On Discrimination and Anti-Discrimination Laws

Claim 1:  “Forcing me to serve gays violates my religious liberty.”

My response:  I’m not aware of a religion that commands, “Thou must not serve sinners.”  It’s certainly not a part of Christianity.  If it were, then no one could be served.  If you want to discriminate against gay people, but not against other groups of people who are sinners according to your religion, then you are morally and religiously inconsistent.  You might be able to claim that your religion condemns homosexuality, but your inconsistent behavior reveals that something other than your god or holy book is guiding you.

Claim 2:  “I should have the right to serve or not serve whomever I please for whatever reason.”

My response:  This is certainly a more consistent position.  By claiming that one should be able to discriminate for any reason, he avoids accusations of demanding special rights of which only the religious can take advantage.  By claiming that one should be able to discriminate against anyone, he avoids specific accusations of racism, sexism, etc.

However, it ignores a significant problem:  if a vast majority of people in the country come to believe that gay people, for example, don’t deserve service, then gay people will find themselves unable to meet their needs or desires.  (Alternatively, gay people living in a small town, where important services are run by Christians, might be similarly out of luck.)  The few businesses willing to serve gay people might also face backlash for doing so, leading them to adopt the same position out of self-interest.  We can’t simply say that gay people in such a situation ought to establish their own businesses; after all, they need customers and supplies from people who likely hate them.  Given all that we say about freedom, equality, and happiness in our country, it also doesn’t seem right to tell them to just find another place to live.

Unfortunately, anti-discrimination laws aren’t perfect, either.  Minorities who face discrimination generally have to wait until a large portion of the public sympathizes with them, which also means that groups who get no sympathy (either because they are too obscure or because the public just doesn’t care) get nothing.  These patches, decades apart, can never protect everyone who deserves the opportunity to get a job, find housing, eat, or anything else necessary to a life–or, to be daring:  a good life.

We also can’t pass one simple bill that declares, “No one shall be turned away from a place of business or denied employment on the basis of some characteristic that has no impact on that business’ operations or the employee’s quality of work.”  Defining “impact on a business’ operations or the employee’s quality of work” would be contentious in itself, but most of us also don’t want it.  Even many of the most open-minded among us don’t want to be forced to serve or hire people who are openly hateful toward members of other races or religions, even though those qualities might not affect business operations or work quality.  I certainly wouldn’t want to be forced to cater a fundamentalist Christian event where guests go on about how vile atheists are.

In short, there is no perfect solution.

Claim 3:  “There is a difference between serving someone and participating in his events.  Businesses should be forced to serve gays, but not cater their weddings.”

My response:  I understand the sentiment here.  The two actions feel different according to the degree of involvement or exposure to the “sin.”  The trouble here is that both are cases of exchanging money for services and defining activities according to degrees of involvement is likely an exercise in futility.  Selling a wedding cake to a gay couple and catering the couple’s wedding might seem far apart, but where does driving the couple to or taking pictures at the wedding fall?  This “moderate” position might be well-intentioned, but I’m not convinced that it works.

Claim 4:  “Homosexuality isn’t like race or sex or nationality.  It’s a choice.”

My response:  Even if that were true, it is irrelevant to the debate.  Religion is clearly even more of a choice, but we don’t seem to be trying very hard to allow people to discriminate on that basis.

Claim 5:  “This is about religious liberty.”

My response:  No, it’s about liberty.  Any law that entitles only religious people to discriminate according to their conscience is clearly unfair.  If a Christian can turn away gays, especially if he can do so without having to be consistent with the rest of his religion or prove that his convictions are sincere, then anyone should be able to turn away anyone.  This means that an atheist can turn away a Christian, too.

Claim 6:  “We have a right to live according to our faith or conscience.”

My response:  This is totally naïve, anarchic, and historically ignorant.  I imagine that we all disagree with at least one thing that our government does, but that does not mean that we can stop paying the taxes that support that behavior.  I imagine that we can all find at least one law that troubles us morally, but that does not mean that we can ignore it as we see fit.  This has always been the case in the United States as well as most of the rest of the world through most of civilized history, as it should be. Our right to live as we see fit only goes so far–and the debate over discrimination touches on precisely this issue.  What we ultimately determine is appropriate–even if we determine that it is OK for businesses to refuse to serve gays or cater their weddings–should not be based on self-defeating, nonsensical, absolutist, feel-good proclamations of religious liberty.

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Defining Torture?

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines torture as the following:

1.) the act of causing severe physical pain as a form of punishment or as a way to force someone to do or say something

2.) something that causes mental or physical suffering : a very painful or unpleasant experience

When we think of torture, we tend to think along the lines of the first definition:  everything from the rack and other medieval devices to breaking fingers to (perhaps) waterboarding.

What about sensory, sleep, and food deprivation?  Sensory overload?  Confinement in small spaces?  These don’t necessarily cause any physical pain, but many of us insist that they are torture and they do fall under its second definition.

