A job thought experiment

Here’s a thought experiment for you. Imagine you’ve been applying for a good job, and the hiring manager calls you in for the final interview. He tells you that there’s only one hurdle left: The interview process has narrowed the contestants down to just you and one other candidate. Your potential boss gives you some information about the other candidate – namely, that you and this mystery person have exactly the same level of qualification, and are willing to work for exactly the same wage; but this mystery candidate has more to lose than you if they don’t get the job (i.e. their bills are higher, or they have more mouths to feed, or they have some illness they need medicine for, whatever), and they’re willing to work without the two weeks’ vacation each year that you demanded.

Then, to make matters worse, your potential boss asks you your final interview question: “Tell me why I should give this job to you instead of the other candidate, given what you know about that person.”

Hard, isn’t it?

Well, let me give you a few potential answers, and you decide what you think about them.

  1. “You should give me the job because I’m male, and this other person is female.” Whoa, sounds pretty bad, huh? In fact, I think we still tar and feather people in our society for that sort of thing. Or at least we should.
  2. “You should give me the job because I’m related to you in some way, and the other person isn’t.” The word for that is nepotism, and it also tends to be frowned upon, in case you hadn’t heard.
  3. “You should give me the job because I’m white, and the other person is non-white.” Uh oh, we’re getting worse, aren’t we?
  4. “You should give me the job because I’m young, and the other person is old.” Ageism doesn’t get as much attention as sexism or racism, but it’s definitely out there and definitely sucks.
  5. “You should give me the job because I’m more attractive than the other person.” Well that one’s just a slap in the face, isn’t it?

Imagine how mad you’d be if you even overheard someone with the cojones to actually say this in an interview! Someone claiming that a mere accident of birth that they had no control over – and for that matter places them in a category of substantial relative privilege – should entitle them (and it’s entitlement they’re claiming, make no mistake) to a job over a person that doesn’t have these purely unintentional qualities, but is equally qualified, harder working, and in greater need of the job would rightly make your blood boil. And if you think that would make you mad, imagine how much angrier you’d be at an employer who actually accepted that rationale and gave the job to this horrible person!

Let’s add one more to the list, shall we?

6. “You should give me the job because I was born in this country, and the other person wasn’t.”

Wait. Wait a minute – that one didn’t raise the hackles on the back of your neck, did it? In fact, the part of you that adapts to your society as a whole found that to be downright reasonable-sounding, didn’t it? Something’s definitely wrong here. Some essential wiring has been installed incorrectly. Say any of the first five things on the list in a job interview and not only can I guarantee you that you won’t get the job, but you’re very likely to start a physical fight with someone that overhears you. But say the sixth thing, and not only does it sound perfectly rational, but you sound like a damned patriot. They elect to public office people who say things like that. Of course, being the rational person that you are, you came through this little thought experiment realizing the truth: That if you can’t rationalize desert based on accidents of birth, then that applies to ALL accidents of birth.

Of course, there’s a sliver of hope here. You see, at one point or another in history, all of points 1 through 5 were considered just as reasonable and just as point 6 is considered by our society today. But bit by bit, through some combination of general societal enlightenment and the tireless efforts of the champions of the downtrodden, those absurd opinions were gradually overturned. There are still some holdouts, of course – there always will be – but thankfully we seem to grow more enlightened each day. And so I’m quite assured that over time (maybe, if I’m lucky, in my own lifetime), I’ll see the end of one of the last great institutionalized prejudices – nationalism.

This post was inspired by the article Waitresses in Saskatchewan lose jobs to foreign workers.

John Roccia

John is a passionate believer in open borders, coming at the issue from a libertarian and anarcho-capitalist moral perspective.

See our blog post introducing John, or all blog posts by John.

