Those with discriminatory attitudes think about others not as who they are but as what they are not.

Many people have prejudices against other individuals. These prejudices lead them to treat those they have prejudices against worse than they would treat other individuals whom they don’t have prejudices against. We recognize these as cases of discrimination.

But what exactly is discrimination? Many people think, at first, that it means treating some people badly because they are, say, black or women. However, it’s not quite that simple.

Discrimination is not just suffered by humans of certain social groups. It can be suffered by any individual who can feel suffering and wellbeing –any conscious being. In order to be discriminated against, one simply needs to be able to be harmed or benefited by others.

It’s not just what you do

Discrimination does not necessarily have to involve treating someone badly. Suppose a man did no harm at all to, say, Native American people, but was prepared to help other people in ways in which he would never be willing to help Native Americans. That would be a case of discrimination against this group of people. Treating some individuals comparatively worse than others is discrimination.

It is also important to note that discrimination is not only about treating others in certain ways. It is also about the views we have about how they should be treated. So, suppose we never treat some individuals worse than we treat others, because we never have the chance to. But, still, we think they should be treated worse. In such a case we wouldn’t be treating others in a discriminatory way, but we would still be seeing them with discriminatory eyes. We would be considering them in a discriminatory manner.

Not all differential treatment is discriminatory

There are cases in which we treat some individuals worse than others without it being discriminatory. For example, I can do some work for a white person and not for a black person not because I’m racist, but simply because the white person is my boss. Now, that wouldn’t be discriminatory, because there would be a reason that justifies my differential treatment. But if my behavior towards them weren’t due to any justified reason, but for an unjustified reason such as the group they belong to or the color of their skin, that would be discrimination.

The worst discrimination is invisible

Nonhuman animals routinely suffer discrimination for not being members of our species. This discrimination entails that they are used as resources, and that they aren’t helped in cases in which humans would be. This type of discrimination is speciesism, which is discrimination against those who don’t belong to a certain species. Most people don’t see this as a case of discrimination because they view the world through a speciesist lens themselves. But, in fact, it’s the form of discrimination that has more victims than any other. At least a hundred billion victims a year suffer as a result of being exploited by us, and many others suffer unnecessarily from our utter disregard.

A thought experiment

Consider a scenario where two children are being abused. The first child is a cognitively normal, normally socialized person. She was kidnapped from her home and is held against her will, abused, and denied access to the outdoors and to normal human contact. She suffers from fear, pain, loneliness and hunger.

Would you help her if you could?

The second child does not have the same cognitive abilities as the first child and cannot speak any language. She is an orphan. But she is also held against her will, abused, and denied access to the outdoors and to normal social contact. She also suffers from fear, pain, loneliness and hunger.

Would you help her if you could?

If you were able to, would you help only the first child or the second as well? Are any of the differences between the two children morally relevant when deciding whether to help them or not?

Would your answer change if you knew the second child was a pig and not a human?

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