Selective Discrimination

In the US we supposedly:

prohibit discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, or age in hiring, promoting, firing, setting wages, testing, training, apprenticeship, and all other terms and conditions of employment.

I am struck by several related facts:

1. We allow such discrimination by employees choosing jobs,
2. We allow such discrimination in other relations, e.g., marriage.
3. We aren’t much interested in banning looks-based discrimination, though the evidence for bias there is as strong as anywhere:

According to a national poll by the Employment Law Alliance in 2005, 16 percent of workers reported being victims of appearance discrimination more generally — a figure comparable to the percentage who in other surveys say they have experienced sex or race discrimination. …

When people are asked to rate an individual’s attractiveness, their responses are quite consistent, even across race, sex, age, class and cultural background. Facial symmetry and unblemished skin are universally admired. Men get a bump for height, women are favored if they have hourglass figures, and racial minorities get points for light skin color, European facial characteristics and conventionally “white” hairstyles. … Unattractive people are less likely than their attractive peers to be viewed as intelligent, likable and good. …

Unattractive people are less likely to be hired and promoted, and they earn lower salaries, even in fields in which looks have no obvious relationship to professional duties. … For lawyers, such prejudice can translate to a pay cut of as much as 12 percent. When researchers ask people to evaluate written essays, the same material receives lower ratings for ideas, style and creativity when an accompanying photograph shows a less attractive author. Good-looking professors get better course evaluations from students; teachers in turn rate good-looking students as more intelligent. …

In studies that simulate legal proceedings, unattractive plaintiffs receive lower damage awards. … [Researchers] gave students case studies involving real criminal defendants and asked them to come to a verdict and a punishment for each. The students gave unattractive defendants prison sentences that were, on average, 22 months longer than those they gave to attractive defendants. …

Already, one state (Michigan) and six local jurisdictions (the District of Columbia; Howard County, Md.; San Francisco; Santa Cruz, Calif.; Madison, Wis.; and Urbana, Ill.) have banned [appearance] discrimination. … All make exceptions for reasonable business needs. Such bans have not produced a barrage of loony litigation or an erosion of support for civil rights remedies generally. (more)

Consider Matt Zeitlin:’s argument for not banning such discrimination:

Tall people can expect a substantial earnings premium over shorter people on account of their height. … genes that make them tall; well proportioned facial features and so on — have, in themselves, no real moral content and thus people’s claims to the goods gained due to these features are weaker than they think they are. But the disparities exist anyway, and are probably too deeply entrenched to be redressed through discrimination suits. So this just leaves us with, to evoke Yglesias, “higher taxes to finance more and better public services.”

What, racial and gender disparities are not deeply entrenched?  And how exactly do the ugly benefit more from public services?  The evidence cited above shows government provided law and education discriminate against them.  Sigh.

I despair of finding a way to see our general pattern of which discriminations we allow as an application of some general moral principle. Instead it seems more likely that recent cultural [i.e., media, academic, law] elites preferred to discourage the types of discrimination that favored their cultural/political rivals, while retaining the types that favored them, their existing allies, or natural “enemy of my enemy” allies.  For example, since today’s cultural elites tend to be pretty, they have little interest in preventing discrimination against the ugly.  Prohibiting discrimination against the ugly would not give those elites more or stronger allies.

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  • david

    But black or gay people are cultural elites? Oookay.

    • Aron

      Cultural elites, like businesses, protect their asses but they have to do that intelligently, including bending to popular backlash when it occurs. Greasy wheels can actually awaken a moral concern if they squeak well enough. Short and ugly people don’t organize into politically vocal groups. It seems the target should be explaining that.

      • Aron

        I didn’t intend to make the above a reply to david.

    • http://www.angryblog.org Brian Moore

      I don’t think that’s what he said. He said:

      ” Instead it seems more likely that recent cultural [i.e., media, academic, law] elites preferred to discourage the types of discrimination that favored their cultural/political rivals, while retaining the types that favored them, their existing allies, or natural “enemy of my enemy” allies. ”

      Which would be more accurately translated to: “cultural elites consider black and gay people to be their allies.” Which is certainly true, and good! I don’t think this post is advocating that they shouldn’t; rather that they should, by their own logic, also consider unattractive, fat, short, asymmetrical people their allies as well, since they too experience extensive discrimination.