7 thoughts on “A job thought experiment”

  1. I’ll play ball.

    Let’s back up and imagine that you knew nothing about your two interviewees. So you ask: “Tell me why I should give this job to you instead of the other candidate, given what you know about that person.” The interviewee replies:

    0. “You should give me the job because I happened by accident of birth and circumstance to be more talented and so can better accomplish the job.”

    And you think: Whoa, sounds pretty bad. We should tar and feather people in our society for saying that sort of thing.

    But, in fact, you don’t think this. But why?

    Why is aptitude discrimination seen as legitimate yet not other forms of discrimination? Of course, the answer is: because this type of discrimination is seen as advancing legitimate institutional goals. Those goals include being e.g., an economically competitive corporation. But the question is begged: why (at least by some) are other institutional goals e.g., being a male institution seen as illegitimate? Perhaps people who oppose e.g., sex discrimination do oppose aptitude discrimination but for pragmatic reasons do not come out against it. Another possibility is that they make an unprincipled differentiation between the two types of discrimination — i.e., no rational basis for their position. A final possibility is that they make a principled differentiation.

    I will assume that you fall into the latter category. And so I ask: Why is one type of institutional goal (e.g., being productive) legitimate but not the other (e.g., being male)?

    I ask this question in earnest.

  2. Let’s take this example:

    “You should give me the job because I’m more attractive than the other person.”

    Imagine that you were hired by company X to interview applicants. One applicant gave the above reply. In contempt, you exclaim: “But what does that have to do with anything?!” The applicant responds: “This is a modeling agency….” If this happened, hopefully you would be chagrined. Why? You would originally have been morally outraged out of disdain for capricious and fickle selection — a disgust of the senseless. When the context was realized, however, the feeling would have dissipated as you recognized that the applicant’s response was perfectly rational given the company’s stated institution goal of making money; attractive models are an asset. You would have felt embarrassment for not considering this possibility. But, of course, if I explained the logic of native discrimination — that it makes sense given the institutional goal of a nation i.e., the well being of nationals — you would not be chagrined at all. Because you feel that this institutional goal itself is bad. Why is what you need to explain.

    1. Since you commented twice, I’ll respond to this one, as it appears as though you added some additional thoughts here.

      The point of the thought experiment isn’t to show that all forms of discrimination are uncalled for or unwarranted. Quite the opposite – there are many times when discrimination is warranted, and you gave several examples – none of which I dispute. Of course, the thought experiment explicitly stated that none of those examples applied.

      As for the objection in your first post: “By an accident of birth, I happen to be better able to accomplish this job.” Of course, the thought experiment explicitly stated that this wasn’t the case, but if it was the case, then the example wouldn’t stand – if you’re better qualified to do the job, then it hardly matters why from the point of view of the organization.

      So in both cases you seem to have an objection to something not actually put forth in the experiment. Again, the point wasn’t to say that discrimination is never warranted – simply that most forms of discrimination based on accidents of birth are inherently similar, and therefore require the same burden of proof. Is it okay to discriminate based on race and gender if you’re hiring models for a clothing line targeted at black males? Of course. But is it okay to discriminate on the basis of race or gender if race or gender have nothing to do with the qualifications of the job? I’m not saying there should be a law against it (I’m an ancap, so I’m pretty unlikely to EVER say that), but it does make you a lousy person, and it also makes you a hypocrite if you’re okay with one kind and arbitrarily not okay with another.

      I want to go a step deeper, however, and address this point you made: “But, of course, if I explained the logic of native discrimination — that it makes sense given the institutional goal of a nation i.e., the well being of nationals — you would not be chagrined at all. Because you feel that this institutional goal itself is bad. Why is what you need to explain.”

      Well, let me explain it. When it comes to government, there are three levels of discrimination: Allowed, Disallowed, and Mandatory. People tend to condense that into two types – allowed and disallowed – in their memory, and so miss an essential point. If, for example, anti-black racism is ALLOWED, then I can admit or deny black people into my restaurant as I please. If anti-black racism is DISALLOWED, then I must admit black people into my restaurant. And if anti-black racism is MANDATORY, then I can’t admit them, even if I want to. People tend to think of the period prior to the civil rights movement as being one of allowed racism, but it was actually one of mandatory racism.

