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When double standards work

This article appears in the issue May 2008, [Vol 17, Issue 5]

I’m sorry if you’re the guy who says things like "I’m totally in favor of equality for women. That’s why I don’t see why we have to give them special breaks" when it comes to promotions or hires. Or maybe it’s not women. Maybe it’s African-Americans, or recent immigrants, or maybe it’s all of them. As soon as you start denouncing the "double standard," you’ve lost me.

Let’s be completely clear about what people mean by a double standard. If two people are in similar situations and behaving similarly, to hold them to a single standard is to judge them equivalently. To condemn one and wink at the other is to use a double standard. Double standards are bad because they violate what seems to be the most basic rule of fairness: People ought to be treated the same, because we’re all equal.

So, if one of the people reporting to you is having more trouble than others with, say, writing a budget, you refuse to provide any extra help because it would be unfair? If you’re big and strong, you don’t offer to help the little, infirm person as he struggles to get his luggage into the overhead bin on the airplane? And if you’re an adult, you don’t pack a lunch for your five-year-old child but expect your teenager to pack his own damn lunch? And you don’t give the homeless guy on the corner a buck because you don’t give bucks to the shoppers passing him by?

Nah, you do help the infirm, make lunches for your little kids and occasionally give the homeless guy a buck or two. We all make reasonable decisions about how to treat people differently based upon their own abilities and needs. The stupidity of these examples makes clear the stupidity of simply saying that all people ought to be treated the same. A moment’s thought says that that’s not true.

Instead, we say that people ought to be treated the same if they are the same in relevant ways. And with that little phrase, we’ve just turned simply being fair into one of the hardest tasks we humans face. For what constitutes a relevant difference? Skin color is rarely relevant, but sometimes it is: Peter Cook and Dudley Moore used to do a pretty funny sketch about a one-legged man auditioning for the role of Tarzan, and it wouldn’t bother me to learn that Denzel Washington was auditioned for the role of Malcolm X but Sean Penn was not.

On the other hand, is anyone claiming that it was unfair for Cate Blanchett to get a role playing Bob Dylan even though she thereby deprived some male actor? Likewise, it’d clearly be unfair to use skin color to determine who got a job as, say, a scuba instructor, but not nearly as clearly unfair to consider whether the applicants have breathing disorders. I’m pretty sure most of us would also be OK with disqualifying paraplegics, the severely retarded, sufferers from Tourette syndrome who might scare off customers, and applicants who can’t swim. Such people differ from other applicants in respects that are relevant.

But the decision about what constitutes a relevant respect is often not so simple. In fact, such decisions involve our most basic ideas of justice, fairness and responsibility. Suppose both a Democratic governor and a Republican congressman are discovered to be "johns" of prostitutes in D.C. One is forced to resign or face expulsion. The other is forgiven and remains at his job. Is that a double standard? If that’s all we know, then, yes.

But perhaps how much money they each spent matters. Then again, maybe the governor is rich and the congressperson isn’t. Is it the amount of money or relative amount of money that counts, if either does? Suppose the governor is thought to have gone regularly while the congressperson confesses only to a couple of transgressions. Is that relevant? Suppose the governor was formerly a crusading prosecutor who busted up prostitution rings. Is that relevant because it makes him more of a hypocrite? I have my opinions, but so do you. Much of moral debate is precisely over what is relevant and what isn’t.

Indeed, much of moral understanding comes about precisely from seeing how complexly different our situations are. If all we had to consider were straightforward facts and behaviors, it’d be easy  to know what’s fair. But we instead have to look at details, and then at intentions and consequences. Then, to make it more complex still, we have to go beyond individual cases to look at history, social context and societal gains. Are whites and blacks generally in the same situation in this country economically? At work, are men and women really treated equally? Are there hidden or structural biases? Which are differences, which are relevant, how are they relevant and what difference do they make? The only way to discover this is to be extraordinarily sympathetic, open-minded and understanding. In other words, we’re never going to agree entirely. At best, we’re going to work hard at talking about these issues honestly.

At worst, we’re going to make superficial comparisons and talk about a double standard, thus hiding the complexity we need to consider if we’re going to be fair in ways that matter.

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