  • http://herebetigers.wordpress.com PeterW

    That is it, I think. Here’s Tyler Cowen on the same: http://ragandbonebuffet.blogspot.com/2007/04/whose-inequality.html

    Wednesday I was in The City and out of The Suburbs. It is always startling how much better looking people are in The City, and how much looks matter there. These same good-looking people are left-wing Democrats to a high degree. They are reveling in the primordial inequality, namely that of looks and social alliances. Inequalities of wealth are of more recent vintage, from an evolutionary point of view. It is interesting how well young Democrats do at this inequality game and with what enthusiasm; only a few southern Republican women can rival them.

  • mattmc

    If you look at how the government pays people, the GS step scale, it looks clearly like setting wages based on age. Some have used this to explain why it is difficult for them to attract talented young people to technical positions, since they can’t pay for their skills.

  • Popeye

    Gee, I wonder why black people vote Democrat.

  • Robert Koslover

    1. We allow such discrimination by employees choosing jobs,
    2. We allow such discrimination in other relations, e.g., marriage.
    3. We aren’t much interested in banning looks-based discrimination, though the evidence for bias there is as strong as anywhere:

    Sigh. I’m sure they’ll get to those categories eventually. Meanwhile, please stop giving statist busybodies more ideas. And for the record, I say this as a near-sighted, vertically-challenged, orthodonture-lacking, multi-allergic -American who has suffered long enough!

  • josh

    Who? Whom?

    Duh.

  • http://bbot.org/blog/ bbot

    >Tall people can expect a substantial earnings premium over shorter people on account of their height. … genes that make them tall; well proportioned facial features and so on — have, in themselves, no real moral content and thus people’s claims to the goods gained due to these features are weaker than they think they are.

    Point of order: As the laws of physics are deterministic, and free will does not exist, discriminating based on any criterion, including competence, is without “moral content.” The point is to exclude factors that are immaterial to the ability of the applicant to do the job, not factors that they cannot change.

    • Vladimir M.

      bbot:

      The point is to exclude factors that are immaterial to the ability of the applicant to do the job, not factors that they cannot change.

      Trouble is, many attributes that are by themselves immaterial to job performance are correlated with it for numerous reasons, so in a world of imperfect information, it is rational for employers to use them for sorting out applicants. (Arguably even education largely falls into this category.)

  • http://robertwiblin.wordpress.com Robert Wiblin

    This seems a weak explanation as past elites were not ‘minority’ race, members of weird religions (except Jewish), foreigners from bad countries or disabled.

  • http://longgame.org/ Matt Warren

    I wonder about how these inherent biases have driven our evolution. We appear to seek social correction for some of them. The interest is in the perception (and, sometimes, reality) of fairness.

    I’m not sure how I feel about this, but thanks for once again stretching my brain around something mildly disturbing. My alternate name for your blog is: Really cool, interesting stuff that makes you smarter and more depressed.

    🙂 Best,

  • Vladimir M.

    I’m surprised you’re not noticing the ultimate contradiction in this regard: the fact that the visa system for foreigners discriminates based on nationality. Whichever country you live in, including the U.S., citizens of some countries are allowed to visit your country whenever they please and can just show up at a port of entry, while others have to pass through a costly and tedious process of obtaining visas, which can be (and often are) denied on all sorts of pretexts. Of course, this system has lots of practical justification, but according to any reasonable interpretation of the principles that people evoke when they argue why sexual, racial, or religious discrimination is bad, it should be seen as an injustice that cries to high Heaven.

    The argument that nationality is easier to change than sex or race falls flat, since the modern consensus view is that religion, certainly far more easily changeable than nationality, is also a ground on which it is immoral to discriminate regardless of practical concerns. Another sometimes heard argument — that anti-discrimination principles apply only to citizens — is also unsound, since a hypothetical visa regime that explicitly treated some group of foreigners worse based on some category protected from discrimination would undoubtedly be decried as discriminatory.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    david and Robert, gay folks are clearly more allied with left cultural elites today. Supporting blacks clearly helped solidify black support for them, and jews are the main beneficiary of bans on religious discrimination. Women now support left elites more, and bans on gender discrimination are probably partly to credit, though apparently gender was added to the initial US bill because the right guessed incorrectly that the left wouldn’t go that far.