      And that’s what we’re looking at here. If you own a restaurant, and you want to hire and serve only native-born citizens, that’s fine. If you’re a landlord and you want to rent or sell property only to native-born citizens, that’s fine too. I’ll defend your right to all of that. But as soon as you try to tell ME – or anyone else not willing to comply – that they must do the same, you are imposing a mandatory discrimination on others.

      A nation’s goals are irrelevant. So far as they infringe on even a single person’s rights, they are illegitimate. I want to hire a foreigner to perform some job, or rent out my apartment to one – and my well-being is hurt if I can’t. Besides, even if a nation’s goals WERE legitimate, most of this website is dedicated to explaining how Open Borders would be beneficial to everyone, including nationals. If you’re not convinced, that’s okay – but as long as there’s debate at all, then the presumption must be, as I stated earlier, on NOT discriminating.

      1. The established international convention is that the employer is generally free to hire the foreigner in the foreigner’s home country; this creates fewer negative externalities (you may not see them as such, but your countrymen generally do for now, and you’re free to leave for another country like Sweden if you disagree with them strongly enough and cannot persuade them) than the alternative convention. So if any entity deserves primary blame for rights infringement, it would be the government of the foreigner’s home country for blocking the employer from doing business there.

        It’s also possible that no rights are being infringed at all, and the employer doesn’t want to make the initial investment required to set up business in the foreign country, or is unwilling to play by some rule designed to protect the interests of that foreign country’s citizens. This sort of thing happens all the time in other contexts, and practically nobody classifies it as a rights violation.

      2. Thanks for taking the time to reply. Many of the arguments on this website are, while rhetorically strong, logically weak. If the goal is to craft logically persuasive arguments, the arguments are in need of work — you could use more outside criticism. While I myself don’t care much for rhetoric I am sympathetic with the view that logic is just rhetoric by other means — and so unnecessary if you can get away with it. That is, I don’t have a meta-philosophical problem with rhetorically strong, logically weak arguments, per se, I’m just not interested in engaging them. If you are uninterested in examining the logic of the arguments, let me know, so that I don’t waste time thinking through them.

        That said, I am glad that we concur that discrimination based on ‘accident of birth’ is ipso facto acceptable. You threw me for a loop when you said: “this little thought experiment realizing the truth: That if you can’t rationalize desert based on accidents of birth, then that applies to ALL accidents of birth.” I thought to myself: “What’s he talking about? To what does he chalk up individual differences “in level of qualification”? I still can not make sense of the quoted statement, but I won’t press the matter. I was simply noting that we commonly do justify such discrimination. And I was explaining why. We often see discrimination as fine so long at it’s rational, whereby rational means maximizing some end. This granted, the issue then is whether non-economic ends, which to be realized require discrimination, can be justifiable. On this matter, I am happy to hear that you agree that they can be. While you might abhor them, you grant that, for example, particularistic institutions are permissible — that a school might have the goal of being both an educational and a Presbyterian/Women’s institution. As a consequence, were you interviewing for the position of e.g., principle at such a school and were you to overhear another interviewee noting, offhand, that, as a qualification, they were religious/ Female, your blood might boil and your fists might clench — but you would, in principle (if not practice) tolerate the situation — because you grant that the institution could have a goal such as being “the best Presbyterian Women’s educational institution”. Moving on, you clarify the matter for us:

        “I’m not saying there should be a law against it … but it does make you a lousy person…. I’ll defend your right to all of that. But as soon as you try to tell ME – or anyone else not willing to comply – that they must do the same, you are imposing a mandatory discrimination on others.”

