I began discussing whether sexism was independent of culture, and the topic moved on to women in middle-eastern countries that may be required to wear some type of veil. Someone argued, if they were accustomed to such behaviour, they may not perceive it as discrimination, or unjust.

As such, it raises the question: if a person is deemed to be discriminated against by a majority, but they are not aware of it, or disagree, is it still unjust and/or discrimination?

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    You may want to reword your question for better effect. As it stands, it can be answered by simply pointing to the grammar. If a thing is, it is. Your question is equivalent to asking "If a ball has been thrown, but does not realize that it was thrown, has it really been thrown?" Of course it has; the language will tell you that. I suspect that you really wanted to ask whether the discrimination has a harmful effect. Sep 30, 2014 at 21:10
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    "Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise." - Thomas Gray
    – Cynapse
    Oct 1, 2014 at 2:46
  • @GeorgeCummins: Yes, I completely agree, but my opponent initially refused to accept my argument, so I decided to post the entire matter here. Perhaps it should be whether discrimination has a harmful effect given that the victim is unaware, or does not consider it discrimination. Oct 1, 2014 at 6:25
  • Not going to give a full answer (but yes), but I feel that it needs to be pointed out that the headscarf by itself is not discrimination, it is simply a dress code. And that a dress code of itself is not discrimination.
    – jmoreno
    Oct 1, 2014 at 15:03
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    @Zibbobz: punishiment related to violation of a dress code can be discriminatory, but the code itself can be (and in most cases is) a free choice by the wearer, informed and shaped by society, but a choice.
    – jmoreno
    Oct 8, 2014 at 4:54

10 Answers 10


There are some kinds of harms that result just from knowing something. When somebody finds out that they were adopted, say, this can cause harm that wouldn't have existed otherwise. The person could begin to question how they were raised, and wonder about their real parents, etc. In the same way, perhaps a widow who discovers long after her husband has died that he used to be unfaithful might retroactively feel harmed by discovering the betrayal. Perhaps in both cases, it would be better for the person not to know.

However, clearly there are other harms that are harmful even if I don't know about them. If I am owed an inheritance from my long lost uncle, and my cousins I don't know about conspire to cheat me out of it and I never become aware, they have still harmed me. I would have had more money if they hadn't cheated me! It seems to me that most kinds of harms are this kind — you don't necessarily have to know that you are being harmed in order to be harmed.

You could argue cases of entrenched discrimination are like this. Suppose that education, freedom, and autonomy are all good and that denying those things to someone is to harm that person in some way. The fact that I convince somebody that they don't really want education, freedom and autonomy any way doesn't mean that somehow I am not harming that person by denying him or her those things: it just means that I've managed to brainwash that person in some way that prevents him from recognizing the harm I've done to him.

I don't want to enter into contentious political debates, but it doesn't seem to me that wearing the headscarf per se is discrimination in the sense I've outlined above. In other words, I don't think it's obvious that the only reason a Muslim woman might want to wear a headscarf is because she's been brainwashed into accepting a lack of autonomy, education, freedom, etc. I don't want to put words into anyone's mouth, but I could imagine a Muslim woman viewing her choice to wear a headscarf as an expression of autonomy. Of course, I can also imagine a Muslim woman being forced to wear a headscarf, and in such a case clearly there would be a kind of harm being done.

