Does anti-discrimination imposed by laws, or as a universally held position and imposed by society, contradict the idea of free will?

Take for example:

  • In a business context, choosing to not interact with female customers.
  • Refusing service to a particular race of people in your restaurant.
  • Making your house publicly available for rent, but excluding people from a certain religion.

Does imposing anti-discrimination basically restricts one's freedom to act so, even if it is one's preference or personal choice?
And why are such choices considered morally wrong in the first place?

  • 2
    The basic principle of social life is to give away some of our individual freedom in order to ensure "peace and order". We cannot live in a society and ask for "absolute freedom". Commented Jun 12, 2016 at 17:04
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    We do not choose social life: we are social life. Commented Jun 12, 2016 at 17:12
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    @YassinMarzouki One more typically hears that adhering to the social contact is morally superior. As a sort of self-sacrifice in pursuit of the greater good. Except for philosophers like Nietzsche or imitators like Rand.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Jun 12, 2016 at 17:33
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    @YassinMarzouki All contracts, policies, and agreements are restrictions of one's freedom of choice. By definition. Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains, and so on. Anyway, that specific aspect became part of the social contract the same way all the other parts did. As a conscious tradeoff of freedom in pursuit of something people deemed desirable or beneficial.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Jun 12, 2016 at 17:41
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    @YassinMarzouki why am I not allowed to assault someone? It's mere restriction of my freedom of choice, isn't it?
    – commando
    Commented Jun 12, 2016 at 18:16

3 Answers 3


You don't mean the idea of free will, you mean the value of autonomy.

Clearly the only reason to legislate anything is to limit the expression of free will. If we did not believe in free will, we would pursue something like https://www.thevenusproject.com/, stop trying to control behavior and just try to predict it and shape it via technology instead. So, their existence presumes free will, and does not contradict it.

Autonomy has been put forward as a basic principle of ethics by many, including Kant. But such ideas generally aim to universalize autonomy or spread it to as many individuals as possible. Very few cogently argue for simply increasing the autonomy of the majority even if this severely limits everyone else. Extreme libertarians do, but they can do so only by presuming that liberty and property are the only rights that really matter. (I would argue that by not at least covering the traditional range of Cardinal Virtues, i.e. not including safety and reciprocity as concerns, this is itself a position that reflects a certain level of privilege, and should be distrusted.)

Defending your choice to act upon chosen biases does not increase the general level of autonomy across the board, if at all.

First of all, the bias itself is not generally a choice, it is a traditional dictate, and so it does not really reflect autonomy. To be free to question it increases one's autonomy. Having counterexamples visible to you opens to you the opportunity to question the bias.

If those counterexamples do not arise from simply refusing to allow baseless application of the bias in place of logic and fairness, then the bias will be proven to have a point, we will figure out how to accommodate the facts of life, and the resistance will go away. (We don't, for instance, insist that one hire children on par with adults, or make onerous adaptations for someone like a blind graphic artist. We only truly challenge traditional biases that seem to have no realistic basis.)

Second, strong enough biases severely limit the autonomy of certain individuals while reversing them limits the autonomy of a wider range of people, but only mildly.

Let me offer an example now in our past: In highly religious areas of the U.S., it used to be traditional to shun the divorced. My grandmother, who had been a schoolteacher, therefore, lost her occupation, in addition to her husband, when he left her. She and her children suffered considerably until she could earn the money (as a house servant -- one of the few jobs she was any good at that did not force people to interact with her 'morally') to move to a more populous, less religious, region of the country, where she could return to teaching.

On the other hand, just insisting parents should trust her to continue doing the job she had always successfully held might have required they explain some difficult facts to their children, but would not have harmed anyone severely. Several decades later, teachers' unions negotiated laws that prevented immediately firing divorcees from educational settings.

When you balance it all out, it is highly ambiguous whether the overall level of autonomy has been raised or lowered by instituting such a rule. Teachers are now free to conduct their marital lives the same way everyone else can, but people can no longer protect their children from others who think it is OK to get divorced under some circumstances (like long-term abandonment.)

So, if you want to argue against anti-discrimination laws from the value of autonomy, it can be done only by taking the strange libertarian perspective of those whose main problem in life is being told what to do, over the perspective of people who are marginalized into poverty or death by the refusal to consider them potentially equal.

If you attempt to consider all perspectives equally and to consider more severe losses more highly than minor limitations, you ultimately find the patterns of discrimination around us are reducing the overall balance of autonomy, which makes them immoral according to the most commonly expressed ethical formulations, which are often a balance of Kantian fairness and Utilitarian perspectives.

  • Thank you for your detailed answer. Can you please clarify this passage, preferably with an example : "strong enough biases severely limit the autonomy of certain individuals while reversing them limits the autonomy of a wider range of people, but very mildly." ? How do strong biases limit the autonomy of certain individuals? Commented Jun 13, 2016 at 19:30
  • Sorry for the length of the result -- I wanted an example where both sides were kind of 'right', and no one could accuse me of sexism, racism, etc.
    – user9166
    Commented Jun 13, 2016 at 20:02

First, you are confusing "free will" with freedom to do as you please. "Free will" is about the question whether you are capabable of deciding out of your free will what to do, or whether you do what you do because you are just made that way.

You can see it as a restriction of your free choice. But considering that my wife would want to punch you in the face if you refuse to interact with her, that everyone, white, black, whatever, would want to hurt the staff and the manager if they are not served in a restaurant due to their race, and that christians, muslims, hindus, atheists, would all want to put your house on fire if you refused to rent to the due to their religion, you would now have to make an argument why other people's choices should be restricted, and your's shouldn't.

Your choice, if it were unrestricted, would provoke violent reactions. And we don't want that. At least in western countries, the situation is now such that if these actions were not restricted, you wouldn't have the power to avoid being punched, harassed, or your house set on fire. So we make laws to protect you from yourself and call it "moral".


It restricts free will but does not contradict or eliminate it because it only applies to a part of free will whose actions may limit allowable free choices of others.

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