        So, you don’t care for my bigotry, I don’t care for your bigoterie, but we seek a modus vivendi. The problem with your offer is that we don’t live in a completely atomized world. We can take the case above, our Presbyterian school. You grant, in principle, the acceptability of the institutional goals, so you grant the rationality and permissibility of religious discrimination in this case. Imagine now that our school was national and had state chapters. Imagine that you somehow found yourself as the head of one and that the national management requested that you do your job properly, which is to hire people that best meet the institutional goals. Would this requirement be permissible? In this situation, you would be mandated to discrimination on the basis of religion (e.g., you might be required to conduct “holistic evaluations” and weight religious backgrounds). If this is not permissible, how would mandating discrimination on the basis of pre-existing level of qualification be different? Logically, I think, you are forced to agree that at least some types of mandatory discrimination are permissible. For example, a corporate head can mandate that a sub department recruits internally. If you disagree on this point let me know, so that we can discuss the matter further and in more detail. If not, then my analogous argument is obvious: “nations are akin to corporations with democratically elected leadership.” Just as corporate management could order sub departments to hire from within, the corporation called ‘nation’ can order sub departments called “corporations” to do so. Our disagreement might largely concern metaphor — how we view nations, but likely there is logical substance to them, as the corporation/ nation analogy is imperfect. For example, if you don’t care for the selection policies at a corporation you can quite — but how can you quite a nation? I agree that this is a problem — which is why I don’t oppose open borders. Indeed, open borders complements closed borders because it allows disgruntled citizen-employees to leave — or insubordinate citizen-employees to be fired. Whatever the case, let us address one issue at a time: Would you agree that in some instances, institutions can mandate discrimination — e.g., corporate head can tell department A to recruit internally?

      3. Some more thoughts and elaborations — Here are the main points of disagreement:
        A. You originally said: “Someone claiming that a mere accident of birth that they had no control over […] should entitle them […] to a job over a person that doesn’t have these purely unintentional qualities, but is equally qualified, harder working…you came through this little thought experiment realizing the truth: That if you can’t rationalize desert based on accidents of birth, then that applies to ALL accidents of birth.”
        You clarified: ” Again, the point wasn’t to say that discrimination is never warranted – simply that most forms of discrimination based on accidents of birth are inherently similar, and therefore require the same burden of proof.”

        My reading: you originally felt that discrimination “based on accidents of birth” was wrong and that you, without thinking the matter through, imagined that differences in “level of qualification” were not also largely due to this; however, when reminded about reality, you changed your mind somewhat. Maybe this is not correct, but if not then your original argument is fallacious, not just unsound. Either way, your implied argument was:
        1. Racial, Sexual, Age, Look discrimination is morally wrong. 2. (1) is the case because accident of birth discrimination is morally wrong 3. Region of birth is an accident of birth. Ergo. Region of birth is morally wrong.

        Again, I could be wrong — but it really seems as if this was what you were originally arguing. One can also see this argument in your clarification: “most forms of discrimination based on accidents of birth are inherently similar, and therefore require the same burden of proof”. The justification, of course, is that discrimination allows institutions to realize their goals. So, for example, ivy leagues discriminate based on cognitive ability, differences in which are largely due to genes and shared environment — both accidents of birth. I would hazard that “accident of birth” was your rationalization for your arational feeling that age, sex, race, etc, discrimination is bad. This whole line of thought is (logically) untenable — if you want I can elaborate, but I imagine that — largely by accident of birth — you are bright enough to figure out why.
        Whatever the case, your position shifted:

        B. You said: “Is it okay to discriminate based on race and gender if you’re hiring models for a clothing line targeted at black males? Of course. But is it okay to discriminate on the basis of race or gender if race or gender have nothing to do with the qualifications of the job?”

        So imagine modeling companies A and B. Modeling company A has the following goal: make money. When this company hires models it discriminates by race, out of market concerns such as you noted. Modeling company B has the following goal: Make money and be a majority Black company. When this company hires models it discriminates by race, despite market concerns. Now, I don’t see a fundamental difference between the two, but then anti-discrimination isn’t my religion. You might. If so, I would like to hear why.

