Ethics of Discrimination Research Paper

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The basis for ethical comprehension of the topic of discrimination lies in respect for human dignity. Historically, from ancient times until the middle of the twentieth century, discrimination had a strong negative connotation that was very close to prejudice and stigma. This interpretation contributed in a concrete manner toward increasing different forms of oppression against certain social groups such as women, the poor, the elderly, racial or ethnic minorities, people with physical or mental disabilities, people with certain diseases, and so on. Starting in the second half of the twentieth century, a new concept of discrimination emerged, with a meaning that was exactly the opposite of the original meaning, namely, positive discrimination based on the so-called affirmative action, among other measures. This new conceptual format was constructed with the aim of preventing or eliminating different forms of negative discrimination and/or compensating for disadvantages resulting from the prevailing discriminatory attitudes and structures, thereby promoting equality of opportunity for all individuals without distinction. Despite the behavioral advances seen within the global context over recent decades, such as respect for universal human rights, episodes of negative discrimination of different origins continue to be registered every day, around the world. In order to provide better comprehension of the two forms of discrimination analyzed here, this research paper discusses the concepts of identity and recognition, diversity, difference, and tolerance.


Respect for individuals’ dignity is a central principle of human rights and is directly related to the topic of discrimination. Comprehending this provides the impetus for better understanding of the different forms of discrimination that contribute toward increasing – or decreasing, depending on the focus – the vulnerability of certain social groups, such as women, the poor, racial or ethnic minorities, people with disabilities or people with certain diseases.

The transformations in the worldwide economy that have been observed through the recent process of globalization have promoted profound behavioral changes in society, through reducing the existing relationship between time and space. This situation has brought closer contact between individuals and social groups as a consequence of increasing human movement and migration, thereby imposing new ways of living together between different individuals and cultures. Within this context, phenomena such as ethnocentrism, racism, xenophobia, sexism, and homophobia, among others, have come to occur with greater magnitude and visibility in different countries and regions of the world. These phenomena result from intolerance of differences, and they end up giving rise to different forms of discrimination against and violation of the human rights of individuals and groups that are not integrated into the original mainstream society.

In the light of this new situation, studies on human interrelationships and human quality of life have not remained outside or immune to this phenomenon. On the contrary, they have been traversed by ethical conflicts relating to the various types of differences (economic, physical, ethnic, sexual, gender, or others). In the specific field of public policies, for example, some groups have come to suffer great disadvantages in relation to issues relating to access to healthcare and to new medical technologies. Likewise, in the case of international clinical studies, the differences between individuals and groups have become indispensable elements that need to be considered in relation to protecting research subjects and also in relation to the distribution of the benefits resulting from such studies.

The complementary and interdependent nature of the 28 principles that make up the Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights (UNESCO 2005), which form part of a cohesive and harmonic text, is evident from article 11 of the Declaration, for which the title is “NonDiscrimination and Non-Stigmatization”: “No individual or group should be discriminated against or stigmatized for any reason; such actions constitute violation of human dignity, human rights and fundamental freedoms.” This article not only deals with discrimination and stigmatization in a combined and complementary manner but also enunciates that, depending on the format and origin, these practices constitute violations of article 3 of this Declaration, which deals with “Human Dignity, Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms,” which need to be respected in their entirety.

It is not possible to dissociate the different forms of negative discrimination from the concept of human dignity. Discrimination begins when respect for dignity is denied. In practice, discrimination simply excludes dignity and vice versa. Discrimination is in itself an act of violation of human dignity. It is only produced and only takes concrete form to the extent that dignity is removed from the other person, which occurs when the other person becomes diminished with regard to what makes him a human being and when he is made to feel inferior as a person and below the level of the other individuals who make up a given society.

On the other hand, an expanded analysis on discrimination in its ethical context cannot be conducted without also focusing on the other side of the coin, i.e., the manifestation that emerged in the second half of the last century and has become recognized as positive or affirmative discrimination. There are now several forms of positive discrimination that, in simple terms, consist of doing more for those who have less and who therefore need more. The principle of these practices is based on development of supplementary measures and efforts to favor populations that lack resources, so as to integrate them into the mainstream and help them to find this mainstream again (Castel 2007).

