Discrimination isn’t always wrong

Is discrimination always wrong?

To listen to the current national debate on the topic, it would appear to be so. Virtually all international human-rights covenants categorically reject discrimination on the basis of race, religion and gender. Even contemporary professional philosophers tend to treat discrimination as an unalloyed evil. The University of Chicago’s Brian Leiter has led a very public philosophical campaign to eliminate religious exemptions to anti-discrimination laws and to declare unethical religious practices that appear to be discriminatory, especially in the area of gender and sexual orientation.


But our crusade against discrimination seems to rest on a fundamental confusion. There is a difference between discriminating against someone because of the group to which he or she belongs and discriminating against someone on the basis of his or her actions. The former type of discrimination tends to assign approval or disapproval, reward or punishment on the basis of immutable or near-immutable characteristics. It is not only offensive; it is irrational. The latter species of discrimination, however, rightly levies praise or blame on free acts, that is, those human acts bearing traces of intellect and will. In the face of such imputable acts we have the duty, and not only the right, to discriminate.

There is a difference between discriminating against someone because of the group to which he belongs and discriminating against someone on the basis of his actions.

The refusal of a caterer to host the annual banquet of the Ku Klux Klan is not anti-white discrimination. It is a refusal to provide material cooperation for an organization that has habitually engaged in racist terror. A florist’s objection to decorating the birthday party for the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan is not a spasm of anti-black prejudice. It is a refusal to join in the honoring of a man whose anti-white, anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic outbursts are well-documented. A photographer’s refusal to provide a documentary memorial of a Planned Parenthood awards banquet is not an eruption of veiled misogyny. It may well spring from her moral revulsion at the organization’s massive practice of abortion in its clinics —over 300,000 per annum—and her conscientious objection to participating in a ceremony honoring such lethal activities.

All such acts of conscientious objection involve discrimination. But all are based on the moral quality of the actions performed by the individuals concerned. Rather than being unjustified, such discrimination on the basis of action is necessary and salutary. It takes seriously the virtuous or vicious cast of freely chosen acts. Such discriminatory acts of resistance are often praiseworthy, even heroic on occasion.

In the religious community, discrimination takes on an added complexity. I recently received an undergraduate paper entitled “Jesus Never Judged Anyone.” The argument was predictable: Jesus never judged anyone, but the church goes around condemning just about everyone. There is a half-truth here: “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” But it is a thin half-truth. Jesus judged—often severely—the Pharisees, the money-changers, the apostles. But the judgment always touched on their acts and their vices: hypocrisy, greed and jealousy. Entire groups were not excluded from his compassion.

Pope Francis’s impromptu phrase “Whom am I to judge?” has quickly turned into an ecclesiastical doorstop.

Pope Francis’s impromptu phrase “Whom am I to judge?” has quickly turned into an ecclesiastical doorstop, wielded to suppress the church’s censure of unjust actions in the area of politics, sexuality and human-life issues. But Francis himself is a model of prophetic discrimination. Abortion, pollution, xenophobia and gender ideology have all passed under his critical scrutiny. His vigorous critique of sinful actions in no way indicates a lack of love for those who commit them. On the contrary.

The biblical and ecclesiastical injunctions against judgment are a summons to humility in our discriminatory judgments. We can judge the moral quality of the acts we perform and observe, but we can rarely judge the motives of others or the virtuous or vicious pattern of which a single action is only one exemplar. But noetic humility can never dispense us from the duty to praise and blame the actions others perform—as well as our own actions. And when we are pressured to cooperate in gravely evil actions, our discriminatory resistance may rightly burn with prophetic fire.

In contemporary civil society the dialectic between just and unjust discrimination cannot operate serenely. The moral consensus governing our society shrinks further every day. Only yesterday we were earnestly debating whether abortion should be legal in the tragic cases of maternal life endangerment and rape. Abortion on demand was unthinkable. When did the simple affirmation that marriage is between one man and one woman become a species of hate speech? Naming right and wrong in a society divided over fundamental issues of human life and human love is an increasingly difficult and bitter affair. One person’s New Jerusalem is another’s Babylon. But cultural bewilderment and authentic love of humanity cannot dispense us from the duty to judge the actions rooted in human freedom—and discriminate accordingly.

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Mike Macauley
1 month ago

Father John, if I may I'd like to offer some discriminating thoughts regarding your article. First, I agree with you completely that the art of civil public discourse has been lost and that is unfortunate. Being a mature adult requires discrimination. Indeed you could say that exercising discrimination is a fundamental hallmark of achieving adulthood. Also, communicating those discriminatory positions in effective, constructive ways is as well a fundamental hallmark of achieving adulthood. On that point, society is sorely proficient.

Discrimination, public or private, necessarily invites "reverse" discrimination, again public or private. If that isn't accepted or understood, the original offerer has no business wading in.