What about imprisonment?  It is an effective deterrent precisely because it is so undesirable, at least for extended periods of time.  For many prisoners, imprisonment would meet the second definition of torture:  a very unpleasant experience that causes mental suffering.  And yet virtually no one describes it as such.

Note also that the dictionary’s definitions say nothing about how long the experience has to last before it is considered torture.

But perhaps the dictionary definition misses the point.  Let’s consider the Geneva Convention:

“For the purposes of this Convention, torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.”

So mental suffering does indeed count according to international law.  Fortunately, suffering related to “lawful sanctions” doesn’t count, so that settles the issue!

Well, not really.

Forget about these definitions of torture.  The real question is what separates acceptable harmful actions from unacceptable harmful actions, as applied to criminals or suspected criminals.  Whether the suffering comes from a “lawful” sanction or not is irrelevant.

Given the choice between 10 years of torture and 10 years of imprisonment, everyone would choose 10 years of imprisonment–and not just because torture entails imprisonment as well.  In a 1:1 comparison, the undesirability of constant physical pain and the accompanying psychological trauma outweighs the undesirability of confinement.  But what if the torture only went on for a month or less?  What if it weren’t constant, but only for a minute per day?  What if the torture only entailed exposure to the cold?  If we change the parameters of torture, we can make it much more desirable than long periods of imprisonment.

This wouldn’t really matter if no one held the absolutist anti-torture position that even, say, a minute of waterboarding crosses some significant moral line and renders us uncivilized monsters.  But people do hold that position.  After all, debates over torture tend to focus on whether or not torture is appropriate at all, not on how much torture is appropriate.  These same people also hold, like the rest of us, that imprisonment is an appropriate punishment and/or means of keeping our society safe.  Given that we would prefer brief torture to extended imprisonment, it seems to me that accepting the latter and forbidding the former on the grounds that it is monstrous makes the least sense.  Otherwise, on what do we base the notion that torture is so uniquely bad and worse than imprisonment?

In practice, of course, torture is not used for a minute at a time as a substitute for imprisonment.  It is used as the torturers see fit in addition to imprisonment, though that imprisonment is not necessarily permanent.  But this is irrelevant to the point that we are morally inconsistent and imprecise in our definitions, which has allowed some of us to pretend that “enhanced interrogation” is something else entirely and others to pretend that using the force of government to imprison people for years is so different from torture as to be uncomparable.  We can talk all we want about the ability of torture to produce reliable information or about its necessity, but if we are comparing the evils of torture and imprisonment as actions, then the most important aspect to consider by far is their desirability to the people who have to endure them.  Once we do that, we can’t hide behind words and definitions.  We have to consider what we are actually doing to people.

I don’t write this to argue that we should torture, as that subject must take other details into account.  I also don’t write this to argue that we must do away with imprisonment.  I write this to point out what seems to me to be a case of hypocrisy based on a moral argument that is disconnected from reality.  I find the idea that even a little torture crosses a moral line that extended imprisonment does not cross to be comparable to many of the “X is just wrong” arguments that I have dealt with on this blog.  If we are to oppose torture, then we should do so for other reasons.

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Common Core Math

There is much talk lately of the horrors of the Common Core methods of solving math problems.

From my own Facebook feed:

“Math is impossible now. Our school now sends home a ‘teaching packet’ so you can help your child at the beginning of each lesson. You can’t teach them to ‘carry’ the one for adding, or double digit multiplication. It’s insane and takes forever!!!”

“Our school sends home a parent page to read with each math homework assignment too- this “new math” is mind boggling. And I was really good at math… makes me scream.”

“Amen to that! Makes no sense whatsoever. Three flippin steps to get to the same answer!”

“Totally agree with you. Parents or grandparents should not have to go back to school to learn how to help a child with homework. It’s no wonder that parents opt out of helping. So sad.”

These criticisms boil down to:  parents have to learn as well, children can’t use the old methods, the new methods take too long, and parents don’t understand the new methods.  Continue reading

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Quick Thoughts 17: Religious Exemptions

A religious exemption is effectively a reward for having a conviction that
(1) happens to fall within the guidelines of an institution rather arbitrarily defined as a religion,
(2) is usually based on a set of unprovable assumptions, and
(3) is statistically likely to be wrong, assuming that most religions are mutually exclusive and do not share the conviction in question.

On top of that, since
(1) it is not necessary for one to prove that he actually has or strictly adheres to this conviction and
(2) there does not appear to be any real legal consequence if he does either subtly or obviously neglect that conviction,
it is really a farce anyway.

Those of us who object to a law on the basis of mere (!) reason (or on the basis of some philosophy that has not earned the elusive label of “religion”) must still follow that law.  Those of us who object to a law on the basis of faith alone, provided that our government recognize it as worthy, need not worry.  This seems perfectly fair and right.

May religious conviction guide us all to prosperity.

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Religious Exceptions: Questions to Consider

With the Supreme Court reviewing the Hobby Lobby case, which may have implications for religious legal exceptions in the future, it is worthwhile to consider a few related questions.