The principle of nondiscrimination and nonstigmatization that is included in UNESCO’s Universal Declaration on Bioethics is therefore central to the contemporary bioethics agenda. In this regard, the objective of the present research paper was to develop the concept of discrimination on the basis of the two strands set forth above (negative and positive), through focusing on their ethics.

Brief History

The verb to discriminate historically has meant to distinguish, separate, or pick out. In turn, the noun discrimination includes not only these interpretations but also the word segregate, which for the context of bioethics has special interest.

From ancient times until the last century, the word discrimination was interpreted exclusively in a negative sense. In other words, it could be understood that a discriminatory practice would signify an action that related especially to segregation. Within a given social context, individuals or groups of people with certain physical characteristics, certain diseases, or certain psychological or behavioral traits that this society judged to be negative for collective coexistence would be seen as “different” and would therefore be “separated,” “segregated,” or “discriminated” in relation to what would be considered to be the “normal” coexistence of other people.

There are many well-known examples of this, starting from the earliest times. They relate to different forms of discrimination, especially toward people with certain cultural or physical characteristics or certain diseases, who become stigmatized by cultures and governments, reaching the point (even in more recent times and in certain situations) of requiring these individuals to be completely isolated and separated from the coexistence of the society surrounding them.

The egalitarian principles that provide the standards for social life are now recognized as having begun in the West with the liberal revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Nonetheless, significant changes in relation to the topic of discrimination only occurred in a visible manner in the second half of the twentieth century. This sociological novelty was based on advances that had been observed in the behavior of contemporary societies and within the international context relating to human rights, along with recognition and better comprehension of the notion that difference was not synonymous with inequality. From this, a new type of discrimination emerged, with an epistemological meaning exactly opposite to the one laid out above: positive discrimination. This new interpretational format had the objective (among others) of compensating for the differences that led certain individuals and groups who had historically been harmed through segregationist practices (i.e., through negative discriminatory practices). They would thus start to receive some forms of compensation in relation both to exercising their individual and collective rights and to the time lost for their personal growth or their growth within the group or within society.

These compensatory mechanisms and practices for individual and collective rights became known as affirmative action and emerged specifically in the United States in the 1960s, as a means of promoting equality between blacks and whites. This term was used for the first time by the Afro-American official Hobart Taylor, who served in the administration of President John F. Kennedy, to describe the Fair Employment Practices Commission, which would enable an individual who had been discriminated against because of his race to file a complaint with the Commission. However, because the processes of investigating complaints were very slow, the results were practically zero. Then, in 1964, the US Congress approved Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which had the aim of prohibiting the discrimination suffered at work by racial minorities (especially blacks) and by women. Nevertheless, the first criterion for defining affirmative action was determined only in the subsequent decade. Through this criterion, employers located in strategic demographic areas began to receive instructions to offer jobs to qualified people who belonged to different racial groups, within flexible objectives, and for lengths of time that were also flexible, because in this way the racial representation of these groups within the company would be more significant. The US Supreme Court upheld this plan, and in 1974, an executive order also placing women under the protection of the 1964 Act was signed, thereby prohibiting gender-based discrimination. Discrimination based on age (“The Age Discrimination in Employment Act”) and disability (“The Americans with Disabilities Act”) and the principle of equal remuneration for the same work (“The Equal Pay Act”) were also included in this context (Walters 1996).

Commencing from these initial steps, other initiatives started to be developed along the same lines, and the central concept of the proposal that served as the basis for so-called positive discrimination then started to be incorporated into the legislation of other countries, in different regions of the world. However, despite all the efforts to the contrary and the advances seen in the field of universal human rights, a variety of forms of negative discrimination continue to exist in different places, to a greater or lesser extent, at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Identity, Diversity, Difference, And Tolerance

Before starting to specifically study the forms of negative and positive discrimination, it is helpful to reflect on certain structural components that these correlate with, in order to better understand their essence. Among these, four are especially important: identity, diversity, difference, and tolerance.