    • Popeye

      So in other words, this is post 3,202 in a series indicating that although people who disagree with you claim to have moral principles, they are actually just self-serving hypocrites. At this point I’m curious: is there anyone in this world who is truly principled? Other than yourself, that is?

    • Jess Riedel

      Are you arguing that the Left only codified anti-discrimination rights for some group because those group would then support the Left in future elections? And our evidence for this is that those groups now support the Left?

      If so, why didn’t the Left support protections for the unattractive in the hopes of winning their support?

      Yes, the lack of protections for the unattractive, the socially awkward, and the unconventional seems very difficult to reconcile philosophically with the protections given to other groups, but I see little evidence that the laws directly served the elite proponents or their allies.

    • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

      Robin, I am surprised you don’t notice the problem with mentioning “today”. Mightn’t one expect that by prohibiting some kind of discrimination will result in support* from a group, and so your theory would not have been able to predict in advance which groups it would apply to?

      *That actually seems rather weak in the case of blacks, who don’t necessarily hold many of the other values of the cultural elite. They do vote Dem (expected from the poor anyway), but so did southern whites! The actual effect of V.R.A gerrymandering and the end of the “solid south” has been to benefit the Republican party (which I believe gave more support to the C.R.A at the time).

  • lemmy caution

    Workplace discrimination is not typically short, fat or ugly peoples biggest disadvantage. Their biggest disadvantage is getting mates and friends. Even then the trend appears to be that workplace protection may be extended to discrimination on looks.

    Instead it seems more likely that recent cultural elites preferred to discourage the types of discrimination that favored their cultural competitors, while retaining the types that favored them or their allies.

    This seems wrong. People who want to extend discrimination laws to appearance discrimination are called liberals. Look at the locations that already outlaw appearance discrimination. I suspect that for the city/suburb reasons peterW mentions and the fact that conservatives skew older, liberals, if anything, are going to be more attractive on average than conservatives. Ironically, since conservatives really don’t mind discriminating based on appearance, female conservative pundits are in general more attractive than female liberal pundits.

  • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

    I despair of finding a way to see our general pattern of which discriminations we allow as an application of some general moral principle.

    Um, why would you expect to find such a thing?

    Our antidiscrimination laws are the product of historical and political processes, and as such there is no particular reason to think they are based on some prior abstract principle, any more than the original discrimination they are intended to remedy was.

  • http://silasx.blogspot.com Silas Barta

    Well, at least laws against lookism still have a better chance than laws banning discrimination against (high-functioning) autistics…

  • noematic

    It is usually easy to determine minorities. It would be a far more unpleasant and complicated process to label ugly people as such, so as to then enforce antidiscrimination laws in their favor. Perhaps that first step is too unappealing to both those being discriminated against and those who would champion/ enforce such laws, for it to be successful social policy.

    Also, I imagine that few ugly people would recognise themselves as ugly and consequently, may not even appreciate that such a policy is to their benefit.

    • Robert Koslover

      I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that many, many young people applying to enroll in our most-competitive universities would be happy to check off a box describing themselves as “appearance disadvantaged,” if it were to result in them receiving preferential treatment (aka affirmative action) in the selection process. Likewise, they would be happy to check that box if it made them more eligible for financial aide. Does anyone disagree? Now, one might think that people could be dissuaded from such tricks if they had to pass some kind of ugliness test. But that could underestimating the creative options to achieve ugliness. Here’s one relevant link: http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/world/2006-08/02/content_655782.htm Law of unintended consequences?

  • Hrm

    The entire way we think about human attributes in the first place is screwed up. When it comes to discrimination laws (not speech, which should receive no special restrictions except for security [fire in the theater, etc.]), we should throw out the giant lists of individual inherent qualities and use only a behavior system. You can only discriminate against people whose behavior violates the harm principle or who will put you in danger (like not allowing them into your store if they have a known communicable disease). The whole “you can’t discriminate against this group or that group” list-method is unwieldy and silly.

