I live in India, here at birth we are assigned something called 'caste' based on our genealogy. For a long time in India, it was often that certain castes had access to much more resources than other caste. Due to this, there was a clear inequality and to bring equity, the government brought in reservations for the people of lower caste in education, politics positions and work places.

Some people argue that this discrimination doesn't actually remove any discrimination because the very act of giving reservation is a discrimination. So, it seems to be a paradox to solve discrimination by this method.

Hence, does that make it logically impossible to solve discrimination/under representation problems?

  • 3
    This is only a "paradox" in a loose colloquial sense. As those who tried know, to straighten out a bent metal rod one has to bend it some more, the other way. Fighting fire with fire (backburning) uses the same idea. Societies are not metal rods or fires, and whether affirmative action, as this type of policy is called, is effective or not is controversial, but there is nothing paradoxical about it. There is no logical reason why deliberate discrimination one way to counter prevailing discrimination the other way cannot reduce discrimination overall, even if it cannot "solve" it completely.
    – Conifold
    Commented Aug 31, 2021 at 10:48
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    I mean, ultimately, it is impossible to remove discrimination out of the picture, since you need discrimination to remove discirmination @Conifold
    – Babu
    Commented Aug 31, 2021 at 10:57
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    If that was how it works it would be impossible to stop a moving object by applying force in the opposite direction. But it is. The applied force simply has to be reduced as it slows down. And, ultimately, it stops.
    – Conifold
    Commented Aug 31, 2021 at 11:05
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    @Conifold There is still a paradox in employing that which you think needs to be eliminated in order to eliminate it. That’s at the heart of the issue. It also presupposes an “ends justifies the means” mentality. The trolly problem is similar, which is why it’s a dilemma. You can say “pull the lever” to minimize something bad overall, but does that excuse pulling the lever? You are talking about global minimization. If that were the only consideration involved, you would be right, but it isn’t. Commented Aug 31, 2021 at 14:46
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    The real problem with affirmative action that we have seen in the US is that it becomes an industry and politician begin to base their careers around it, so it can never go away, because too many powerful people need it to continue. In America, almost no one is racist against blacks any more; in fact by many measures, blacks are individually more privileged than whites, yet you see constant worrying about anti-black racism. There has even been an epidemic of fake hate crimes against blacks to fool people into thinking that anti-black racism is still a thing. It's corrosive to society. Commented Aug 31, 2021 at 20:21

3 Answers 3


The question seems to be whether it's impossible to counter discrimination without discriminating along the same lines (but in the opposite direction). The answer to that is no; you can, for instance, help people based on need (measured by, e.g., net worth and similar factors) instead of membership in a particular caste. If there's a strong correlation between caste membership and net worth, then the effect is similar, but it avoids the main criticisms of the caste-based approach. Discrimination on the basis of individual need is still discrimination, but it tends to be less controversial than the sort of discrimination that leads to a denial of service to poor members of a "higher" caste while richer members of the "lower" caste do receive services.

You can also simply help everyone without restriction. Many government services are available equally to all citizens, but as a practical matter help the poor much more than the rich, and therefore reduce inequality. For example, universal health care has a large positive effect on the quality of health care of the poorest citizens, and essentially no effect on that of the richest citizens, so it reduces the care quality gap between the rich and the poor. The cost of providing services to everyone instead of gating them by need is relatively small, since there are relatively few wealthy people, and they are probably less likely to use the services as well.

  • That is a wya, but certain resources are limited but you need to be careful on how you distribute for a healthy and prosperous society. For example, a seat in the most funded engineering college
    – Babu
    Commented Sep 1, 2021 at 1:27

There is a similar problem known as the paradox of tolerance, or (in Rawls[99], §35) "toleration of the intolerant," which we can use to highlight how the differences between first-order and second-order reasoning with some concept—discrimination/indiscrimination or tolerance/intolerance, here—affect the moral quality of acts answering to such concepts on different levels. I'm not actually going to directly elaborate on the relationship between the concepts of tolerance and discrimination, though; I would just advise keeping this consideration in the background as we go along.

We have (at least):

  1. Tolerance of x.
  2. Discrimination against x.
  3. Tolerance of tolerance of x.
  4. Discrimination against discrimination against x.
  5. Intolerance of tolerance of x.
  6. Indiscrimination against discrimination against x.
  7. Intolerance of x.
  8. Indiscrimination against x.
  9. Tolerance of intolerance of x.
  10. Discrimination against indiscrimination against x.
  11. Intolerance of intolerance of x.
  12. Indiscrimination against indiscrimination against x.

Let us suppose that the reservations you speak of are "discrimination against discrimination against x." Granted, the word "discrimination" is ambiguous enough that we might try to frame reservations as first-order, but positive, discrimination, but so if we admit that distinction (between positive and negative discrimination), we'll end up with an even longer list than the above. Suffice it to say that equivocating between second-order discrimination and positive first-order discrimination might be the source of the apparent paradox: reasons against negative second-order discrimination are not necessarily identical to reasons against positive first-order discrimination.

