22. Ability

“Believe in yourself! Have faith in your abilities! Without a humble but reasonable confidence in your own powers, you cannot be successful or happy.”
Norman Vincent Peale

Ability is to be understood narrowly as the minimum physical or emotional capacity possessed by an individual. This definition focuses on a person’s innate ability, not their willingness or constancy in putting it into practice (which is dealt with in character). When we talk about ability concerning legitimate discrimination, we are talking about ability in the specific sense, not the general. By this, we mean that it must be limited to the ability or capacity that is inherently essential to the task contemplated for the ability to be a relevant factor in judging a person. These inherent capacities can be but are not limited to knowledge, strength, speed, endurance, courage, leadership, or belief (in religious roles).


For instance, the essential ability or attribute inherent to a manual labourer’s role is naturally different from that of a medical doctor. A medical doctor requires a knowledge of the practical application of medicine. In contrast, a labourer requires physical strength and endurance sufficient to the exertions needed for the common tasks required of them. As these two requirements are inherent to the two roles, it is logical that those who would practice each occupation must possess the requisite ability to the level needed to carry out the desired function.


This statement is not to suggest that the individual who works as a doctor could not work as a labourer or the individual who works as a labourer could not work as a doctor. Quite the contrary, it is the position of this work that all people are conceived with similar inherent intellectual capacities. It is through experience, influence, and inclination that the apparent differences in their capabilities appear. Therefore, what makes a person dull is not a lack of capacity but rather a lack of exercise of the intellectual faculty. In this way, a labourer could, with sufficient intellectual effort, develop and acquire the ability to work as a doctor, in the same way as a doctor could, with sufficient physical exertion, do the job of a labourer.


Similarly, as the ability essential to the task is appropriate to discriminate for, those which are not critical to the task or, are to a greater extent than required for the task, are not appropriate to discriminate against. For instance, while the ability to be able to lift heavy weights is essential in the role of a weightlifter, it is not as essential in that of a shopkeeper. Therefore, while seeking to select a weightlifter for a competitive team, the individuals’ required ability to lift will be exponentially greater than that required of a shop assistant who will be asked to lift boxes weighing less than 20kg. To expect the shop assistant to be able to lift more than that, which is genuinely essential for the role, would be inappropriate discrimination.


It is important to note here that an individual’s physical abilities are heavily impacted by genetics. A small, petite individual will have to exert greater effort on physical tasks than a larger individual. Conversely, a smaller individual may find working in constrained spaces more pleasant than that of a larger person. Be this as it may, these natural injustices are not sufficient to allow for legitimate discrimination based on physical size or shape except for where the task has the essential characteristic of physical constraint. Such as that of cockpit size in fighter jets or certain maintenance tasks requiring a person to work in particularly constricted spaces. Therefore, while it is legitimate to require a person to demonstrate their ability to be able to do the required task, it is not legitimate to decide that a person is incapable only because it would be more challenging for them than for others based on appearances alone.


An example of this could be the case of a petite young woman who applies for a mechanical apprenticeship. To the experienced mechanic who conducts the interview, her physical appearance may indicate that she might struggle with the more physically demanding aspect of the trade due to her slight frame. This judgement may be correct, just as the converse judgement that a relatively larger man or woman who may find these aspects of the role more manageable. However, until the bias is tested, it cannot be relied on. Additionally, the other essential elements of the role must also be considered.


The mechanical trades require both minimum levels of strength due to the work’s physical elements and the developed mental abilities of spatial reasoning and problem-solving. Therefore, to reject the young girl only based on her appearance would amount to unjust discrimination, which, due to its harmful effect on our communities and families, is disallowed by our ethical system. Therefore, to judge if the girl in our example has the requisite abilities for the apprenticeship, it is necessary to test in an impartial way her (and all other applicants) current abilities against the role’s inherent requirements. Why this is so important is that we should aim to select the best person for the role from the applicants.


Suppose we instead choose to allow irrelevant considerations to influence us. In that case, we harm our families and communities through the effective theft of opportunity from the candidate and the theft from ourselves of the additional production that the best candidate will bring to the task. This focus on excellence will be discussed in more detail in the chapter on work, but for now, let’s move on to the second of the legitimate grounds for discrimination—character.

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