1.) What makes a religious belief worthy of a legal exception?

If it were wrong in my religion to support war, I could argue that it is against my religious beliefs to pay taxes that support a military that engages in it.  In fact, I could argue my way out of anything on the grounds of religious beliefs.  There needs to be some sort of standard by which we decide that an exception is appropriate.

2.) How does one prove that he sincerely holds a religious belief?

We don’t want to make exceptions for people who are simply opportunistic or who are willing to violate their religion’s tenets whenever it is convenient to do so.  Therefore, we need a way to be sure that someone who claims an exception is dedicated to his values.

3.) Should we allow non-religious (conscientious) exceptions?  If not, why not?

It seems wrong to deny non-religious people an exception afforded to religious people.  That religious people associate their values with a god or with absolute truth (some religions do neither) is not reason enough to give them special treatment.

4.) Why do we allow religious exceptions in the first place?

Are we concerned that the people who take advantage of the exceptions would cause trouble if they had to act against their beliefs?  Do we want people to be able to put their loyalty to their beliefs ahead of their loyalty to the law?  Are we simply out to make sure that religious people aren’t offended?

Every rule needs a justification, but if the rule is good, then its exceptions need justifications as well.

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On Hatred of Politicians

Everyone seems to agree:  politicians are terrible.  But few people take the time to consider the politician’s perspective.

Criticism #1:  Politicians are loyal to special interests, disloyal to their constituents

Part of getting votes is getting money for one’s campaign; part of completing one’s agenda is getting support from others, including groups who have the power to pressure other politicians into supporting bills.  There is little sense in complaining about the failure of our leaders to represent us if we accept and support a system in which they must consider other loyalties first in order to keep their jobs and get work done.

Criticism #2:  Politicians are too concerned about being re-elected

The continuation of a politician’s agenda–the reason for which people voted for him–depends upon him having his job and, in some cases, having that job long enough to have developed clout and legislative support.

Criticism #3:  Politicians engage in secret deals and add pork to bills

If (1) a politician’s constituents want him to actually get work done and (2) the only way to pass a bill that he wants in a bitterly divided legislature is to make some concessions to the opposition, then this is how it must be.

Criticism #4:  Politicians play dirty in ad campaigns

They play dirty because it works:  they criticize because people delight in hearing about what’s wrong with their enemies; they lie because people don’t bother with fact checking.  Even if there were no practical reason for it, they would likely do it anyway because so many of us do it ourselves.

Criticism #5:  Politicians are disconnected from average people

It is often pointed out that, because politicians who want to last must

(1) have spotless records or the ability to conceal them,
(2) have the money to campaign or cater to those who do,
(3) lie to support their party,
(4) regularly endure the spotlight, under which they must be able to convince us that they have nothing better to do than listen to us whine, and
(5) avoid making any mistakes, including slips of the tongue,

our pool of candidates consists of many people who are ill-motivated, effectively deceptive, insincere, and wealthy or well-connected.  In short, average people just don’t meet our standards, especially if we also demand thorough education and either experience in politics or great success in the private sector.

Criticism #6:  Politicians think that they know better than we do

Unless one believes that the job of a representative is simply to do whatever the majority of his constituents want him to do, one has to accept that politicians will sometimes make judgments at odds with our own.  Ideally, they take advantage of their position to hear experts (generals, scientists, etc.) out on subjects with which they are unfamiliar and consult the actual numbers on economic matters.  To the extent that they fail to do so and instead seek to impose their uninformed beliefs upon us, this criticism is valid.  Otherwise, it just goes with the territory of leadership.  Sometimes our desires and our best interests are in conflict.

Criticism #7:  Politicians refuse to compromise

By this, of course, we mean that the opposition’s politicians refuse to compromise, by which we mean that they refuse to do everything that we want.  We want the ideal scenario in which our side sticks to its principles and triumphs in the end because truth and justice always win–not the typical scenario in which both sides stick to their principles and get nothing done or in which neither side sticks to its principles, making progress but earning criticism.

Politicians are responsible for the choices that they make, but those choices have to be understood in context.  If we are going to criticize them, we need to understand how we enable their behavior and look seriously at the sorts of reforms that would be necessary to discourage them.  And it wouldn’t hurt for us to consider the possibility that our leaders  are just our own collective reflection.

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The End Is Near

It has been over half of a year since I last updated.  The truth is that, while I never ran out of subjects to address, I did (1) mostly run out of subjects truly relevant to secular ethics, either because they had little to do with secular ethics in particular or because they had little to do with ethics in general; (2) lose interest and patience in updating a blog; and (3) hit a dead end in growth in understanding ethics, which was my primary goal when I began this blog.

So, I am announcing that this blog will soon come to an end.  I will write on a few more subjects before permanently ceasing to update it, except perhaps to respond to comments.  The only reason for which I probably will not delete the blog is that my posts on fallacies, which are arguably the most useful posts that I’ve written, still get regular views.  If I do decide to delete it, I will make an official announcement to give people time to save anything that I’ve written for their personal… amusement.

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