        C. You said: “A nation’s goals are irrelevant. So far as they infringe on even a single person’s rights, they are illegitimate.”

        Nations infringe on all sort of rights such as selling cocaine, owning a bazooka, and drive on the sidewalk. Most significantly they often infringe on the right of free access. I can’t for example, freely use your bank account or my neighbor’s toilet. If I demanded the right to invite a Bengali friend over to your house, you surely would think that that was crazy — unless you were a libertarian socialist — and you would call laws preventing me from doing so legitimate. This is a form of national infringement that we surely both agree is good. Where then do we disagree? It seems to be with metaphor, again. To me, nations are like house owners; nationals are co-owners. The idea that some outsider could have the right to invite Bengal over at 2 am on Monday is crazy. We might allow this — hence: borders choice — but the idea that we must is like the idea that you must let me use your toilet in the middle of the night.

        Now were each nation inhabited by a single person you imaginably would agree with me. You apparently disagree because you don’t grant the principle of collective ownership: a family owning a house, a corporation owned by its employees. But, of course, you do grant this. You just don’t see nations this way. A difference of metaphor. I don’t understand your metaphor; it doesn’t make any sense to me. But more importantly, it doesn’t make any sense universalizing it.

        D. You said: “I want to hire a foreigner to perform some job, or rent out my apartment to one – and my well-being is hurt if I can’t.”

        The logic is (see part C first): I don’t want you to invite into .my/our country those foreigners whom I don’t like residing in my/our country, especially when they can enact legislation which I dislike. I don’t mind if you leave my/our county and live by the people I don’t want here — In fact I would be happy with that solution. Alternatively, I don’t mind the idea of splitting up our country. I understand that you want to invite into your/our country those foreigners whom I don’t like in your/our country — what I don’t understand is why you don’t understand that your bringing people I don’t want into our country is as much of an infringement on me as is my keeping out of our country those people you want in. Maybe you didn’t grow up with a bunch of sibs who all wanted different things and with whom you had to continually compromise.

        E. You said: ” most of this website is dedicated to explaining how Open Borders would be beneficial to everyone, including nationals/”

        You’re advocating anti-borders (or forced open borders). It’s easy to show that forced open border (and more open borders) is not, on average, beneficial for nationals everywhere. Some argue that it would be good on average globally, but it’s difficult to estimate this, for one, because the long term externality of diminished national, cultural, institutional diversity that forced open borders — and even increased immigration — would entail is difficult to assess. Whatever the case, I am open to economic arguments if they are at least valid.

  3. But seriously, how many people have you fought over the 4/5th rule? None, I’m would imagine. As for adverse impact, like affirmative action, I appreciate the logic. For whatever reason, people in the U.S. value diversity. That’s an institutional goal. As such, businesses and academic institutions are backhandedly forced (when they don’t do so willingly) to discriminate on account of race, ethnicity, and sex. If not, we would see far fewer Blacks and Hispanics in the Ivy Leagues, etc. To many people that would be a national tragedy. Now, I don’t care for the practice myself — mostly because I don’t care for the rationalizations given (e.g., Ginsburg’s), but also because diversity so understood doesn’t ring my bells. However, I don’t pretend to not appreciate the logic. And when I argue against these policies, I do so narrowly — mostly against silly rationalizations, sometimes against this type of diversity as a goal for this particular country. I surely don’t work myself up into lather about what people do in this regards in e.g., the U.K, let alone globally. Compare this sensible approach with your zealous one — which leads, as said, to a reductio ad nil. (What is really strange, though, is that you give a post-discrimination fairly tale — in which “positive” discrimination doesn’t exist — in which ethnic, racial, and sex discrimination is not enforced by the U.S. government. In the real world, this does exist and it’s rational given one of the country’s current goals.)

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