Revisiting Harmless Discrimination


In a co-authored piece with Adam Slavny, I argued that any promising account of the wrongness of discrimination must focus not only on the harmful outcomes of discriminatory acts but also on the deliberation of the discriminator and in particular on the reasons that motivate or fail to motivate her action. In this brief paper, I defend this conclusion against an objection that has recently been pressed against our view by Richard Arneson. This task is important not only because Arneson’s objection is an intriguing one, but also -- and more importantly -- because my response sheds further light on the content and structure of an attractive theory of wrongful discrimination, as well as on more fundamental ideas in moral philosophy.

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  1. 1.

    Kasper Lippert-Rasmussen, Born Free and Equal: A Philosophical Inquiry into the Nature of Discrimination (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 154–155.

  2. 2.

    Adam Slavny and Tom Parr, ‘Harmless Discrimination’, Legal Theory, 21 (2015), 100-114.

  3. 3.

    Slavny and Parr, ‘Harmless Discrimination’, 113-114.

  4. 4.

    Richard Arneson, ‘Discrimination and Harm’ in Kasper Lippert-Rasmussen (ed.), Routledge Handbook of the Ethics of Discrimination (London: Routledge, 2017), 151–163.

  5. 5.

    This is a variation of a case described in Arneson, ‘Discrimination and Harm’, 156–157. See also the case of Cambridge University 3 in Slavny and Parr, ‘Harmless Discrimination’, 109.

  6. 6.

    For this reply, see D. C. Matthew, ‘Counterfactual Discrimination’, South African Journal of Philosophy, 36 (2017), 495–504 at 502 fn. 20. See also Arneson, ‘Discrimination and Harm’, 157 and Shlomi Segall, ‘What’s so Bad about Discrimination?’, Utilitas, 24 (2012), 82–100.

  7. 7.

    See Slavny and Parr, ‘Harmless Discrimination’, 106 and 108-109.

  8. 8.

    Arneson, ‘Discrimination and Harm’, 157.

  9. 9.

    Arneson, ‘Discrimination and Harm’, 157.

  10. 10.

    Thus Arneson is misunderstands our view when he writes, ‘The claim would be that, contra Slavny and Parr, these features of acts [involving bad intentions] are never sufficient to establish their wrongdoing’. See Arneson, ‘Discrimination and Harm’, 157.

  11. 11.

    For further discussion, see Victor Tadros, ‘Overdetermination and Obligation’ (unpublished manuscript.

  12. 12.

    For further discussion, see Tom Parr and Adam Slavny, ‘What’s Wrong with Risk?’ (unpublished manuscript).


For helpful discussions about the ideas that appear in this paper, I thank Kasper Lippert-Rasmussen, Adam Slavny, and Victor Tadros. I also thank the British Academy for a Small Research Grant (SG162565) that supported this research.

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Correspondence to Tom Parr.

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Parr, T. Revisiting Harmless Discrimination. Philosophia 47, 1535–1538 (2019).

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  • Discrimination
  • Harm
  • Richard Arneson
  • Intentions