Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Right to Discriminate

[caption id="attachment_2302" align="aligncenter" width="500" caption="The Age September 30: Illustration by Dyson \'The right to discriminate\'"]The Age September 30: Illustration by Dyson 'The right to discriminate'[/caption]

The Age continues to portray the recent success of the campaign for Religious Freedom in Victoria negatively as "the right to discriminate". The cartoon above and the ratio of letters (Three to One against) are examples of this.

But discrimination cannot in itself be declared illegal. All employers have the right to discriminate, and in fact the entire employement process is, in essence, a process of discrimination. Employers discriminate on all manner of issues to determine the best person for the job. What employers do not have is the right to discriminate unjustly. What is at issue between the religious communities and popular opinion is what constitutes "unjust" discrimination. It is not, for instance, deemed unjust for political parties to discriminate on the basis of political preference when hiring employees for certain positions within the party. And I believe there has even been some argument about the legality of those wishing to hire table-top dancers as to whether they could discrimnate on the basis of the sex of the applicant.

With regard to the current issue, there are several issues at stake:

1) Is the person to be hired appropriate for the position?
2) How do we balance between the rights of the individual and the rights of communities and associations to conduct their affairs according to their communal ethos?
3) How far should the State go in legally determining the ethos of communities and associations?

It is not, perhaps, surprising that some religious communities will answer these questions in different ways. Some communities, for instance, the one from which Bishop John McIntyre speaks , may have fewer problems with the prevailing mores in our society than others. They may have different interpretations of what is "appropriate" or "unjust" discrimination. But they cannot claim that they do not employ to some degree the "right to discriminate". I have heard that there are Christian communities in the world which will, for instance, when screening ordination candidates, discriminate against those who are opposed to the ordination of women as priests or bishops. Bishop McIntyre's community may be a case in point. I would regard that as unjust. Bishop McIntyre may not.

It should also be pointed out that it is not inherently unjust to discriminate according to the appropriateness of an individual's mores or personal ethos for various occupations. It would be surprising, for instance, if a person who was a conscientious objector to immunisation would be hired to run the swine flu vaccine rollout. Nor would the RSPCA be likely to employ an officer whose personal hobbies inlcuded blood sports. This is not a question of the employer passing judgement upon the moral life and decisions of the prospective employee - it is a question of whether the employee's moral outlook is appropriate to the job for which they are being hired.

The point is that the right to discriminate exists. The point of disagreement is simply about what is just and appropriate discrimination and what is unjust and inappropriate.


At Friday, October 02, 2009 3:20:00 am , Anonymous Louise said...

Say it loud, say it clear: "discrimination is a good thing."

At Friday, October 02, 2009 5:11:00 am , Anonymous Schütz said...

I think, in the language of the virtues, it is called "prudence".

At Friday, October 02, 2009 7:05:00 pm , Anonymous Schütz said...

And that's what we appreciate about you, Tom. What you've got, you share. :-)

At Saturday, October 03, 2009 1:59:00 am , Anonymous Paul said...

I don't know if you have been following the debate about non-religious ethics courses in NSW state schools as an alternative to scripture classes.

I already do a Catholic scripture class, and if the ethics course came to pass, I am sorely tempted to volunteer to give one of these courses. I would follow any syllabus they prepare (unless there is something really objectionable in it), so why couldn't I give both scripture and non-scripture classes? I don't know whether it will really happen, but it is tempting.

However, I doubt that the ethics courses will get off the ground, despite all the media stories about it. The course is being promoted by the St James Ethics Centre (which has nothing to do with St James' parish now, I don't know why they keep the name):

The really curious thing is that they say they have been trying to get the course going since 2002, and yet still don't have a syllabus. Their submission to the NSW Minister for Education says:

"Under the auspices of St James Ethics Centre, Philip Cam, Associate Professor, School of
History and Philosophy at the University of New South Wales would lead curriculum
development for the proposed pilot."

and I have not seen or heard of a syllabus. My guess is that they are afraid that as soon as they make one, they will get bogged down in arguments with parents of potential students, and between proponents of the course.

Also, if I were a teacher in a public school, I would be offended by their claim that schools don't teach ethics or critical thinking during the normal school curriculum.

I believe the Victorian Humanist Society has been trying to introduce a similar course in Melbourne. My prediction is that if there was ever approval for a course like this, there would be plenty of volunteer teachers for the first year, and then the supply of volunteers would dry up.

At Saturday, October 03, 2009 8:37:00 pm , Anonymous Schütz said...

Yes, PE, I have several non-Catholic friends who are very faithful Christians who work in Catholic schools. It should be no suprise that often they are closer to the ethos of the Catholic School than some of the "Catholic" members of staff.


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