Contrast the following two questions:

    1. “Should I sell an alcoholic a newspaper?”
    2. “Should I sell an alcoholic a bottle of whisky?”

In the first case, the moral question turns on issues such as whether it is appropriate for me to express my disapproval of this individual’s lifestyle, or signal to that individual that she needs to seek help, by refusing to trade with her in the way I might trade with others.  The second case is importantly different.  In that case the issue is not simply about what duties I owe to the individual or the signals I want to send out to that person or to the rest of the world.  In the second case the issue is whether I should involve myself in the alcoholic’s error by selling her alcohol – whether I should facilitate things I think wrong.

I do not claim that acts of the first form are always wrong.  I have, for example, noted previously that I consider shunning a perfectly legitimate practice in a free society.  But I do want to assert that they are importantly different from those of the second.

For example, it would be perfectly possible to imagine a society with laws that forbade acts of the first sort but permitted those of the second sort.  We could have a non-discrimination law that said that publicly-offered commercial transactions could not be withdrawn simply on the grounds that one disapproved of those seeking to take up such offers, but that (within reason) no-one could be obliged to specifically facilitate behaviours they disapproved of.  So, you couldn’t refuse to sell an alcoholic a newspaper, but you could refuse to sell her alcohol.

If we therefore focus upon Type 2 discrimination (i.e. the refusal to engage in commercial acts that specifically facilitate acts one considers immoral) it is instructive to reflect upon a number of cases.  Consider the following ten examples (noting that my question is not about what is or is not permitted under the law as it stands, but, rather, about what ought to be the case):

  1. Should you be allowed to refuse to supply a video camera to someone you believe will use it to make pornographic films?
  2. Should you be allowed to refuse to sell a horse to someone you believe will kill and eat the horse?
  3. Should you be allowed to refuse to sell cloth to a burka-maker?
  4. Should a hotelier be permitted to refuse a double room to two people she knows to be married to others?
  5. Should a teetotal farmer be permitted to refuse to sell malt to a beer manufacturer?
  6. Should a bank be permitted to have a policy of not providing loans for (even commercially viable) gambling businesses?
  7. Should a private general practitioner be allowed to refuse to refer a patient for an abortion on the grounds she faced no life threat if the pregnancy continued?
  8. Should adoption agencies be allowed to refuse to assist unmarried couples in finding children?
  9. Should a specialist cutler be allowed to refuse to make and sell a blade for use in halal butchery?
  10. Should a bed and breakfast establishment be permitted to refuse a double room to a same-sex couple?

Again, I emphasise that the central question in each of these cases is whether people should be forced by law to facilitate activities they themselves consider immoral.  Thus they are conceptually entirely separate from the question of whether it should be permissible to refuse to trade with someone on the grounds that she is, say, black or tall or blind.

My guess is that, of those, most readers think questions 1-6 pretty straightforward – you think refusal to trade should be permitted in all those cases.  Indeed, think of what the opposite would mean.  Suppose I were someone that disapproved of burkas but whose major client were a burka manufacturer.  Wouldn’t you say I was a hypocrite?  Wouldn’t you say that I was failing to live out in life what I preached?  How about if I were a vegetarian butcher, or a pacifist arms-dealer?  Our commercial transactions are not some separate, morally-insulated part of our existence.  They belong to our moral lives and fall under our moral requirements.

At questions 7, 8 and 9 some of you will be becoming queasy about your answers, and many if not most of you will think the answer to 10 should be No.  But if that is right, it indicates something important.  Going back, in the fourth paragraph above I slipped in a sneaky “within reason”.  We can’t, practically speaking, accommodate any and every strange moral code.  For example, suppose someone believed that alcoholism was the result, for individuals with a certain DNA, of consuming any food containing tomatoes, and on such grounds wanted to be allowed to refuse to sell baked beans to anyone with blond hair.  I think we’d feel allowing that would make rather a mockery of any law that forbade Type 1 discrimination (i.e. refusing to trade with you, period, as opposed to refusing to trade with you in ways that facilitated what was regarded as your immorality or other failing).

Thus, if we say that in respect of certain things – say, certain religions or certain sexual practices – it’s not merely that it should be forbidden to refuse to trade with people in general that one disapproved of, but that in fact even trade that specifically facilitated the religious or other practice is mandatory, we are saying that we cannot accommodate the eccentric beliefs of those that consider themselves morally tainted by engaging in such commercial transactions.  If we say you must make a knife for a halal butcher even if you disapprove of halal or provide a double bed to a same-sex couple even if you disapprove of homosexual sexual practice, we are saying your sense that you are morally compromised by such a transaction is as eccentric and unacceptable as the no-tomatoes-for-blondes taboo I mentioned above.

I don’t think that.  I think it would be perfectly feasible to have a law that said you aren’t allowed to refuse to sell newspapers to horse-eaters or Muslims or practising homosexuals, but you do not have to engage in transactions with them that specifically facilitate the things they do of which you disapprove.  But perhaps that’s just me.

11 comments for: Andrew Lilico: Two kinds of discrimination

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