Further reflections on discrimination

[Image, via Wikipedia: The Flammarion engraving (1888) depicts a traveller who arrives at the edge of a flat Earth and sticks his head through the firmament.]

A scientific experiment avoids confusion by holding as much as possible constant, while systematically varying some factor of interest. When you are trying to think through a complex train of thought it can be helpful to do something similar, especially when sorting out separate arguments that might be confused. My previous Boing Boing post, "Should employers be blind to private beliefs?," could be seen as raising four separate questions. These were in danger of being confused with each other, and it is helpful to consider them one at a time, setting the others on one side temporarily–the equivalent of holding other variables constant in an experiment. The four questions were:

1. Should Martin Gaskell have been turned down by the University of Kentucky? I got rid of this one by explicitly stating that I was not concerned with it. I shall continue to ignore it here.

2. Should employers ever discriminate on grounds of the beliefs of candidates? If the answer to this is no, there is no point in going on. I tried to dispose of it by reductio ad absurdum. I postulated hypothetical extremes (flat earth geographer, stork theory doctor, astronomer who thinks Mars is a mongoose egg). I presumed that everybody would agree to discriminate against such obviously preposterous extremes, and that we would therefore have a non-controversial baseline from which to move on to more subtle questions. As it turned out, I was wrong: I underestimated the emotive impact of the very word 'discrimination'. I may also have underestimated the power of the relativist doctrine that all opinions are equally worthy of respect. But in any case my purpose was not to erect a straw man and knock it down. I wanted to find a baseline of agreement, which would enable us to set Question 2 on one side, while we went on to the other questions.

3. Should employers discriminate on grounds of religion per se? Here, I had thought we could establish a baseline agreement that there are at least some religious beliefs that nobody would wish to discriminate against. None of us, certainly not I, would rule out Georges LemaƮtre when employing a physics professor, on the grounds that he was a Catholic priest. But there could be beliefs, which might happen to have their origins in religion, but which some people might otherwise have considered grounds for rejecting a candidate under Question 2. We are not talking about discriminating against religion per se but against a counterfactual belief that happens to come from religion, and this leads me to Question 4:

4. Suppose you are one of those who will allow a yes answer to Question 2, and are prepared to contemplate at least some discrimination, say against flat-earthers. Would you allow religion to serve as a special, privileged, protective shield against such otherwise-agreed discrimination: a shield not available to non-religious flat-earthers? Should those who are prepared to discriminate against stork-theorists make an exception if it turns out that their storkism stems from religion? In other words, should we discriminate against non-religiously inspired storkers and, implicitly by comparison, discriminate in favour of religiously-inspired storkers? As I understand it, the law, at least in some countries, does sanction exactly that. You can legally rule a candidate out because he believes in something obviously absurd, but not if he can hide his absurd belief behind the protective screen of religion. This makes Question 4 a worthwhile question. But it is a question that simply doesn't arise for anybody who answers No to Question 2, which is why it was worth getting that question out of the way first.

But my main purpose today is to move on and raise – though not necessarily answer – some further issues raised by this whole discussion, which I think are genuinely interesting.

To start with, there is the intriguing psychological question of the extent to which the human mind is capable of compartmentalizing itself. A good example is the astronomer who publishes respectable work, involving calculations assuming that the universe is billions of years old, while privately holding the contradictory belief that it is only thousands of years old. If such split-mindedness is a real psychological phenomenon, that is a fascinating fact about the human brain, well worth studying in its own right. How closely intertwined are the mutually contradictory beliefs? Are they literally held simultaneously, or does the victim believe one of them on some days and the other one on other days, so that he is never literally in a state of believing a contradiction? Is this related to the well-attested multiple personality syndrome? Are there any limits to the degree of contradiction that one mind is capable of tolerating inside itself? Should the simultaneous holding of mutually contradictory factual beliefs be regarded as evidence of insanity? Do we all from time to time, in a mild way, accommodate mutually contradictory beliefs inside our heads?

Then there are some important questions of law. Why should religion in particular be singled out as grounds for shielding beliefs from scrutiny? If a South African enthusiast for apartheid pleaded that his insistence on racial separation stemmed from his deeply sincere adherence to the Dutch Reformed Church, should we respect his racialism in a way that we would not if he traced it to a deeply sincere prejudice instilled into him by his parents when he was at a sensitive age?

Should the law take a more lenient view of a wife-beater if he could plead that his behaviour was mandated by his holy book? This was explicitly done in recent years by a (female) judge in Germany. As the New York Times reported, Judge Christa Datz-Winter "cited the verse in the Koran that speaks of a husband's prerogatives in disciplining his wife". The judge further justified her decision on the grounds that "In this cultural background, it is not unusual that the husband uses physical violence against the wife." This judge not only allowed religion to over-rule human decency, she also allowed it to over-rule the law of Germany in the particular case of a couple who were Muslims. The New York Times went on to comment, "For some, the greatest damage done by this episode is to other Muslim women suffering from domestic abuse. Many are already afraid of going to court against their spouses. There have been a string of so-called honor killings here, in which Turkish Muslim men have murdered women."

How about clitoridectomy? Should the law protect girls from such mutilation except in cases where the mutilator pleads religious justification? In Britain today this barbaric custom is practiced. It is against the law, but the police turn a blind eye for fear of being thought 'Islamophobic'.

Should we exempt halal and kosher slaughterhouses from prosecution under laws against cruelty to animals, on grounds that religious considerations trump humanitarian ones? Such exemption is widely demanded and accepted but never, as far as I have seen, coherently justified.

During the Vietnam war, conscientious objectors had to prove to a draft board that their objection really was conscientious. By far the easiest way to prove this was to plead religious conviction, but only if the religious conviction was long-established. A young man whose parents were Quakers had no trouble at all. I suspect that a young man who had written a PhD thesis on the moral philosophy of pacifism might have been given a harder time. If so, this needs to be debated. Why does our society, as represented in our laws, give religious conscience a free pass, where a secular philosophical conscience has to work really hard to earn it?

Moving on from law, we have the issue of fact versus opinion. There are those of us who see a radical distinction between a factual belief like "I believe the Earth is flat" and an opinion like "I believe Richard Nixon was a bad man." Some relativists, on the other hand, blur fact and opinion, see no reason to privilege fact over opinion, and take the view that all opinions are equally valid and equally worthy of respect.

One of the reasons I am willing to describe flat-earthism and young-earthism as ridiculous is that they are contradicted by publicly observable facts. But there are other beliefs about fact, including scientific fact, that are not obviously true or false, perhaps because the evidence is incomplete or open to varying interpretation, or perhaps because terms are not clearly defined. "I believe the Permian extinction was caused by a meteorite impact" is a belief about a matter of fact, but neither it nor its negation are obviously silly in the way flat-earthism is. I think it would be very wrong to discriminate against a geologist on grounds of his belief about the Permian extinction. There might be other factual beliefs that are intermediate, where we might have a genuine argument. Some might nominate climate change denial as an example. Others might suggest Holocaust denial as a borderline intermediate case, a bit further towards the loony end of the spectrum.

By choosing flat-earthism and storkism as my hypothetical examples, I was trying to establish a baseline, setting aside the argument over whether discrimination of any kind is ever permissible. The purpose of choosing these palpably ridiculous hypotheticals was to make it possible to move on to the more difficult cases, where we might hope to have an interesting discussion.

If there are some people who cannot accept even this baseline, and reject all discrimination of any kind, they presumably will have nothing to contribute to the supplementary questions I have raised in the latter part of this article. But I hope others may find them worthy of honest debate.