The process of identity formation, whether among individuals or among groups, is a social construction that takes place through the relationships that are established with other people. The process of individuation, through which a person’s own identity is configured, is one in which individuals note the contrasts and differences between themselves and other people. An individual’s identity is constituted in relation to other people’s identities. It is through this experience of otherness, from being viewed by others and from viewing others, that people can view and perceive themselves. This self-knowledge that the relationship with otherness enables is the same that is processed in relation to the culture or identity of the group.

Recognition of identity is the indispensable condition for its effective construction. Individuation of subjectivity requires the views of others. Denial of recognition to someone (i.e., another person) is to deny complete human development to that person. Some authors have advocated that recognition is central to constituting identity, thereby suggesting that deprivation of this recognition would be a factor in building a damaged, distorted, and reduced identity, which would give such individuals a reason for negative feelings about themselves. Recognition is a basic human need, not a simple courtesy (Taylor 1994).

The question of recognition can be seen better in relation to individuals who have behavior that can be considered to be “different” (or “deviant” according people who are more prejudiced), such as homosexuality or prostitution. The social invisibility through which people who form part of these two “different” contexts seek to keep themselves included within the prevailing social mainstream, as an attempt to cover up their true identity, and their consequent nonrecognition, is a source of distress that has a strong negative impact on these individuals’ self-esteem (Godoy and Garrafa 2014). Organizing themselves as groups is one of the ways in which these people deal with the social isolation that they each experience individually, which results from fear of prejudice and discrimination, with the aim of seeking social recognition. This entire complex process makes it possible to form a “group identity” as conceptualized by Castell (2001), through restoration of proper respect for the individuals who form part of that group.

The concept of identity evokes the idea of diversity, which translates into the differences of class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc. Differences are a source of conflict and favor the emergence of a variety of phenomena that have already been mentioned, such as ethnocentrism, racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, and so on. Around the world today, and especially in the West, thinking has started to be more flexible in relation to comprehending and accepting differences and toward the social heterogeneity experienced by individuals in their day-to-day lives in their districts, cities, or countries, at work, in leisure activities, at school, or at university. There are many diverse manners of human existence, and this plurality leads to the assumption that all human beings should have freedom and equality of rights, so as to live and think according to their values, beliefs, and choices. People are, at the same time, equal and different. They are equal as a consequence of this human condition, which makes them deserving of the same consideration and respect, and holders of the same rights. However, at the same time, they are singular, which makes them necessarily different. The differences need to be recognized and must not be a cause of prejudice, discrimination, or inequality.

Charles Taylor (1994) and Axel Honneth (2003), two contemporary theoretical reference points relating to studies on recognition, advocated that recognition is important for forming identity. Both of them stated that deprivation of recognition is a factor in building a damaged, distorted, and reduced identity, as well as being an element in feelings of negative self-regard.

Recognition of the plurality or diversity of human existence is also a recommendation for exercising the virtue of tolerance. As a virtue to be observed, tolerance involves the political and social arrangements that are capable of providing peaceful coexistence of groups and individuals. This has been considered to be an essential virtue for democracy and is indissolubly linked to human rights.

According to Walzer (1999), tolerance makes differences possible and differences make tolerance necessary. Tolerance, or respect for differences, is grounded in recognition of the essential equality between humans and in the intrinsic nature of human dignity, i.e., the intrinsic value of each human being that makes each individual deserve absolute respect. However, this term may acquire negative interpretations when it is understood as mere condescending acceptance of something that is considered to be an error or vice, i.e., “an evil to be tolerated.” In this regard, tolerance comes to have a meaning of condemnation, and not of respect for others, in their differences and dignity.

It is also possible to attribute to tolerance the meaning of passive acceptance of something that ought to be unacceptable, for example, tolerance of repugnant practices that, because they harm human dignity, should not be tolerated. The risk of using this term in this acceptance was highlighted by Bobbio (2004), who warned against using tolerance as a means of maintaining the status quo, to the detriment of necessary changes. The following dilemma arises at this point: to what extent should intolerant people be tolerated?