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    This isn't a political discussion forum.
    – user5172
    Sep 30, 2014 at 17:43
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    Eh? I fail to see how it's a political act to point out that things that have happened in your imagination, have actually happened in the real world.
    – Ernie
    Sep 30, 2014 at 19:03
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    @Ernie It is a commandment in philosophy that it does not matter if some thing is real or just imagined: The answer must remain the same. So if you think that barbecuing children alive is wrong it must be wrong whether or not someone actually is barbecuing children alive. The fact that it happens doesn't matter. The only question is: Should it be allowed to be happening? And if not why not?
    – Einer
    Sep 30, 2014 at 19:21
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    @Einer and Ernie I was remarkably confused until I looked closer - anagrammed arguers! ;)
    – Blackhawk
    Sep 30, 2014 at 21:12
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    Discrimination doesn't require intent either. See the literature on "implicit bias" for some information on this topic.
    – user5172
    Oct 1, 2014 at 19:29

Discrimination is treating people differently if they posses or lack a certain property. Per sé that is not always unjust: If you are a man, ther you may not go to the womens' restroom. That is discrimination, but if men have their own restroom it is not unfair. Also, there is the notion of "positive discrimination": The idea to counter the effects of discrimination by supporting people who have been discriminated against. To qualify for this support, you need to be discriminated against. If you are not, you will not get support so, in a way, this is discrimination against you.

If you go with my definition*, you will see that if women are treated worse than men in some cultures that would be discrimination. It does not matter if the women are aware of or OK with that.

But it is not said that that would be unjust. Cultural relativism holds that moral rules are not universal but may vary with the culture. If you go with that (personally I don't, but...), it could be said that if women in our culture were treaded that way, that would be unjust. But it could not be said that the good people of [insert country name here] are treating their women unfairly.

Since you tagged your question as ethics, the following is not completely applicable. You can, however, ask what the laws should be in an ideal society. Some say that to that question a non-relativistic answer is possible. John Rawls, for example, defined justice by the set of laws you come up with, if you don't know what position you will have in the society you are designing. It is basically the same idea as letting children divide a piece of cake: Since you don't know what part you will get, you will divide as justly as you can to maximize your piece of cake. So when there is a real possibility that a man will be born as a women in the society he conceived, would he want it that women are discriminated against? Probably not, because that would be unjust.

* You definitely don't have to. Wikipedia offers quite a different one but there is no final word on what is the "right" definition: Some want to include discrimination against poor, others want to exclude poor people by definition to don't be able to be discriminated against. So I proposed mine and for the conclusion it makes no difference.

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    Ignoring the issue of whether or not it is unjust, based on the definition, discrimination is then indeed independent of whether the subject is aware? Sep 30, 2014 at 14:36
  • @user1997744 Yes, that's what I meant to say. The definition on wikipedia ("action that denies social participation or human rights to categories of people based on prejudice") outputs the same: You don't have to know that there are rights you are denied.
    – Einer
    Sep 30, 2014 at 14:39
  • "If you go with my definition*, you will see that if women are treated worse than men in some cultures that would be discrimination." Men suffer from more violence throughout much of the world. I believe you find yourself very hard pressed to find a single culture where men suffer from less violence than women. Thus, it is contestable that women as a group get treated worse overall than men in some cultures. Oct 3, 2014 at 3:17
  • On Einer's definition, it's not entirely clear if discrimination can happen unconsciously, however, though morally relevant discrimination might happen without attending to the moral implications of one's discrimination.
    – virmaior
    Oct 6, 2014 at 6:04

If someone steals your identity, and you're not aware that they've just taken out a $40,000 loan in your name, have you been harmed by this action?

If someone turns you down for a job after an interview, and the reason was "because you're transgendered", but they instead tell you that you lack the experience necessary for the job, have you been harmed by this act of discrimination?

If aliens landed and offered to take over the island of Manhattan in exchange for magic iPods that they claim can cure cancer, but in fact have no real effect (and they're just normal, man-made iPods), have the people living in Manhattan been harmed, even if they think they got a pretty good deal?

Just because you don't think you're getting screwed over, doesn't mean you're not, in fact, getting screwed over. In your particular example, you should note that the men in that culture are allowed to participate in any kind of public life they like. And women are told they're being "protected". Presumably from the men who are specifically allowed to do anything they like to women, as if only men's behaviour cannot be controlled in any way.


I don't think whether the subject knows they are being discriminated against knowing or not knowing has anything to do with it.

