Over on Econlog, Bryan Caplan uses an example from The Big Questions to illustrate his intuitionist approach to meta-ethics: Start with concrete, specific cases where your ethical intuition is clear, and reason by analogy from there. If you have multiple intuitions that lead you down conflicting paths, give some thought to which ones you’re most willing to jettison.
Bryan’s example is about discrimination, a subject that has come up before on this blog, but I want to emphasize that the argument Bryan quotes is quite separate from the arguments we got into in that earlier thread, and, for the sake of clarity, I hope we manage to keep them separate.
Bryan (paraphrasing me!) starts with the rather strong intuition that it’s okay for tenants and workers to discriminate. If you don’t want to live in an Albanian-owned building or an work for an Albanian employer, that’s your right (no matter how strongly we might strongly disapprove of your attitude). By analogy, then, it might seem that landlords and employers should have the same right to discriminate.
Now clearly the situtation is not that simple; landlords and employers are not the same as tenants and employees. But the question is: Are they not the same in any way that is morally relevant? The most frequently cited difference (in my experience) is that landlords and employers tend to have more market power than tenants and workers. Putting aside the question of whether that’s true, it can’t possibly be a full justification for treating landords and employers differently, and here’s why: There are plenty of instances where we don’t think that market power takes away your right to discriminate. Extremely attractive people have a lot of power in the dating market, but I think it’s safe to say that almost nobody thinks the most beautiful among us should be forced to date Albanians, or to prove that they choose their partners according to some objective criterion other than national origin.
So if you think it’s okay for tenants to discriminate but not landlords, you’ve got to face the question: What is the ethically relevant distinction here? It’s clearly not market power, so what, if anything, is it?
I do not deny that there might be a good answer to that question, but I must admit I can’t imagine what it would be.