• Situation A: A terrorist attack has just occurred and out of the several possible suspects, one of them belongs to an ethnicity notorious for violent behavior and extremist beliefs. The authorities automatically pursue that suspect and ignore all the others. This is definitely a case of racial profiling and the authorities can rightfully be accused of being racist. (As an Arab-American I can very much relate to this type of racial profiling)
  • Situation B: I have the choice between two competing products from different countries x and y. I know from my experience and from that of my peers that similar products from country y are very frequently of poor quality compared to the same type of products from country x. So I go with the product from country x. (I recently made this decision when choosing between a Japanese made guitar and a Chinese made guitar - Chinese guitars are notoriously poorly made and buying one would have been a very bad idea from a musician's point of view).

Yet it strikes me that if I was justified in the choice I made in situation B, then the authorities were perfectly justified in the choice they make in situation A. I can't think of any ethical framework that would somehow allow B without also allowing A. A deontological approach would make both A and B invalid, while a consequentialist approach would allow for both A & B.

Is there any ethical framework that would disallow A while allowing B?

  • Perhaps I misunderstand, but individual's judgment call on a commodity and government's actions concerning people seem like different categories to me under any reasonable ethical system. Particularly, US libertarians would hold government to a much higher standard, but it is also codified practice in US courts, which developed a whole hierarchy of scrutiny levels under the equal protection clause. On a utilitarian calculation potential harm from individual's choice is miniscule compared to that from government's policy.
    – Conifold
    Jan 10, 2018 at 21:09
  • @Conifold except that there is no bright line between A & B: If instead of purchasing a commodity, I was hiring a contractor, and made a similar call? Jan 10, 2018 at 21:42
  • That would be more suspect because individual variation among people of the same ethnicity is much higher than among objects of the same type, but the difference of impact between private and government action remains. Also, utilitarian means-end reasoning does not presuppose bright lines, costs and benefits often vary continuously and where precisely the line is drawn is to some degree flexible. But clearly, "racial profiling" in selecting, say, sexual partners is not too controversial, while hiring discrimination by a large company for an ethnically neutral job is problematic.
    – Conifold
    Jan 10, 2018 at 22:12
  • Quality is a manifestation of conscientiousness, which is an inheritable trait. Therefore, in the case of the guitar, your racism is totally justified. Jan 11, 2018 at 5:43
  • For more than 2000 years, China has gone through several Malthusian cycles, in which the best elements of the population were periodically purged Robespierre style. Japan on the other hand has not been through any revolution as far as I know. As a result, the quality of an average Japanese is definitely superior than an average Chinese person. Thus, it is not totally groundless to make inferences based on race alone. Jan 11, 2018 at 17:03

7 Answers 7


This may superficially seem like a question of ethics --a moral commitment against racism as opposed to the practical value of profiling --but I think that both overstates the practicality of profiling, and understates the practical value of minimizing racial biases.

If the suspects --or the guitars! --were arguments, what you are talking about would be the genetic fallacy, judging something on its origins, rather than examining it for its own merits. It also suffers from confirmation bias, where we remember the things that match our preconceived patterns of thought, and forget the others. For instance, is it actually the case that most terror attacks in the United States are --to use your example --committed by people of Arab background, or is it the case that the media typically only conceptualizes a violent attack as "terror" when a person of Arab background commits it? Is Ethnic Group A really "notoriously" more violent than Ethnic Group B? Or is it that when a person of Group A (Arabs) is violent, that is presented as being typical and intrinsic, but when a person of Group B (Caucasians) is violent, that is presented as exceptional and anomalous?

It isn't possible to quit seeking generalizable patterns --that's an essential part of how people conceptualize the world --but it is possible to become aware of your own biases, and work to prevent them from leading you to bad decisions. In other words, don't be blind to the possibility that there may be a well-crafted Chinese guitar out there (or a poorly crafted Japanese one), or to the fact that the actual perpetrator of a "terror" attack might not be the person your biases have trained you to expect.


There are a number of epistemological issues with Situation A. First, which specific group is "notorious for violent behavior and extremists beliefs"? In the US, profiling typically focuses on Muslim, Arab, or African-American men. But (again in the US) terrorist attacks by conservative white men were much more common than terrorist attacks by Muslims. Second, even if terrorist attacks by Muslims were more common, because there are many more conservative white men than Muslims in the US it might still be more rational (in a Bayesian sense) to suspect the culprit was a conservative white man (because of the base rate fallacy). Third, as presented there's no evidence other than "a terrorist attack occurred" and "this ethnicity is notorious for violent behavior and extremist beliefs." Which is weird; in real-world cases there would typically be forensic and eyewitness evidence, which would be expected to make various suspects more or less likely. Fourth, the stereotype about "this ethnicity" — whether it's accurate or not — doesn't tell us much about the particular individual suspect.[*] I've called that fallacious inference "statistical essentialism".

None of that justifies racial profiling, of course. My point is that your presentation of Situation A evokes (but does not endorse) a simplistic consequentialist argument for profiling various social groups, and that argument has serious epistemological problems.

