
or in the specific maxim) is restored again.
Altho the end results should be the same it is obvious that
the principle of relevance and that of universalizability work
in opposite directions. It would require a separate study to
look at all the resemblances and differences between adopting a
principle of universalizability or equality or justice on the
one hand, and a principle of discriminational relevance with,
for example, equality as a focus on the other. What is more
interesting and rewarding from a systematic point of view is
to keep sight of the parallels between truth and relevancy,
and the principles lending these concepts their normative significance.