“We are all Different”: Statistical Discrimination and the Right to be Treated as an Individual


There are many objections to statistical discrimination in general and racial profiling in particular. One objection appeals to the idea that people have a right to be treated as individuals. Statistical discrimination violates this right because, presumably, it involves treating people simply on the basis of statistical facts about groups to which they belong while ignoring non-statistical evidence about them. While there is something to this objection—there are objectionable ways of treating others that seem aptly described as failing to treat them as individuals—it needs to be articulated carefully. First, most people accept that many forms of statistical discrimination are morally unproblematic, let alone morally justified all things considered. Second, even treating people on the basis of putative non-statistical evidence relies on generalizations. Once we construe treating someone as an individual in a way that respects this fact, it becomes apparent: (1) that statistical discrimination is compatible with treating people as individuals, and (2) that one may fail to treat people as individuals even without engaging in statistical discrimination. Finally, there are situations involving the expression of messages of inclusion where we think it is good, morally speaking, that we are not treated as individuals.

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  1. 1.

    These are not the terms in which Thomas prefers to diagnose the moral objectionableness of the encounter. Some may “vigorously object to the idea of treating people on the basis of the group to which they belong rather than as individuals” (Thomas 1992: 31), but Thomas thinks that “it is next to impossible not to invoke group categories when assessing strangers” (Thomas 1992: 37) and that any stranger “should be treated on a group basis” (Thomas 1992: 37).

  2. 2.

    J. Angelo Corlett seems to have a similar objection in mind when he presses the objection against Michael Levin’s endorsement of certain kinds of racial profiling that Levin “seems to assume that young African-American men are mostly or all of one cloth” (Corlett 1993: 165).

  3. 3.

    Note that, as I construe the notion, treating someone as an individual is compatible with affirmative action, even if some forms of affirmative action may involve not treating people as individuals so construed.

  4. 4.

    Cavanagh writes that this not-treating-people-as-individuals objection is a line of argument that he has “come across countless times” (Cavanagh 2002: 209).

  5. 5.

    This is unlike statistical information about groups to which any given individual belongs.

  6. 6.

    “We may accept … the danger that we will be betrayed by friends or neighbors who bear false witness, mistaken for someone else because of appearance or manner, or seen to engage in innocent but suspicious activity. But we may feel outraged by being held liable merely because our association with a group, or our past conduct, makes us especially likely to have engaged in criminal or tortious acts” (Wasserman 1991: 940–941).

  7. 7.

    Levin takes a similar stance: “I have been arguing thus far as if there is an acceptable principle of individualism, the only question being who has a right to it. There is in fact no such principle. People are and must always be judged by the classes to which they belong, the traits they share with others” (Levin 1992: 23). Cavanagh dismisses the objection as well (Cavanagh 2002: 190–193).

  8. 8.

    Admittedly, one might add this bit to the right-hand side of the bi-conditional that defines treating someone as an individual in which case we have: “X treats Y as an individual if, and only if, (i) X’s treatment of Y is informed by all relevant information, statistical or non-statistical, reasonably available to X and (ii) X processes all of this formation in an unbiased way.” However, such an additional condition is not one that normally underlies complaints about failures to treat someone as an individual.

  9. 9.

    I set aside here the complication that I might be able to discriminate against all people who actually exist, provided I would treat all of them worse than other groups of people who might exist, but actually do not.

  10. 10.

    If you think that people carrying Rolex watches can complain of discrimination, suppose I stop and question all people carrying watches (or perhaps simply stop anyone I come across whether or not they carry watches).

  11. 11.

    A previous version of this paper was presented at a conference on Racial Profiling at Carlsberg Academy, Copenhagen, 20 May 2010. I thank Laurence Thomas and the participants in the conference for helpful comments and criticisms.


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Lippert-Rasmussen, K. “We are all Different”: Statistical Discrimination and the Right to be Treated as an Individual. J Ethics 15, 47–59 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10892-010-9095-6

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  • Generalizations
  • Justice
  • Racial profiling
  • Respect
  • Statistical discrimination
  • Treating as an individual