Thus, tolerance can be a process forming a continual spectrum going from resigned acceptance of differences in order to preserve the peace to more substantive acceptance of differences, in which mutual respect occupies a higher position (Walzer 1999). The essence of tolerance is respect for differences, but at the same time, it is founded on the intrinsic equality between human beings, which consists of recognizing other people, in their differences and singularities, as equal.

In other words, this is the concept of otherness, which carries within itself the recognition of the other person as simultaneously equal and different.

Negative Discrimination

To analyze negative discrimination, it is essential to correlate it with two other situations that are very close to it: prejudice and stigma. All of these three expressions represent the opposite of recognition of otherness and are understood as denial of tolerance, in the sense of disrespect for differences.

The meaning of prejudice relates to unfair, restrictive, and negative attitudes toward other people or groups of people. On the other hand, although the concept of discrimination literally means “treating someone differently,” it can be understood to be the manifestation of behavior generally presented by prejudiced people, which is expressed through adopting preferential standards for members of their own group and/or rejection of the members of other groups. In turn, stigma was defined by Goffman (1980) as a profoundly depreciative characteristic or attribute formed from a difference or deviation, which causes an effect of discrediting of the person with this characteristic. Stigma belittles the person who has this, thereby attributing less value to this person than to others, besmirching his own human dignity, and diminishing his opportunities or chances in life. The reduction of the stigmatized person’s individuality dehumanizes him, such that his identity becomes defined by the stigma itself or confounded with him. For example, a person might become known by his attribute: schizophrenic person, leper, deaf person, person with AIDS, homosexual, etc.

Even though prejudice, discrimination, and stigma are conceptualized as personal traits or attributes, it is imperative to recognize that they are a social product from the structural conditions and power relationships that become established in real societies (Link and Phelan 2001; Parker and Aggleton 2001). Not all human differences are relevant from a social point of view and give rise to the three situations presented above. Link and Phelan (2001) preferred the term “label” to give greater explicitness to the idea that something is placed on someone, i.e., something that is determined externally, in order to avoid the trap of attributing meanings to discrimination and stigma that might express personal or natural traits. When a person is labeled and this label is associated with negative characteristics, there is a thought construction that disqualifies, rejects, and excludes him. Together, these processes determine that such individuals experience situations of great social disadvantage, through creation of structural discrimination that negatively affects the entire environment surrounding them.

Negative discrimination, which is closely and historically related to prejudice and stigma, thus marks out the person in question with an almost indelible defect. Being negatively discriminated against signifies being associated with a destiny based on characteristics that are not chosen but which other people place on such individuals as a form of stigma. According to Castel (2007), negative discrimination consists of distorted instrumentalization of otherness in favor of exclusion, and it has a relationship with the very concept of citizenship of a given population. In such situations, it reinforces the condition of inequality. In his view, ethnic minorities are discriminated against and stigmatized through the double disadvantage of race and class, which need to be combated simultaneously. From this stems the importance of the historical emergence of inverse employment, which will be addressed in the next topic and correlated with positive discrimination policies. These policies are directed toward diminishing certain distortions, such as school failure, unemployment, precarious conditions, social insecurity, and so on, with the prime objective of undoing inequality as a function of the social equality that is presumed to have been achieved.

The role of discrimination is central to the analysis of production and reproduction of power relationships, given that in addition to the individual dimension of each particular case, it is a product that not only reproduces but also amplifies inequalities. Discrimination can reproduce systems of hierarchy and dominance, in which these are related to social class, gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, thereby serving to create, maintain, or reinforce social inequalities. Even though discrimination is an individual experience that occurs through interpersonal relationships, it is the social structure (the way in which the society is organized) that creates the conditions for dominant groups to be able to impose their view of the world, their values, and their standards, to the detriment of minority or socially disadvantaged groups.

It is essential to emphasize that there is a close and interdependent relationship between discrimination and stigma. Discrimination is an inherent part of stigma because there would not be any stigma if there were no discrimination. Discrimination is the manifestation of stigma. It consists of all forms of exclusion or restriction, either through action or through omission, based on some stigmatizing attribute. When a person has been labeled and this label is associated with negative characteristics, the reasoning that is constructed disqualifies, rejects, and excludes this individual. This negative process diminishes and disqualifies, thereby determining that the stigmatized individual experiences situations of social disadvantage through creation of a structure that negatively affects the environment that surrounds these individuals. The possible negative consequences of discrimination and stigma include tense and uncomfortable social interactions, limited social networks, compromised quality of life, low self-esteem, depressive symptoms, unemployment, loss of income, etc. (Arboleda-Florez 2008).