But your question was actually about the ethics of the two cases. From an Aristotelean perspective, one major difference between the cases is the importance or significance of the goods and bads involved. Situation A involves the good of criminal justice — punishing someone who committed a grave evil — and the bads of false imprisonment and perpetuating white supremacy. Many consequentialists regard goods and bads as commensurable — we can measure them in terms of preference satisfaction and dissatisfaction, say — and recommend that we should pick whichever policy maximizes expected net good. But this is a substantial mistake from most Aristotelean perspectives. Because there are serious goods and bads at stake, and these goods are incommensurable, the police need to be thoughtful and judicious — exercise the virtues of prudence and justice — and not rely on broad generalizations (much less false and pernicious stereotypes). For the same reason, prosecutors, judges, and juries should take steps to avoid the vice of implicit bias.

By contrast, the goods and bads at stake in situation B are much less severe, as well as apparently one-sided. In the contemporary US context, I don't think there are any racially charged stereotypes at work in saying that Chinese guitars are notoriously poorly made (though perhaps I'm wrong about that). Given that the generalization isn't racially charged, it seems like the only goods involved would be musical ones (and the constraints of your budget).

[*] But isn't it statistical essentialism to infer from "many Chinese-made guitars are very poorly made" to "this Chinese-made guitar is very poorly made"? One critical difference between humans and industrial artifacts is that industrial artifacts are very deliberately constructed to be uniform. To misuse some statistical language, there's much less variation between guitars of the same make and model than between human biological siblings. So the inference from the statistical trend to the individual is more less likely to go wrong in the case of a mass-produced guitar. Note that hand-made guitars will be closer — perhaps much closer — to the human case. The inference would be highly misleading if we're talking about a bespoke guitar made by a master Chinese luthier.


One of your premises is wrong. You claim that a deontological approach would deem both actions immoral. In fact Kantian ethics allows us to make the distinctions you need.

Kant rejected the notion that people were similar to objects and thus had a price. Kant argued that people had intrinsic worth, an inherent dignity, and were thus above all price. This obviously easily leads to the conclusion that racial profiling is an immoral act, but, importantly, it also serves to illustrate that Kant did consider all other non-human objects (such as animals) to have a price and to be suitable as a means to another end (indeed, Kant used this line of reasoning to support animal abuse for human benefits). In your second case, the object in question is not the Chinese guitar-maker, but the Chinese guitar in and of itself. This is an object with a price (literally). When deciding on whether or not to buy it, you are not (necessarily) making the assumption that the Chinese guitar-maker is bad at their craft, rather you are at all times making implicit probablistic assumptions on the quality of non-human objects, such as the education available to the Chinese guitar-maker, the materials available, the economic ressourses available, the time available to put in a good effort, and so on and so forth.

Thus, when deciding to buy the Japanese guitar, you have exploited objects as a means to an end, in the sense that you have compared two objects (Japanese guitar vs Chinese guitar) and made probablistic assumptions on other objects that came together in the making of those two original objects (education, ressourses, time, etc). At no point have you exploited another human being by making implicit assumptions on their intrinsic guitar-making capabilities.

Let's change your second case to the following.

You work for a company which makes guitars. You educate your employees suitable, you provide good ressources, finances, and plenty of time to make the best of guitars. You have an open job position, and two guitar-makers apply for it, one of Chinese descent and another of Japanese descent. Having nothing else to go by, you hire then Japanese guitar-maker since Japanese guitars are usually better than Chinese ones and so you assume the Japanese guitar-maker is better and the Chinese guitar-maker is bad or lazy or whatever.

This now seems intuitively wrong, but does Kant agree? The idea here is that you provide all the wordly objects that one needs to make a guitar, and the only thing you seek in the guitar-maker are their inherent qualities (such as intelligence, productivity, etc). Thus, when you hire the Japanese guitar-maker, you are exploiting humans as a means to another end, since you are making implicit probabilistic assumptions of the intrinsic worth of other humans and utilizing these assumptions to your own benefits. Kant would certainly disagree with your stereotypes here.

  • Downvoted for a condescending tone
    – Dan Hicks
    Jan 11, 2018 at 23:30
  • @Sak: your tone is entirely inappropriate for this site. I fixed it, but in the future consider that this site is for asking questions; of course the questioner is going to be confused. You need to deal with people in a civil manner.
    – Canyon
    Jan 12, 2018 at 2:53

Why is it that in America we can talk endlessly of ethnicity, race and so on, and in fact it dominates our media space, and yet we don't talk much about the real details of our budget, or why poor children may not have adequate health care and so on?

We can talk about ethnicity, discrimination and the like because it has been deemed safe by the powers that be, and it has been deemed safe because it has been liquidated, or it is well on the way to being liquidated.

There will never be, over time, any content allowed to Arab-American or to any hyphenated American under our present system. Mere form will be allowed, yes, but real content, no.

All differences have to be flattened out so that the commodity form of the item for sale, matches the commodity form of the buyer. Sameness; the only differences permitted will be meaningless. Difference has the potential to interfere with the exchange (click, buy) and it must go.

