Suppose you know about the existence of a certain office
for clerical or administrative work and you also know (or would
expect it) that that office employs, and always has employed,
people of different heights: short, medium and tall. Now,
imagine that someone comes up to you and begins to tell you that
all short people working at that office lost their jobs.
Probably you would, then, wonder why the firm in question only
sent, or had to send, the short workers away, and what their
height has to do with it. But how come? Your informant never
told you that those workers who are not short did not lose
their jobs. That is what you made up yourself. As a matter of
fact (in our imaginary case) the office had to close down
(because the firm went bankrupt, say, or because the government
thought the firm had become superfluous), and that is why all
the workers were sacked as redundant regardless of their height.
(They may or they may not have got another job right away.)
Hence, all short bodies were laid off, but also the medium ones
and the tall ones.
Your informant did tell you the truth,
it was in telling you the truth that
'e made a distinction which
was not relevant.
'er statement 'e distinguished workers
who are short from those who are not, and this distinction was not
relevant, firstly, because a person's height is (supposedly) not relevant
with respect to clerical and administrative work, and secondly, it was
not even judged relevant in the case of the workers' dismissal.
What you rightly assumed is that your
informant would not only tell you the truth, but that 'e would
also make only relevant (or perhaps potentially relevant)
distinctions when telling you the truth. With this assumption it
was a so-called 'conversational implicature' that only the short
workers would have lost their jobs.
Suppose that the office in the above example does not have to
close down, that they are even expanding, but that they
exclusively hire medium short and short people. In spite of this
a person's height remains irrelevant with respect to the kind of
office work to be done (and also the premises themselves can
handle bodies of widely divergent heights). The office may now
be blamed for discriminating on the grounds of people's height,
an irrelevant, bodily property in this context. But imagine that
the management of that office reply that there is nothing
wrong with discrimination, that our whole life is only made
possible by virtue of the distinctions we make. This is
certainly true, but the management hope that we do not notice
that they commit a fallacy of equivocation: they are not blamed
for making a distinction but for making an irrelevant distinction.
(Compare the distinction made between people who are, or
were, employed at the office and people who are, or were, not.
This distinction we accept in the informant's statement, yet not
that between workers who are short and those who are not.)
In the language which is our present means of communication
both making distinctions and discrimination have two basic
meanings which must not be confused. Firstly, they have a
nonpejorative, often meliorative, formal meaning, namely:
distinguishing by discerning or exposing differences, especially when
distinguishing one object from another; or: making an appropriate
distinction. In this sense of the word, everyone has to
discriminate. It is an ontological and epistemological prerequisite
of all thought. To discriminate also means to use good
judgment, and some people do know how to thus 'discriminate'
between real and pretended cases of concern for their well-being.
Other people may 'show fine discrimination' in only
picking out those works of art which are genuine. But secondly,
making distinctions and discrimination have a pejorative,
or rather condemnatory meaning not restricted to the formal
register, namely: making an irrelevant or unjustified distinction;
making a difference in treatment or favor on a basis other than
individual merit. This is the meaning discrimination has when
someone is accused of, for example, 'sex discrimination'.
tend to speak of "discrimination" particularly when the irrelevant
distinction is made in
nonpropositional reality itself.
Some might say that the employer who makes a distinction between workers
who are tall and workers who are not, while height is irrelevant,
'discriminates', that is, against the one group and/or in favor of the
other, whereas the informant who made an equally irrelevant distinction
between workers who are short and workers who are not, did not
The former distinction is made in nonpropositional reality
itself and, moreover, harms a category of people distinguished
on the basis of their height (namely tall people); the
latter one is only made in a proposition about reality and the
person who probably will be harmed most is the person receiving
the (irrelevant) information. However, rather than limiting the
use of the term discrimination to specific cases (which is
etymologically not justifiable) we ourselves shall put the
emphasis on the kinds of relevancy involved. When it is the relevancy
of a distinction, we shall speak of "discriminational
relevancy". The relevancy which plays such an important role
in all our conversation (in addition to truth) we shall call
"conversational relevancy". This subdivision of relevancy is
part of a provisional scheme which does not preclude that one
type of relevancy consists of two or more independent subtypes,
or that one type is a subtype of the other.
The study of relevancy in general has both a horizontal and a
vertical dimension, as indicated in
figure I.22.214.171.124. The
horizontal dimension concerns the 'width' of the notion of
relevancy, that is, the different kinds of relevancy and
related notions prevailing in several fields of thought. In this
and the next division we will look at the similarities and
differences in meaning and use of all these types of relevancy.
Our prime interest will then be what bearing this has on
the notion of discriminational relevancy. We will even discuss
—albeit only briefly— a number of notions of relevancy or
relatedness which are apparently of an entirely different nature
than discriminational relevancy. The reason for this is, firstly,
that they are part of one and the same overall structure of
relevancy notions, and secondly, that an analysis of these
diverse conceptions in the horizontal dimension of relevancy
will enable us to clear up the workings of the numerous
adjectives which go with relevancy.
These adjectives and adverbs must somehow modify or typify what is
denoted by the noun (ir)relevance and
the adjective (ir)relevant.
Unlike our discriminational, moral is one of those
adjectives used, and frequently used, by ethical theorists.
But the fate of morally relevant when trying to clarify the nature
of morality with it, appears hardly any better than that of causally
relevant when that notion is used in an (abortive) attempt to clarify
the nature of causality.
The vertical conceptual analysis of relevancy concerns
the difference between something (a distinction, proposition,
topic, and so on) being relevant, and it being irrelevant.
Relevant is then used in an affirmative sense as the negation
of irrelevant. Since relevant is an unmarked term
(irrelevant being the marked one ), it has also a general,
dimensional meaning designating the extension of both
irrelevance and its negation. This is the meaning relevancy has
when we speak of the different types of relevancy. We shall use
the noun relevancy only in this general, dimensional sense,
and relevance only as the antonym of irrelevance,
altho relevancy and relevance are synonyms in the traditional
lexicon. As the core meaning of the marked term (discriminationally)
irrelevant we will take the meaning it has when
discrimination in its condemnatory sense is defined as the
act of making an irrelevant distinction. For example, racial
discrimination is the act (in a broader sense also practise or
attitude) of making an irrelevant distinction on the grounds of
race or skin color. In the event that a distinction on the
grounds of race or skin color is relevant, there is no talk of
discrimination in this respect and in this sense.
What are the criterions to objectively determine whether
something is relevant or not? This is the problem of relevancy
in depth. We will consider one theory which furnishes criterions
for telling the relevant apart from the irrelevant. Dealing
with statistical relevancy it is of limited use for discriminational
relevancy tho. That is why we will eventually have to
develop our own account of the relevance-irrelevance divide
which plays such a crucial role in questions of discrimination.
Yet, before doing so it will be worthwhile to have a look at the
motley tissue of occurrences of the term relevant, not only in
ethics and linguistic pragmatics but also in other disciplines.