Stigma and discrimination therefore have a double characteristic: on the one hand, they constitute an individual experience that is had in microsocial spaces; and on the other hand, they represent a social process that is determined through macrosocial structures involving relationships of power and domination. Whatever the dimension considered might be, this is always an experience that involves social interactions. The eminently social nature of discrimination and stigma has implications for the field of bioethics, given that it requires that bioethics should incorporate analysis on broader social structures so that the production processes for the two problems analyzed here and their implications for people’s lives can be better comprehended.

Individuals who are discriminated against lack respect for themselves, personal power, autonomy, and the capacity for self-determination over their own lives. Their chances within the context of their society are further diminished through their feeling that they do not belong to this oppressive society and do not possess any rights. As a consequence of this entire set of factors, discrimination increases the vulnerability of these individuals and groups, which has a direct repercussion on their health conditions. In this field, for example, some diseases give rise to discrimination among individuals affected by them, thereby reducing the chances of treatment precisely because of the stigma that accompanies the disease. Many patients with certain types of mental diseases who would benefit from treatment end up no longer seeking healthcare services because of their fear of being identified as having mental diseases and suffering the consequences from a label of this nature. Refusal to seek healthcare or low adherence to treatments are factors associated with discrimination and stigma, among other factors, and this has been observed in relation to several diseases, such as HIV/AIDS, leprosy, several types of mental diseases, tuberculosis, and so on.

According to Bourdieu (1989), if all cultural meanings and practices encompass interests and signal social distinctions between individuals, groups, and institutions, few meanings and practices do this as clearly as done by discrimination, stigma, and stigmatization. Thus, both discrimination and stigma operate not only in relation to differences but also, even more clearly, in relation to social and structural inequalities. It can be seen that both situations play a key role in transforming differences into inequalities and, in principle, can function in relation to any of the main axes of the structural inequality, seen from an intercultural angle.

Not only does all this reflective effort contribute toward comprehending that discrimination is part of a complex social initiative relating to the structures of inequality, but also the notions of power, inequality, and hegemony help in understanding how individuals who have been discriminated against and stigmatized by society accept and even internalize the processes to which they are subjected. Precisely because they are subject to an oppressive system that often legitimates the inequalities of power, based on different understandings of life and values, oppressed and marginalized individuals or groups unfortunately still have very limited capacity to face up to the structures and forces that discriminate against them.

Positive Discrimination

Positive discrimination is understood as an initiative or set of initiatives and exception measures that are promoted with the purpose of preventing or eliminating different forms of discrimination and/or compensating for disadvantages resulting from the prevailing discriminatory structures and attitudes, thereby promoting equality of opportunity for all individuals without distinction. It is a type of discrimination that has the aim of selecting individuals who are in situations of disadvantage and treating them unequally so as to favor them with some type of measure that would leave them less unequal. It is a process that seeks to make society more egalitarian, through diminishing the imbalances that exist in certain social groups.

There are some forms of positive discrimination that consist of providing more to those who have less. These are initiatives that seek to develop supplementary efforts favoring populations that lack resources and access to assets that are indispensable for developing a dignified life. The aim is to integrate these individuals into the mainstream, thereby helping them to reencounter this stream (Castel 2007).

This emerging theoretical variant in studies on discrimination is based on strong sociological connotations, since its practical development takes into consideration the differences observed in certain groups of individuals in seeking concrete responses or measures for their problems or needs. This is a set of structural mechanisms through which ways of dealing with the problems detected in the groups that most lack the conditions for fully developing their lives are sought. From the characteristics and/or situations of these groups, exception measures can be recommended so as to remove them from their initial situation of relative or total exclusion, without harming other individuals or groups.

