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.