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The concept of “discrimination” belongs to a complex semantic ﬁeld formed through signiﬁcant phases in the term’s transformation, which are addressed here both diachronically and synchronically using the conceptual analysis method.
In the ﬁrst stage, “to discriminate” meant having the cognitive competence to “distinguish” objects so as to group them into classes. In the second stage, it came to mean also “to separate” whatever is so distinguished and classiﬁed as “different,” which could allow prejudices to be introduced into its conceptualization, thus stigmatizing “difference.” Accordingly, the term gained a pejorative connotation, morally and politically, because such classiﬁcation could entail adverse effects on the quality of life of individuals and groups. That, in turn, can become a subject for study by applied ethics and bioethics. In the third – and currently ongoing – stage, “discrimination” is being resemanticized positively to assert a “right to difference” and to resist discriminatory practices. The term has thus gained a different moral and political meaning from that of the previous stage, one which may be used as a rationale for practices such as “reverse discrimination” or “afﬁrmative action,” understood as corrective, compensatory measures for individuals and social groups considered to have been discriminated against and, therefore, wronged.
The semantic extension of the word “discrimination” has gone through three stages in which content has been successively constructed, overlaid, and substituted, forming a complex ﬁeld, where the meaning of the whole is regenerated in its relation to the world and to the actors involved over time.
In the ﬁrst, the denotative stage, the concept is delimited to identifying a set of things perceived as being the same as each other and different from other things. In the second, the connotative stage, other meanings are added, which extrapolate the ﬁeld of mere distinguishing, to add the sense of “separating.” From there on, “to discriminate” might refer to the practice of judging and treating people and populations in differential and exclusionary manners, which might also make citizenship (or the lack of it) conditional on an “appraisal of inferiority” (Trujillo 2006, p. 2994).
This extension of the conceptual ﬁeld occurred in both ordinary and political language. It resulted from a dialectic that confronts, on the one hand, the practice of selecting on the basis of preferences : that make it possible “to replace the reference to equality” and, on the other, the contrary movement of the “right to nondiscrimination,” understood as the principle and form of resistance to guarantee social justice. However, the principle of nondiscrimination can also be seen as a “void concept, embodying no normative load of its own,” because it contains “no substantial rule [and] no speciﬁc prescription.” This, in fact, makes it a “method of control” and/or a “technique for qualifying certain differences of treatment” (Calvès 2006, pp. 281–283).
From this second stage on, “discrimination” no longer referred solely to a classiﬁcatory cognitive activity: it now referred also to the practices of those who discriminate and separate and could entail stigmatizing those who are “different.” In the process, “to discriminate” came to refer to a practice devoid of tolerance and empathy. As a result, discriminatory practices admit avoidable suffering and, therefore, can be appraised by ﬁelds of knowledge such as the human and social sciences (including applied ethics and bioethics) to analyze and evaluate their morality.
Now, there is also a third stage resulting from complex relationships between the two previous stages. This stage has seen a “culture of difference” established and discrimination resemanticized to gain a positive connotation and serve as the rationale for compensatory measures taken in the name of justice. Known as reverse discriminations or “afﬁrmative actions,” these are regarded as means for correcting what are regarded as the morally and politically reprehensible effects of speciﬁc forms of discrimination, such as racism, sexism, and homophobia (and, in recent years, bullying), which are considered sources of vulnerability and, accordingly, morally unacceptable for their signiﬁcant effects on the quality of life of those “discriminated.”
Concretely, reverse discriminations regard discrimination as a good reason for applying “measures, in the distribution of goods, that offer advantages to individuals belonging to groups considered to have been disadvantaged for historical, social and cultural reasons.” Ultimately, reverse discrimination can be said to amount to preferential treatment with a view to assuring substantive equality” (Trujillo 2006, p. 2994). However, in this dialectic, framing the complex phenomenon of discrimination, compensatory discrimination can, in turn, be challenged from a moral standpoint that considers it “unfair” for “not giving preference on the basis of individual merit” (Mautner 2010, p. 38).
Although this third stage is still ongoing, United Nations conventions in place since the 1960s, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979), embody the guiding principle of nondiscrimination. This prohibits actions and policies entailing disadvantage for individuals and groups by reason of their ethnicity, religion or sex, or disability. Also contemplated are contemporary discriminations “produced by the primacy of efﬁciency and economic utility” or those “motivated by the security principle” (Trujillo 2006, p. 2994).