The concept of positive discrimination makes it possible to discuss new public policies and new laws. Today, at the beginning of the twenty-first century in democratic regimes, this topic has been included in the context of discussions on theories of justice. Measures of this nature, as was stated above, make the assumption of providing unequal treatments so as to make the opportunities equal for less favorable groups. With the passage of the years, this concept has been incorporated into the legislation of different countries, especially through quotas that make it compulsory for institutions to incorporate excluded and stigmatized minorities in legally established proportions.

It can be stated that over recent decades, focused compensatory policies have become a significant part of public actions relating to inequalities. These initiatives have been based on the appropriateness of concentrating budgetary efforts on the population segments that most need interventional action from the state. This new criterion for redistribution of public resources implies significant changes in relation to the universal models for public service provision based on reciprocity that makes the assumption of the right to citizenship, moving toward philanthropic logic based on the asymmetrical mentoring relationship between those who give and those who receive. This model has been strongly backed and disseminated by international organizations such as the World Bank.

In the case of some Latin American countries, for example, resorting to the concept of equity (for which one of the meanings consists of providing unequal treatment for unequal individuals so that they might thus become equal to other individuals) has justified the introduction of differentiated treatments. Along this line of ideas, equity is considered to be the start of the path toward equality, and equality is the arrival point for social justice.

However, according to some authors, rather than strengthening equality, positive discriminatory actions end up relativizing it, with a view more toward containment of poverty than toward promotion of the more disfavored social sectors (Saviani 1998). In the view of these authors, these policies have only increased the resources destined for education among the less favored sectors but have not made the educational opportunities equal between different social groups: not in relation to supplies, not in relation to living conditions, and even less so in relation to the concrete results from transforming these people’s lives (Reimers-Arias 2000).

Affirmative Actions

The expression “affirmative action” was defined to designate the concrete measures capable of providing different forms of positive discrimination. In practice, these actions constitute a set of legal measures and social policies that aim to diminish or alleviate the various forms of discrimination that limit the opportunities of certain social groups. Action of this nature can be considered to be either voluntary effort or compulsory action imposed by governments or public or private institutions in order to address discrimination and promote equality of opportunity in different fields such as education and access to employment, with public jobs reserved for individuals with special needs (physical disabilities) and other actions.

Affirmative action is considered to be a special temporary measure, generally determined by the state but also through other initiatives. Its purpose is to eliminate or at least diminish historically accumulated inequalities, thereby ensuring equality of opportunity and treatment. Moreover, such actions seek to compensate for losses caused by discrimination and marginalization, which have come from a variety of causes, as already mentioned.

Thus, affirmative action aims to combat the accumulated effects from discrimination that occurred in the past. Affirmative action outside of the state’s structures also exists, developed by institutions within civil society that have sufficient autonomy to be able to make decisions regarding their internal procedures, such as political parties, trade unions, and central union organizations, schools, churches, companies, etc. In this regard, affirmative action may or may not be temporary, depending on the standards through which such action was created.

Nonetheless, it is important to note that affirmative action should not be confounded with positive discrimination itself. Whereas affirmative action consists of initiatives, incentive measures, and support for specific groups of people to whom they are destined, positive discrimination introduces into the legislation unequal treatment for individuals who are formally equal, such as reservation of a certain number of places in universities or in the public education network, for students who are Afro-descendants.


The two forms of discrimination dealt with in the present text have different origins and meanings. Whereas negative discrimination removes, segregates, and in a certain manner even incriminates people and communities, positive discrimination seeks to diminish the various forms of inequality and injustice through affirmative action and other corrective measures.

Although a large proportion of the contemporary world has assimilated the doctrine of universal human rights, which defends respect for human dignity, especially since the middle of the twentieth century, different forms of discrimination against individuals and communities continue to be recorded around the world every day.

Inclusion of the principle of nondiscrimination and nonstigmatization on the global bioethics agenda at the time of approval of UNESCO’s Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights in 2005 was, without any doubt, timely. This drew international attention to this topic and gave it greater visibility, with the aim of diminishing discrimination, prejudice, and stigma, along with increasing the level of comprehension among societies, cultures, and countries toward diversity, differences, and tolerance.

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