Whether someone acknowledges or not their problems, the problem still exists.

Just because an individual is ignorant of a situation doesn't mean the situation has disappeared.


I think the answer lies in who owns the act of discrimination.

The victim has been discriminated against. The perpetrator was the one who discriminated.

By that reasoning, the discrimination occurs regardless of whether the victim knows.

Whether it's unjust, depends on the idea of justice that the person considering it holds.


This is a telos-dependent matter. Consider an alternative scenario, from Hilary Putnam's The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy:

Imagine that a person debauchs a young person with the deliberate aim of keeping him or her from fulfilling some great talent! Even if the victim never feels obvious pain, this may be extremely cruel. (38)

Whether or not this is cruel depends on whether preventing a person from becoming what he/she could have become is considered unjust. Do humans have natural teloi which are evil to thwart? Aristotle certainly thought so; see Teleological Notions in Biology. However, the current trend is to deny ontic status to teleology; this started with Francis Bacon's rejection of final causes as relevant to the conducting of science and can now be seen by the existence of the word teleonomy.

My own argument follows that of Alasdair MacIntyre in his After Virtue: morality doesn't make sense without teleology. I reject the idea that the cruelty from Putnam's example is only cruelty because society is injured; I say that the young person himself/herself is injured; his or her opportunity to thrive in life was damaged.

On this basis: Yes, I argue that said discrimination is likewise unjust (and it is "truly discrimination").

P.S. There is room for discussing the tension between individual rights and 'societal' rights; for such a discussion I would refer the reader to Nicholas Wolterstorff's Justice: Rights and Wrongs, which works through the history of how 'justice' has been conceived, moving from justice as "right order in society" to justice as "fulfilling individual rights".

  • @Jmoreno: It would be interesting to see you define 'discrimination' with zero appeal to 'justice'. Perhaps you could consider providing your own answer to this question?
    – labreuer
    Oct 1, 2014 at 22:36
  • @Jmoreno: Which distinctions are 'discrimination' and which ones are not? Also, please define 'merit' (defn 2) without reference to 'justice'.
    – labreuer
    Oct 1, 2014 at 23:09

The idea that something can be unjust or discriminatory when the subject does not consider it so requires dismissing the subject's value judgments and imposing a different set of values on the situation. Whether you can do this depends on two things: Is it possible to objectively evaluate a person's subjective value system? And if so, is the value system within which you deem the subject's living conditions unjust or discriminatory objectively superior to the subject's own value system? If the answer to either of these questions is no, then the answer to your question is no.

  • It's actually impossible to be logically consistent and answer both questions no.
    – virmaior
    Oct 6, 2014 at 6:05
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    Hence why the second question is prefaced with "and if so." Oct 6, 2014 at 6:16

For the sake of this argument, I will assume that you are referring to intentional social discrimination as defined in this article (And for the sake of your debate, I recommend you agree upon a singluar definition of discrimination, becuase it is not as clear-cut as you might think).

Furthermore, we will have to assume that the action that is being taken is in fact a negative one, or one that sets the individual at a disadvantage. We could argue about whether or not restrictive dress codes are a disadvantage, but for the sake of this argument we will ignore whether or not it is, and assume that whatever discrimination is taking place, it is known to be in some way a disadvantage to the one being discriminated.

Finally, let's make one more assumption - that the individual performing this discrimination is fully aware that it is a disadvantage to the person being discriminated. Whether or not discrimination is happening if the person doing it is aware of their discriminating actions is a subject for another debate, so I am going to focus on this and this alone.

Now, if the individual is being told to act in a certain way throughout their life, and this is based on traditions and not deviating from the individual's treatment of any other person of that type, and they are unaware of any other way to be treated, it is still discrimination, because the person performing the action is well aware of this choice, and is choosing to perform this action based on this person's status as a woman (Or any other factor that could lead to discrimination). The actor's awareness of another option is what makes this discrimination - it has nothing to do with the discriminated person's knowledge of the act.