As we ski the slippery slopes of aggressive political discourse, then, we often slalom down one trail while thinking that we intended to glide down some other. The sun is bright, the snow reflects it, maybe we didn't pack the right glasses, and so our eyes and then our minds are confused and we think we're recognizing ourselves at the foot of one problem when we're actually at the foot of some other. Discriminating against discrimination might be wrong, but it is not wrong merely as a result of first-order discrimination being wrong; we need some reason to believe that we can step outside the ordering and judge the concept as applied to other things, as well as itself, without caring about the difference in levels. It's possible for the difference in levels to be irrelevant, but once you accustom yourself to recognizing the possibility of this difference, you'll find that caution is indeed warranted on this score (see Väänänen[19]).

Meanwhile, the question of positive first-order discrimination, inasmuch as this is at the foot of a different slope, is answered by skiing down a different trail, and whatever seems paradoxical about the other mountain is not paradoxical as such "over here." But those who loudly man these peaks are often more concerned to send people on guilt trips that motivate these people to go wildly skiing about as well. These loudmouths can seem conservative, liberal, rightwing, leftwing, or moderate or centrist, no less, despite their pretense of impartiality. (It's not really a "both sides do it" thing.)

One last note: with respect to rectifying disadvantages owing to caste systems, economic disparities, racial dominations, etc., it's possible that reservations/affirmative action/what-have-you really aren't particularly effective in the long-run, not because they're "inherently wrong or misguided" so much as they are like pouring a cup of cold water into a boiling river in the hopes of cooling the delta at the end of it all down. The US, for example, is extremely corrupt on so many fronts, for so many reasons, that even reparations might not do much lasting or even short-term good. Our nation was founded by dishonest hypocrites and murderers, and has been ruled by such people ever since, so handing people financial benefits here and there seems like a doomed solution to the injustice in play because the social networks created in the beginning and amplified since will end up devouring those benefits while using the provision of such things in a mealy-mouthed, self-congratulatory, performative manner. The beneficiaries might feel like they've been given a reprieve, and depending on luck, they might even retain their benefits for a long personal while without having much chance to pass their assets on to another local generation.


Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Revised ed. (1999): Harvard.

Väänänen, Jouko. "Second-order and Higher-order Logic." (2019): Stanford.

  • This got quite complicated... will have to sit down and read
    – Babu
    Commented May 24, 2023 at 6:58

This issue comes up many times, in many places, under the topic heading affirmative action. It is a heavily contested idea, with the main critique being that it is anti-meritocracy, and risks creating new problems for the supported group, with people assuming they will be less able in a given role or position than average.

However, there are really at least two kinds of affirmative action. That aimed at permanent equal representation of different groups. And that aimed at correcting historic inclusion, and breaking barriers for groups to enter roles.

The latter is well illustrated by the engagement of women in the UK government. All-women shortlists were vigorously opposed. But by getting a core group of women MPs, issues like lack of women's toilets that actively made things more difficult, and lack of childcare options and late sittings that less directly made it harder for women, had to be addressed. A temporary measure, can bring about permanent change - correcting historic exclusion, on the presumption the drivers of that exclusion have been or are being removed.

The former kind of affirmative action is well illustrated by the Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College. Harvard decided there was a disproportionate number of students with Asian heritage on some courses, and chose to make admissions tougher for such students. In the UK this kind of discrimination would be illegal, because of how the law is framed - protected characteristics can only be a 'tie breaker'. The US supreme court has decided not to hear the Harvard case.

The issue, in particular of Dalits, is both of historic exclusion, and continuing discrimination. It is interesting to look at the early phase of the British East India Company, against the Marathas - they were very close to defeating the Mughals then. Maratha rules required Dalits to wear bibs for stray spittle & avoid casting a shadow on others, while moving through non-Dalit communities. That kind of racism (Dalits were generally of immigrant heritage, with no caste because of that, so 'untouchable'), allowed the East India company to recruit a large body of Indians from the Maratha side, and gain early military advantage.

Cultural practices against Dalits are still extremely strong, with many wealthier people having a horror of cleaning their own toilets, which goes way beyond hygiene into issues of 'ritual purity'. The story of Arunachalam Muruganantham nicely embodies the issues, and the consequences.

I love being in India. It's so incredibly varied, & just, amazing, and sometimes infuriating. A huge part of that is the sheer depth of cultural momentum. Hinduism, Sanatana Dharma, defies simple classification as a religion. It has many of the aspects of Confucianism, as philosophy, ritual practice, & social order. But, racism is a massive problem. And Delhi in particular, is a terrifying place for women to live. The change on exclusion has to be from within the cultural framework, which Ghandi embodied. Dalits will become Buddhists, or Muslims, if a path is not found.

Varna was imposed as a category on many who had never been categorised by it, by the British. And interacts messily with family and clan politics. Once the need for change is accepted, it has to be instituted. Affirmative action has a place in that, forcing glass ceilings to be removed. It can't can't fix the drivers of exclusion and discrimination though, that has to come from elsewhere, from cultural change.

  • Hi, I enjoyed reading your answer and your prespective. I think the western situation may not transfer too well into the Indian case, splitting the answer into two would be a nice idea I think.
    – Babu
    Commented Aug 31, 2021 at 14:17

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