In the UK, and in many other countries, it is illegal to discriminate on certain personal characteristics in many circumstances, including employment and accommodation. These characteristics include nationality, ethnic or national origin. It is also illegal to NOT discriminate on other characteristics when making employment and accommodation decisions. These characteristics are described as "allowed to stay in England" and overlap very strongly with nationality, ethnic or national origin.

This would appear to present a contradiction, at least if one views the law and morality as interdependent. How can it be wrong to discriminate on one set of personal characteristics but also wrong to NOT discriminate on another set of personal characteristics that are almost exactly the same as the former? Has anyone attempted to justify this apparent contradiction from a moral philosophy standpoint?

  • Availability of certain documents is hardly an unchangeable "personal characteristic", like nationality or gender, discriminating on which is generally seen as prejudiced and unfair. That some personality neutral discrimination has to take place follows from pragmatic reasons, a country has limited capacity and cannot accommodate everybody. Not that this selection cannot be abused, and often is.
    – Conifold
    Jul 8, 2021 at 17:12

2 Answers 2


Discrimination does not have in itself any moral value. I can discriminate my left hand from my right hand... So what?

I expect that we can all discriminate between White and Black people, between tall and short people, between friendly people and irascible people, between Leftists and Rightists, between intelligent and stupid. So we do make a very large number of discriminations and this self-evidently raises no ethical question whatsoever.

That being said, discrimination is often used to restrict certain rights to certain people or inflict unfair treatment on others. In such cases, the unfairness is entirely in what discrimination is used to achieve, not in the discrimination itself.

The argument put forward in the question is entirely fallacious as it rests entirely on the equivocation between two very different senses (2 and 3 bellow) of the word "discrimination":


  1. The ability or power to see or make fine distinctions; discernment.

  2. Treatment or consideration based on class or category, such as race or gender, rather than individual merit; partiality or prejudice.

Everything we do in life requires us to make fine distinctions and so to discriminate between things that are effectively different. Governing a country also requires that ministers and administrations make fine distinctions, between mothers and children, between workers and retirees, between foreigners and nationals, etc. This is absolutely necessary. This is at the foundation of life itself. There would be no effective action possible without discrimination. Life itself would be impossible.

The problem only starts when discrimination in sense 2 is used to discriminate in sense 3: use the different colours of the skin of people to restrict certain services to White people for example, services such as certain buses, certain schools, certain jobs. Discrimination in this sense can be overt and assumed, as it was in South-Africa at the time of the Apartheid, or in the United States of America not so long ago, or more discrete, often to the point of hypocrisy. So much so that there is probably no society on the surface of the Earth which free of unfair discriminations.

The point I am making here is completely obvious and should go without saying. The question asks "if anyone attempted to justify this apparent contradiction from a moral philosophy standpoint". This is the wrong question. The question should be how can anyone justify any unfair discrimination? And unfortunately, the question itself is an effort to do exactly that using a fallacious opposition based on equivocation. Moral standpoint?

  • Although the content of your answer is useful and you have clearly given the question thought, I find your remarks to be unnecessarily snarky and uncharitable. OP asks about an "apparent contradiction" so it is relatively clear that they are considering their presuppositions to be wrong. I see absolutely no need to insinuate efforts to justify unfair discrimination.
    – 303
    Dec 5, 2021 at 19:49
  • @303 Sure, the form is respected. The problem is that what I say is absolutely obvious. Why do I have to spell out the obvious? Dec 6, 2021 at 11:40
  • What is obvious to you might not be obvious to everyone, especially not to beginners. If it were obvious to OP they wouldn’t have asked their question in the first place.
    – 303
    Dec 6, 2021 at 19:06

There is discrimination and there is discrimination. One involves giving rights and the other involves just discriminating. You çan discriminate between various people (and even be obliged to do) if this discrimination is not based on the qualities of the other kind of discrimination (color of the skin, sexual preference, religion, cultural background, etc.).

When the grounds of discrimination (say having sickle cell anemy or not) are connected with the grounds you are not to allowed to discriminate on then of course it is more complicated. In that case you have to look carefully if the discrimination is made on the just grounds and that the grounds are not used to unlawfully discriminate.

What has philosophy to say about this? I don't know. I do know that the obligation to discriminate and law against it are not contradictory. You can be obliged to check for Corona and at the same time be forbidden to discriminate on other grounds. It becomes more difficult if there are relatively many Asians suffering from it.

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