You say that "actions" are the proper target of discrimination. On that point I agree with you completely. But, the interpretations of what makes actions moral, or, immoral, can and do change over time. You use the example of Jesus discriminating against the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Fair enough. But, just for a moment put yourself in the shoes of a faithful, committed, devout Jew of the period - perhaps one with impressionable children. Along comes this Jesus fellow who is upending hundreds, indeed thousands of years of Jewish law and tradition. Eating with sinners, violently overturning tables in the temple courtyard, dishonoring the Sabbath. In the minds of orthodox, devout Jewish people, Jesus was the one who was to be rightly discriminated against - - and was. (Does this pattern sound familiar right now? Do you hear the traditionalists of the Catholic faith railing against a Pope trying to inject some new thinking into the Catholic Church?)

Or, take the action of eating meat on Friday. Not too long ago this "action" was to be taken as a highly immoral, gravely sinful act. Why? Because that was the doctrine of the Catholic Church at the time. Back then, if you were in the presence of a Catholic eating meat on a Friday, you would have felt it was your duty to "discriminate" against his/her actions. Why then and not now? In this case the Church's proclamation of the sinfulness of that act is all that made it immoral, and, as a priest you would have been obliged to hold to that.

I am getting too long. I just want to point out that every coin has two sides. Mindless discrimination that refuses to acknowledge that fact is just as dangerous as no discrimination at all.

Jimmy Carbonneau
1 month ago

Thanks for this well-pointed perspective! While life-centered discrimination is necessary (else we become complacent to evil), it does require extensive discernment and pastoral judgment to become truly life-giving in its application.

Kester Ratcliff
4 weeks 1 day ago

Thank you.

There's a propagandistic quality to this article conflating obvious logical truths with unsubstantiated conclusions.

He probably considers his views on gender to be "natural law" and not part of a cultural ideology.

I fully agree with the main thesis of the article, but the unacknowledged and unsubstantiated assumptions which he slips in near the end as if they were logically connected to the thesis he has convincingly argued for I do not accept, and I don't appreciate this kind of subterfuge techniques of apologetics.

Some of those "obvious truths" he relies on are not really that obviously truthful, judging from either inspired scripture or from natural reasoning.

Mike Macauley
1 month ago

Slight correction - "sorely deficient".

J Cosgrove
1 month ago

Everybody discriminates every day many times. If we didn't few of us would be alive.

If one wants to read the most thorough discussion on discrimination there is, read Thomas Sowell. He literally wrote the book on this topic.

Discrimination and Disparities

Highly recommended!

John Walton
1 month ago

Tnx for writing this.
ps, I would have thought that one of the Vatican philologists would have caught Bergolio's grammatical error. :)

Kester Ratcliff
4 weeks ago

Not really an error, just modern English. Languages change over time. E.g the "correct" or archaic forms of second person singular pronouns are thee, thou and thine, but we say you and yours now. The second person singular honorific form has become the standard singular. Or e.g. the simplification of hundreds of forms of the definite article in ancient Greek to a few forms in modern Greek. Pope Francis probably just didn't want to sound like he was visiting from last century using a time travel machine.

rose-ellen caminer
1 month ago

There's discrimination ,and there's discrimination. If your have a business where you have clients that you spend time and work on, outside a public space, a store, like a photographer for a wedding, or a florist decorating the venue of a client, or a caterer that goes to the clients organization, i.e., if your business is a contractual one then yes, you can pick and choose who you want for your client. And discriminate all you want,. [Though even there if it can be shown that you are discriminating against a protected group of people, then you can be in legal jeopardy for violating civil rights laws]. However if you have a floral shop, if you have a bakery, then to refuse to sell flowers, or cakes right there on the premises, to a person who walks in , because you believe this person is bad, or their beliefs are bad, or the organizations they belong to are bad, then that discrimination is wrong.[IMO}

Unless someone has broken a law or unless they belong to an outlawed organization and are wanted fugitive, or unless we are in a civil war with a defined enemy, to deny business to someone in your place of business , violates the principle of tolerance. Yes even evil people or people with evil beliefs, have equal rights that need to be respected for a democracy to work. Even people who you believe are evil, and would never associate with, have the right to purchase things from stores.And to deny them their right is a violation of the principle of democracy which means the freedom to believe whatever you want and to express your beliefs. Balkanization is antithetical to democracy where all get equal treatment.

Henry George
1 month ago


If you worked in a liquor store would you sell liquor to a known alcoholic ?

If your actions go against my morals, why am I obliged to assist you in any way to carry out
what I consider to be an immoral action ?

rose-ellen caminer
4 weeks ago

Selling liquor to someone who is drunk is illegal. Selling liquor is legal. Liquor is sold to alcoholics . Though many people can drink and not be alcoholics, but yes I would feel guilty knowing that many people who buy liquor are indeed alcoholics. So that is one business I would not go into.
If you have a business open to the public, that means everyone. Doing business with someone whose actions go against your morality, is not assisting in their immorality. If I believe using artificial birth control is immoral I won't sell birth control .THAT is how I do not assist people in doing immoral acts. i.e., by not promoting the product that facilitates evil acts. In America we don't launch our own personal jihads against law abiding people we judge are engaged in immoral acts.