Why do our young people not realize that what will effect them in the future is for the most part happening behind their backs, while they throw themselves into the contrived news of the day? It's not just the young who do this, but it is more tragic in the young because their precious time could be put to good use in making their future better in concrete ways.

Don't be diverted or tricked. Keep your eyes trained on the system that only wants an exchange, it hardly provides a use value anymore before it wants another click. It cheapens everything. Resist being poured down the funnel. Seek real content in justice and not mere rights. Real content in justice, if we bring it into being, will allow real content in other things too.


The main difference between situation A and situation B is that, in A, the police have already found a justification for their racial stereotyping i.e. profiling.

In situation B, you're still using racial stereotyping to make a decision but you haven't found a justification that makes you comfortable with that stereotyping. Hence the question.

As soon as you get an answer that you're comfortable with, you'll be in exactly the same situation as the police. It doesn't really matter how compelling the justification appears to be because you're only using it to reinforce an existing prejudice.


The answer is yes.

In situation B, you are clearly being a pragmatist. You evaluated two possible choices, and selected the one you believe is the best.

In situation A, the authorities are clearly being racists. They automatically arrested an individual based on their preconceived ideas/knowledge of the ethnic group that the individual belongs to.

In order for situation A to not be perceived as "racist," the authorities must arrest all the suspects, and only after evaluating each individual, select one of them as the main suspect.

So, yes, it is possible to be "pragmatic when dealing with ethnic groups without being racist."


Ethnicity and race are Not identical. Ethnicity has more to do where a group of people come from (some may say originate). For instance the people born in the United States are American citizens but many of these citizens still claim Italian heritage, afro-american, Irish, etc. So you are confusing ethnic with race. Race has to do more with known bone structural and hair features and does not matter where you are born. A Caucasian aka white man will be of white (Caucasian race) no matter what country he is born in. An Indian will always be of the Indian race regardless. Nationality is defined by where a person is born. So the white man born in China would be Chinese but still part of the white or Caucasian race. Arab is an ethnic group just as Asian is an ethnic group. Within ethnic groups you have different cultures and possibly other races. Culture expresses how the upbringing of the person inside of a set group. What they enjoy as a group is common because the group members teach it to children and members. Russians seem to culturally enjoy chess. Cuban people seem find of softball/ baseball. Koreans are fond of takekwondo. You may say these are stereotypes but you cannot deny there is some truth to the claims. One thing you will notice blacks have no universal group as the others. Blacks from the south are clearly different from those in the north. The east coast blacks are completely distinct from the blacks on the west coast. The interest and mindsets are not close and cannot be universal as with the other groupings because the group's have a tighter bond. The black race has no tight bond as other races. If you liik closely you can see those tighter bonds are pressed upon the individuals or else. . . . I don't see free will greatly advertised with the other groups. An Iranian is pressured to be Muslim. I doubt there are Iranians openly Catholic without facing some pressure or consequences. Racism is a bias against people of a specific race. Blacks were treated as slaves for instance this is racism. Jews being killed by Nazis is not racism. Both were of the white race. Different religious sects within the same religion are not racial based usually. You example does not seem racial whatsoever. Terrorism is a culture not a race. Any race member can be a terrorist. The culture identifies who will likely be the next terrorist to kill for a religion like Islam for instance.

  • 2
    Race in the sense you indicate is nonsense. Because of genetic similarities, there either is one race (homo sapiens), or there are literally thousands if you want to have significant differences. If you speak about race just coming from external features, you are ascribing to the terminology used by the worst forms of racism in history. Both possibilities are problematic, even more so because of you not using a single reference in your narrative.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jan 11, 2018 at 16:20
  • 2
    "Does a human race as a category correspond to a well-defined population of some sort in nature? Well they don't, they never do [...]." (Quote from a State University Professor from a book on that very topic). There is no such thing as a defensible biological concept of race.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jan 11, 2018 at 16:50
  • 2
    I am saying that what you are able to determine is e.g. the ethnical group, not race. As explained in the linked book, covariations of properties are too variant to determine any categorisation of "races" that is not effectively arbitrary, because there are the same things showing in other populations and others not showing within the same one. In other words, differences are gradual, not discrete.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jan 11, 2018 at 18:53
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    @Logikal: There is a thing YOU don't seem to notice: You are writing up some pretty racist stuff here that some people think to be offending and is backed by basically nothing while at the same time rejecting any criticism. There are flags raised because of this post and extensive comments, including by two moderators and you speak about how insulting others are? The only argument in the text and last comment is that everyone not too dumb will know that you're right. That's pretty much a definition of arrogance.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jan 12, 2018 at 21:19
  • 2
    I do not ignore the definition you gave, I point out that obviously it is offending to some people and that the answer, both in style and content, is not a good fit for this site. You cannot just make up stuff here. The comments are trying to constructively push for changes. They are trying to tell you what is wrong with your answer and lead to the downvotes. If your only reaction is telling us that you're right and we just don't understand you, I can't help it.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jan 12, 2018 at 21:44

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