The Relevance Of Conceptual Analysis To Applied Ethics
The emergence of applied ethics (also known as practical ethics) in the second half of the twentieth century can be seen as a change of direction in the ﬁeld of moral philosophy. This began to concern itself less with epistemological and met ethical issues connected with the linguistic structure of moral discourse, in the tradition of analytical philosophy of the ﬁrst half of the twentieth century, and more with concrete ethical issues deriving from technical and scientiﬁc advances – particularly in biomedicine – and related new types of individual and social behavior. This reinstated an ancient tradition concerned less with “a hypothetical-deductive model designed to explain the laws of morality independently of social and historical conditions” and more with “the context in which a problem arises” and the “consequences of actions,” as well as the “strategies to be pursued” by endeavors to resolve the resulting conﬂicts (Marzano 2008, p. 5).
However, given the increasing complexiﬁcation of the ﬁeld of conﬂict confronting practical ethics, there also arose the inevitable need to rethink how to interconnect theory and practice, in view of the new problems of communication in this changing world. It is in this context that the theoretical and practical problems relating to discrimination should be included.
The three stages considered here characterize – as shown – a possible dialectic in the formation of the concept of “discrimination.” Its initial usage – abstract, symbolic, and essentially denotative – was succeeded by more extensive use, which introduced connotations relating to situations of conﬂict among different groups of social actors. Those connotations can result in adverse effects on the quality of life of the different persons and groups involved. This is thus a dynamic semantic ﬁeld, where meanings can stand in opposition to referential relations, giving rise to confrontational movements of ideas and forces that eventually reshape the very concept of discrimination. In fact, if “all discrimination bears with it otherness, differentness and marginality” and if there is no effectively communicative symbolic exchange, it seems inevitable that the problems that conceptual analysis ought to solve, relating to the various concrete instances of discrimination – between young and old; men and women; heterosexuals, homosexuals, and transsexuals; rich and poor; ethnicities and “races”; and so on – become “confused because of imprecise, changing terminology” (Poliakov 1978, pp. 1097, 1085). That is, because of this multiplicity of contexts where it is applied, the term “discrimination” has acquired several meanings that are not always clearly identiﬁable, and conceptual analysis is needed to determine their relevance in the various situations where they are used. That is why the conceptual analysis method is considered appropriate, warranted, and even a necessary condition for the existence of communicative practices that can avert or resolve conﬂicts and dilemmas – which ultimately speaks to the goal of applied ethics of averting unnecessary suffering and guaranteeing quality of life for the persons and groups affected.
In particular, conceptual analysis can be considered “a sophisticated form of communication” that grows out of questions as to the meanings of concepts we use: it constitutes a method “to handle and clarify concepts in a particular way” and can serve to encourage communication and understanding among adults because “conceptual analysis gives framework and purposiveness to thinking” (Wilson 1963, p. 20, vii-ix). Conceptual analysis is also a method of applied ethics used in the moral reasoning approach to clarify the meaning of words, “giving an account of all the terms used”: while dictionary deﬁnitions, which give a term’s commonsense meanings, are generally sufﬁcient for communication, in many speciﬁc cases, they are not. Such cases call for a deﬁnition that is “reformative and identiﬁes the exact meaning required,” because “attention to the words used is a pre-condition for any serious intellectual discipline and all science and, accordingly, also for ethics” (Mori 2010, p. 16).
Conceptual analysis will thus be used here as an appropriate method for addressing the genealogy of meanings of the word “discrimination” over the course of its history. Three points considered to be signiﬁcant have been highlighted:
(a) The appearance, in Late Latin, of the word discriminatio, initially referring to the human skill of “distinguishing.” This meaning is still current not only in commonsense language but also in speciﬁc technical languages, such as mathematics, law, psychology, and the social sciences.
(b) Its semantic extension, seen in English from the second half of the nineteenth century onward, with the emergence of the word discrimination and its derivatives, which came to denote also the operation of “separating” and gained the implied negative connotation of “excluding.” This established the conditions of possibility for the practice and meaning of “discriminating” to become objects of analysis by applied ethics and, particularly, by bioethics.
(c) The endeavor to deconstruct and resemanticize the word with a signiﬁcant positive connotation. This has resulted partly from its use, from the second half of the twentieth century onward, by political movements identiﬁed with the “culture of difference,” which advocates inter-culturality, citizenship, cultural diversity, and quality of life and, together with the “philosophy of difference” set out by Deleuze, has reinstated Nietzsche’s “philosophy of values” and the critical role of philosophy itself (Badocco 2006).
A Brief Diachronic Account Of “Discrimination”
(a) The term “discrimination” comes from the Latin discriminatio, derived from the verb discriminare (meaning “to distinguish”), comprising the preﬁx dis(indicating separation) and the root crimen (the act of distinguishing), in turn derived from the Indo-European root *skribh (to cut, separate, distinguish) (Ernout and Meillet 1967).