Christopher Lochner
4 weeks 1 day ago

If you were renting a room in your house would you then have to accept the first application or be guilty of discrimination? (a single young man driving a very loud automobile for example) By ejecting an application would you not be guilty of bias then? Whose rights are more important, the seller or the buyer? It appears to me that as the seller possesses the item this right is paramount ( of course there need be much wiggle room here which why the great controversy).

rose-ellen caminer
4 weeks ago

Everyone wants to assert their right to discriminate. I don't know what the law is, but I don't see why the seller's right is paramount. If the renter has a dog and the seller is allergic, then that is reasonable basis to reject the applicant. But without sound legitimate grounds, yes, first come first serve. The person with the loud car, needs a place to live just like the seller. If the loud car violates some quality of life laws, and is a nuisance then have that addressed. People need a place to live, just like they need to engage in commerce. A seller has a moral obligation to recognize that every applicant really needs a place to live, and to reject someone who does not fit the sellers ideal, is wrong. [ p.s. I feel the same way about job applicants. If the applicant is qualified, then one should take the first one].

Anthony Noble
4 weeks 1 day ago

Sexual orientation is also an immutable characteristic. The Catholic Church needs to review its stance on gays and lesbians just as it did on slavery, both of which were not fully understood by the authors of the Epistles. Both social and natural sciences, as well as the lived experience of gay men and lesbians, attest to the fact that sexual orientation is not a choice but an intrinsic part of human nature. Same sex marriage enjoys the same love and responsibility as heterosexual marriage and has the same options for children as a heterosexual couple with at least one sterile partner, such as adoption. Firing gay and lesbian employees of Catholic institutions or other anti-gay activities are discrimination and need to be ended by policy and action.

Paul Miner
4 weeks 1 day ago

Amen! I'd also include the discrimination of women from leadership in the Church in the same category. This Jesuit needs to get out of his "Ivory Tower" and actually get in touch with reality.

Kester Ratcliff
4 weeks ago

I agree.

And they need to examine the implicit philosophical assumptions their ideas depend on, because those assumptions affect everything.

Clue: why can there only be one valid telos for each 'act', and all other functions or intentions are automatically 'disordered'? If someone has an answer to why Aquinas accepted this assumption from Aristotle, I am genuinely curious. On it rests the 'obvious truth' that almost all human sexuality is disordered, except that which fits into a fundamentally hierarchical ontology.

Mike Theman
3 weeks 6 days ago

Nonsense. Any research on the subject has been conducted by individuals with a huge bias to convince the public that homosexuality is normal and immutable. At best, what the research shows is that there is a predisposition of sexual attraction that is overpowered by environmental influence and voluntary desire. Research aside, evolution and biology are clear about the purpose of our sexual organs; reproduction for perpetuating the species. Sexual pleasure is obviously designed to promote sex and reproduction, and intentional pursuit of pleasure as an end in and of itself is a perversion.

Love, on the other hand, is a different matter. We are all capable of loving one another. Conflating love and sex is the source of much of the trouble in our personal relationships culture.

Anthony Noble
3 weeks 6 days ago

Mike "The man" is uninformed. Professional research avoids bias; its results are designed to be objective. On a scientific basis and from the lived experiences of gay men and lesbians, same sex attraction is an innate and non-voluntary characteristic. Love has many forms. While we may love one another, being in love and its sexual expression are unique. Catholic teaching on human sexuality focuses on both the procreative and unitive, that is to say emotional bonding, aspects of sexuality. Many married heterosexual couples cannot procreate though the God-given Love that infuses the marriage is equally important. This is the same for same sex marriages. Catholic teaching celebrates the infusion of love within a marriage that produces the emotional bonding between the couple that overflows in the desire to share their love with the community. While sexual pleasure may lead to reproduction in heterosexual couples, it usually does not. Catholic teaching does not forbid sexual pleasure between married couples who cannot reproduce and certainly does not state that a married couple in their 70's who enjoy sexual pleasure is "disordered". Biology and evolution have given gay men and lesbians the same physical erogenous zones as heterosexuals. God's Love is the pinnacle of human existence. God's Love as expressed within the commitment of marriage, whether gay or straight, is a gift from God.

Mike Theman
3 weeks 4 days ago

I've worked in basic and clinical research for most of my life. I know how research is supposed to be conducted, and I know how it is actually conducted. Much of the so-called research in the social sciences is not research at all, and the way that the APA's position on homosexuality was changed is indicative of how bias and politics drive the field and that particular area of study.

Mt personal belief about Catholic teaching on sex in marriage is a recognition that if a man's sexually urges are not satisfied by his wife that he will seek to satisfy them outside of the marriage. It's not a love-based purpose, but rather an extension of the reproductive-related purpose: stopping men from having children with multiple women and/or leaving the wife for a more willing sexual partner.

Erogenous zones are designed for reproductive purposes.


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