  • Michael Sullivan

    One thing to note is that while some aspects of people’s response to appearance appears to be genetic or nearly universal, a great deal of it is affected by social fashions. The dominant social fashion in appearance has historically been that any aspect of your appearance which makes you look more like the elite is considered attractive. It may be that cultural elites will *always* be considered more attractive, almost by definition. Today’s ugly would become tomorrow’s pretty, if entrance to the elite were encouraged for the ugly and denied for the good looking.

  • http://infiniteinjury.org Peter Gerdes

    It’s an interesting question as to what makes the normal kinds of discrimination troubling and continued racial/sexual inequality problematic while the equally undeserved disadvantages faced by the set of unlucky people or children of alcoholics, problem gamblers or the like don’t seem as harmful. I mean for some reason we seem to think it’s a significant social failure that statistically black children go to worse schools and have fewer opportunities even though some children will always go to the worst schools and have the least resources through no fault of their own. I mean presumably the welfare of blacks and whites are equally important so other things being equal things are no worse if blacks tend to be worse off than whites provided the overall proportions of rich and poor aren’t altered.

    While counterintuitive I think the answer is simple. It’s the awareness and reactions to racial inequality that actually account for the harms. If we simply couldn’t percieve race it would make no difference if race correlated with welfare. The problem is that people strongly identify with their race, ethnicity or gender and hence experience outrage, anger and fear of unfair treatment when they notice racial inequality. Moreover, this awareness exacerbates racial tensions.

    This suggests, therefore, that we should be most inclined to regulate discriminatory behavior or address inequality when people strongly identify with the groups in question so race, gender and religion are likely canidates while in the US height and looks are not. Our families and friends often share our race and religion but aren’t always the same height as us or as good/bad looking so we interpret inequality here as less of a threat to our ‘tribe’ (gender is a bit more complicated but similar).

    This also suggests it is those activities which intuitively strike us as inflicting harm on members of our tribe that would be the best to regulate. Being denied a job provokes a strong empathetic response in us, being unable to hire someone does not. Similarly marriage based choices don’t tend to strike us as inflicting a harm. It’s sad when someone turns your friend down for a date but as long as they do so nicely it doesn’t strike us as if they had been attacked.

    • Popeye

      You may want to consider historical facts such as slavery and Jim Crow. The Civil Rights Act wasn’t passed in a vacuum.

  • cournot

    Since cultural elites’ main competition were varieties of what we now call red-state whites it makes sense that they supported anti-discrimination laws as a way of building a coalition against the older, more traditional white median voter.

    In addition, the general trend towards making physical violence illegal or immoral preserves the privileges of cognitive elites who are good at verbal and legal persuasion and coercion. The whole trend in modern society that favors state based law and bureaucracy and just plain talk over more traditional forms of conflict and control matches the shift in elite power from the warrior leader to the politician persuader.

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  • http://robertwiblin.wordpress.com Robert Wiblin

    Why only serve the people who support you already, rather than potential people who might support you, like the ugly? Most likely is that people identifying as members of the protected groups (they have little choice) can coordinate to exchange their political power for status and protection from discrimination. But nobody publicly identifies as ‘ugly’ because it looks bad, and so there’s no way for them to lobby or organise to get the protection they would benefit from.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    i’d like to see somewhat more complex models played with. beware of binary instead of polymodal models.

  • J

    “even in fields in which looks have no obvious relationship to professional duties. … For lawyers”

    For trial lawyers, looks definitely have a relationship to professional duties.

    “I was in The City and out of The Suburbs. It is always startling how much better looking people are in The City, and how much looks matter there. These same good-looking people are left-wing Democrats”

    I’m guessing “The Suburbs” you’re talking about are (very) lower middle class at best. Also, you’re probably confusing youth with attractiveness; the percentage of attractive people declines significantly with age. A pretty solid majority of the really attractive women in their 20s I know or work with lean pretty solidly democrat; the ratio reverses dramatically for really attractive 45+ women.

    “We aren’t much interested in banning looks-based discrimination, though the evidence for bias there is as strong as anywhere”

    I don’t know whether that can ever happen, but you’d need to give it time in any case. Explicit racial discrimination was only outlawed fairly recently, and even now we live in one of the few cultures that regards racial discrimination as wrong or even abnormal.