The term thus ﬁrst had an essentially denotative meaning relating to a symbolic (or mental) operation on the real world intended to identify a class of objects in a given context where there are also other objects, which are not under consideration, because the class they constitute is only complementary to that of the objects considered. This makes the term “discrimination” synonymous with “distinguishing.” The term is still used in logic and linguistics with this ﬁrst denotative meaning to characterize the ability to perceive the relevant features of some portions of reality, as distinct from its surroundings (and from other portions of reality).
In this ﬁrst sense in particular, “to discriminate” refers to a symbolic operation in principle free of valuation and normative connotation, relating to the quality of human interactions, which may be affected by conﬂicts with consequences, including suffering that is in principle avoidable and so morally open to question. To summarize, “discrimination” meaning “distinguishing” has no features relevant to the moral standpoint and, accordingly, is not an object of study for applied ethics and bioethics.
(b) There is, however, a second stage in the conceptualization of “discrimination,” where the word means not only “distinguishing,” but gains the meanings of “diversiﬁcation” and “differentiation,” coming to be used for its sufﬁx “-ation” to refer to actions among persons and populations in speciﬁc situations. At this point, the term gained new meanings with signiﬁcant social, political, and ethical connotations. Concretely, in this second sense, the term “discrimination” has come to refer not only to knowing how to distinguish objects and situations (as in the ﬁrst sense) so as not to confuse them but also to the act of separating individuals or populations and, particularly, considering them as “different” as a result of their classiﬁcation by some characteristic, such as sex, species, ethnicity, or social class. This has entailed concrete attitudes that are considered, at least, morally and politically questionable, because they are accompanied by “stigmatization” and exclusion of some kind, as is the case with sexism, homophobia, speciesism, racism, and classism.
Clearly, distinguishing and separating/excluding are actions of two different types, with different political and moral implications. The cognitive skill of being able to distinguish, without necessarily separating, strictly has no signiﬁcant ethical and political implications. Meanwhile, separating/excluding does, because it may involve actions with adverse consequences for those discriminated. This is why discrimination, in the second sense, has become an object for normative evaluation in conﬂicts between social actors who may be seen as “moral strangers,” that is, as “persons who do not share sufﬁcient moral premises or rules of evidence and inference to resolve moral controversies by sound rational argument, or who do not have a common commitment to individuals or institutions in authority to resolve moral controversies” (Engelhardt 1996, p. 7).
(c) Lastly, there is a third stage in which the meaning of “discrimination” is reconstructed. In this more recent stage, which began in the mid-twentieth century, the word has retained the meaning of “distinguishing” and “separating” subjects and populations. At the same time, there has been an effort to establish relations between these two dimensions, so as to bring identities and differences together – but without confusing them. In fact, this third stage builds on the assumption that, in a world that is increasingly interconnected but at the same time also divided and differentiated, mere tolerance among differences, although essential, is not enough. In the contemporary world, friendly coexistence among “moral strangers” also depends on integrating among differences – recognizing, from the moral standpoint, the importance (and even primacy) of the other as the one who constitutes me as an interlocutor, entailing the need for me to accept the other as such. That attitude applies to individuals’ constitutive singularities and to those that are constitutive of speciﬁc groups or populations.
This third meaning of the term “discrimination” sets up a complex type of relation among the identities and differences involved. It maintains the operation represented by the ﬁrst meaning, of “distinguishing,” as well as its relation to the second meaning, of “separating.” Into this relationship, however, it introduces a third meaning resulting from the joining together of the two earlier meanings, but no longer regarding the second sense as pejorative in connotation, but rather favorable, that is, resemanticizing it. In this third stage, “discrimination” acquires a positive connotation, because being discriminated for being different can mean having a characteristic that is necessary to deﬁning new identities and establishing bonds between “moral strangers.”
The term “discrimination” will now be considered synchronically, as in the analytical tradition, because that analysis is a necessary condition for achieving what is known as “communicative action,” advocated by Habermas, which can be seen as necessary to the endeavor to resolve conﬂicts and dilemmas of the kinds addressed by applied ethics and bioethics.
The Complex Field Of “Discrimination”
According to dictionaries, the concept of “discrimination” belongs to a dense set of words including nouns, verbs, and adjectives, such as discrimination, discriminate, discriminator, discriminant, discriminating, discriminative (Webster 1994, p. 411), discriminable, discriminability, discriminably, and discriminatory (Soanes and Stevenson 2008, p. 410).