More importantly though, this activity is completely unjust if it does indeed put the person in question at a disadvantage. Whether or not a person is aware of the discrimination does not change whether this action is just or unjust. And putting a person into a situation that knowingly sets them at a disadvantage, even if it is institutionalized and common practice, is still unjust.

Whether or not the activity itself is unjust is an entirely separate debate - but if the action is unjust to the person, it is unjust regardless of their lack of awareness to it being unjust.

As an example, imagine that I am a boss looking to hire a new employee to a firm. Two candidates apply to the position, one a woman and one a man. The woman is superior in terms of ability to perform work, but I choose the man for a discriminatory reason, which denies the woman a chance at a job. I do not tell her this, and she never finds out.

Is this situation just because I did not tell the woman why she was rejected? No. Would the situation only become unjust if she were to find out about the situation? No. Regardless of her knowledge of the situation, my decision not to hire her was unjust and discrimination.


I like shane's example of being cheated out of a heritage without knowing it, and the argument that even personally not feeling a victim of discrimination might just mean you're "brainwashed".

However, I think hinted at in the original question is a related question: What if the victims of discrimination were actually happier that way? Shouldn't the decision be made for them, for their own good?

To return to the heritage example, what if I would be actually happier remaining poor, continuing my simple, uncomplicated way of life with my friends and my family, instead of living in a gilded cage with hedonistic luxuries, surrounded by shallow pleasure-seekers and cold-hearted capitalists who believe that money can buy you happiness?

What if women were actually happier in their traditional role of housewife and mother?

What if black people were actually happier working as slaves on the plantations? (I think that claim was actually made without blushing by some whites in the southern states before the American civil war.)

One could argue, if the apparent victims are actually content with the way they are treated, why not offer them a choice nevertheless? No one forces them to quit their traditional way of life. But maybe already being given the choice is forcing them in a subtle way, maybe they will be manipulated by propaganda. And just the fact of having to face a difficult decision is making your life more stressful, complicated and unpleasant.

All this boils down to someone else making a decision for me, because he thinks that I will not be able to recognize what is best for me. To defend that as ethical, I guess he would have to give good reasons that he is actually better informed than me, is not biassed and does not profit from the decision. In the cases of discrimination discussed here that is hardly the case. (Men profit from discriminating women, and of course slave-owners profit from slavery.) And even if it were, we end up with the classical problem of the benevolent dictator: A dictator might be able to work for the common good much more efficiently than a democracy, if he really were benevolent. But what about his successor? Will his successor still be benevolent? Once you have given up rights, you cannot just ask them back.


A clear sociological conception of descrimination makes this ethical question similarly clear, almost trivial.

Bias is universal, but descrimination is very culturally specific. Discrimination is a systematic bias which impacts the life chances of the members of a specific social group. If some employers of a certain kind are biased toward men and others of the same kind are biased toward women, whatever ethical arguments you may want to make about that, it's not what most of us mean when we say that descrimination is a significant problem. Bias becomes harmful when it becomes discriminatory, that is, systematic enough to have a measurable and unequal outcome on things that matter to members of the affected group. If any number of women in general would prefer to earn more income, and a pattern of descrimination is a key factor preventing this, then there is reason to see this as descrimination, and therefore objectionable.

Knowing or not knowing is clearly irrelevant here. It's the impacts that matter. A law forcing women and only women to wear headscarves is discriminatory and wrong to whatever extent there are women with a substantive reason to value their right not to wear headscarves. But also take note... A law banning headscarves in a society where some women feel it is their obligation to wear one is equally harmful, if not even more so. Whether the people affected realize that the law is discriminatory is not at all relevant, unless it's the abstract idea of discrimination itself they are upset about. (This assumes there is no substantive argument to say that such a law is justified despite its discriminatory impacts.)

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