The meanings of “discrimination” range between two extremes, from the merely denotative “making a distinction,” “something that serves to differentiate,” “the act or an instance of discriminating,” and “the resulting state” through to the connotative meanings of “treatment or consideration [in] favor or against a person [based] on the group, class or category to which that person belongs, rather than according to actual merit: racial and religious intolerance” (Webster 1994, p. 411).
The concept thus involves abilities (to draw relevant distinctions and to classify), actors (such as the “agents” who practice discrimination and the “moral patients” who are discriminated and can become “victims”), and actions (with characteristics that can have adverse effects on third parties, such as avoidable suffering). The word’s semantic ﬁeld – as seen in the previous section – has at least two clearly distinguishable dimensions, (a) and (b), plus a third, (c), which is less clear and still taking shape.
This association between the phenomenon of discrimination and forms of resistance to discrimination – which consist in reinstating the value of “difference” in constructing the identities of persons and groups (as highlighted in (c), above) – is an endeavor to redeﬁne the concept in accordance with new social practices of what traditionally are “minorities.” This operation has received contributions from political movements, such as the feminist movement, the civil rights movement in various countries (but particularly in the USA) from the second half of the twentieth century, and others.
As also mentioned, this subject has to do with the activity of philosophers such as Gilles Deleuze, who have proposed a “philosophy of difference,” attributing an essentially positive sense to the term “difference” as that which will not be subsumed by identity (Deleuze 1968). Jacques Derrida, meanwhile, introduced the term “différance” to indicate a new method, called “déconstruction,” out of which to build forms of resistance grounded on the premise that there is an intrinsic political tension in deconstruction, which he deploys to show the dialectic that exists between oppression and emancipation. The deconstruction method was to have important ethical and political signiﬁcance from the 1980s onward, when Derrida delimited the ﬁeld of deconstruction by recourse to a conception of justice as inﬁnite responsibility toward strangers and the strange, to minorities and otherness in general. This leads him to argue for the idea of “unconditional hospitality,” understood as an openness to the “absolute, unknown, anonymous other,” that is, without requiring “reciprocity” in return, because “deconstruction is already engaged by this inﬁnite demand of justice,” given that after all “deconstruction is justice” (Derrida 1994, p. 35).
However, the resemanticization of the word “discrimination” stemming from its positive valorization – particularly in political respects, thanks to the movement toward reverse discrimination – does not eliminate the term’s traditional interpretation, which holds a fundamentally negative connotation. One example of this is the emergence of what is termed “systemic discrimination,” which is actually “neither explicit, nor voluntary, neither conscious nor intentional,” but based on “implicit” assumptions applied to various groups that are discriminated against and wronged. It can be seen as “a set of practices and customs that perpetuate a situation of inequality with respect to members of the target groups” and results from “not just mentalities; nor acts of individual actors; nor simply initial inequality: it is produced by a system,” which in fact is a “global socioeconomic system” (Bouamama et al. 2010).
The intention here has been to show that the semantic ﬁeld of the term “discrimination” has changed over time. An initial situation was identiﬁed in which “to discriminate” had neutral value, because it referred to an essentially cognitive skill. In a second situation, it acquired a negative connotation, coming substantially to mean exclusion and stigmatization of whatever was “different.” At a third stage, it has acquired a positive connotation: difference is embraced as an identity forming characteristic and a precondition for claiming certain compensations.
From the moral standpoint, two key characteristics are necessary in order to speak of discrimination against persons and populations: (1) speciﬁc treatment different from the treatment given to other persons or populations, in accordance with the relationship that applied ethics establishes between equality and equity, and (2) the absence of any cogent rationale to justify such behavior, hence the need to clarify this ambiguous, complex concept. Accordingly, a conceptual analysis of the term “discrimination” was proposed here, to show that the concept has not had the same meaning over time and that rather its meaning has depended on context and relations with other concepts that are semantically close.
However, the consensus reached in a society at any given time as to what can and cannot be considered discriminatory is still subject to questioning and polemic. One signiﬁcant example in this respect is the case of the feminist movement, which came into being so that women would be treated on a par with men, but which then called this kind of equality into question because it did not take account of the differences that existed and which could be considered to enrich coexistence among people, who should in principle be seen as equals not in spite of their differences, but thanks to them. This is because, “if we really want to achieve equality, then difference must be taken into account. If we apply the same rule to everyone in the same way, we produce discrimination, albeit unintentionally” (Bouamama et al. 2010).
To conclude, the notion of discrimination covers an imprecise and contradictory semantic ﬁeld, warranting conceptual clariﬁcation as proposed here, without which it is hard to know what is being talked about when the term “discrimination” is used. This has to be evaluated and judged with the normative toolkits of applied ethics and bioethics.
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