Monthly Archives: November 2009

Knowledge and ethics

The news that ‘green’ beliefs could be afforded the same protection under the European Convention on Human Rights as religious beliefs – as they can be considered as ‘thought, conscience and religion’ (see ECHR article 9) – opens up a whole can of worms. But not the worms that the commentariat and the responders to comments are thinking about. As far as I can tell, many are conflating science or knowledge of the world, and ethics or what we should do in the world. And, as ever, many are also ignoring the many real world examples of how legislation has protected and has not protected.

I’ll address that second point first, as it’s the less complicated! For some, the idea of protecting people from maltreatment due to their views is a bit nuts. They characterise the protection as creating a set of people who cannot be criticised, and can bend jobs and society to their views whenever they like. This is a common critique of multiculturalism. However, the reality is that the rules are changed or made by weighing up lots of factors. The regular hoo-ha over the vegetarian/Muslim who doesn’t want to handle pork in his supermarket job, or air stewardess who wants to wear a crucifix, are sometimes handled in the sensible way of first seeing if it makes any difference. In a supermarket there are plenty of other jobs to do, the crucifix won’t get in anyone’s way. But in the case of someone refusing to do a substantial part of the job, then it’s OK to sack them, or perhaps make them redundant. If there’s a job that absolutely requires working a particular day, then you can’t employ someone whose beliefs say they can’t work that day. A good place to start if you are interested in this is Bhiku Parekh’s Rethinking Multiculturalism. Here he goes through the classic example of the exemption for Sikhs wearing turbans from wearing helmets (243). At the time checks were done to see if the protection was equivalent (it was), and thus it seems likely that any group or even individual could provide evidence that the equivalent headgear that their deeply held beliefs lead them to is good enough then they could get an exemption too.

The more substantial point, however, is the idea that making ‘green beliefs’ and ‘religious beliefs’ equivalent either makes global warming just a faith and not a scientific theory, or reduces deeply held religious philosophies to the status of a testable scientific theory.

The important thing to note is that issues of religious discrimination are rarely about the belief in God. For one thing, you can’t tell from the outside whether someone believes or not. Even if someone doesn’t like believers, what they will discriminate on is the outward manifestation of this belief. And of this outward manifestation, there are parts of which it is nonsensical to discriminate, parts which it makes sense to discriminate, and those borderline parts of belief where people discriminate when they probably shouldn’t.

It’s nonsensical to discriminate on say belief in God. Someone can believe or not believe in God but act in, say, a Christian moral framework (and vice versa*). They might even be willing to do prayers and hymns – that’s true of non-believing vicars – so the actual belief in God is irrelevant.

But the set of people who believe in the same God may have very different outlooks. Some might believe it guides all their decisions, others none. It might lead to believing in a final judgment (coming soon), a meeting with God at death, or in a distant non-(and never-) interventionist God. The moral framework arising out of different positions is likely to be different, but the relationship is not a necessary one. Some believe that they should work hard to create the best world here, others believe it doesn’t matter.

Many of these beliefs have no relevance in the vast majority of social situations. If someone believes that homosexuality is a sin, then surely their first priority is not be gay themselves. There are few jobs where being gay is a requirement. But if that person believes that they need to try and convert people away from being gay, then they shouldn’t be employed as a gay rights worker! If there is a requirement for a particular set of moral beliefs to be in operation, then it should be OK to disbar people without them.

However, it’s the grey area beliefs between these that end up in the news. When someone believes that their belief in God requires them to wear a headscarf it can be seen by others. So there’s the potential for others to prejudge on the basis of (assumed) religion. But unless the headscarf issue actually matters (perhaps it’s a barrier to being a hair model), then it shouldn’t be an issue.

What’s important here is not the belief in God, but the beliefs and actions that lead from that belief. The ontological framework (whether God exists, whether God created the Earth, whether the Earth exists) is less important than the ethical framework (how to live a good life). The same is true for ‘green’ beliefs.

Even if we accept that climate change is a scientific fact, as proven as it can ever be, it does not necessarily lead to any particular ‘moral imperative’. One could believe that:

a)      human survival is the most important thing and so we need to reverse climate change and quickly

b)      human survival doesn’t matter, so we can allow the Earth’s life to adapt to new conditions (in this view climate change might further evolution)

c)      we should party like it’s 1999, because we don’t owe anything to future generations, let them sort it out

d)     we should hasten the floods as that’s when the ‘second coming’/ Armageddon/ end of the Mayan calendar/ start of paradise begins(delete as appropriate)

e)      we must, as individuals, reduce consumption as governments aren’t going to do it.

f)       there’s no point, as individuals, reducing consumption as we need government to take the lead

and so on and so on.


a) is the most common answer not because the scientific facts say we are causing climate change but because we have an ethical framework that puts the survival of people at the top. Looking at the judgement in the current case, Justice Burton wrote:

‘A belief in man-made climate change, and the alleged resulting moral imperatives, is capable, if genuinely held, of being a philosophical belief for the purpose of the 2003 Religion and Belief Regulations.’

The crucial part of this is the ‘and’. It is the moral framework and the resulting actions that are the crux of the case, not the belief in climate change itself.

This should apply to political beliefs too. Although ethics and politics have traditionally been separated out, if we put aside the technocratic side – how to achieve a particular aim – politics is a realm of life where competing visions of what is good are discussed. The question of whether the goods of society should be distributed according to need or according to effort is a moral one, that can’t be answered by reference to science. Politics is a kind of practical ethics (see Michael Sandel for more on this), and as such some political beliefs do have the same status as some religious beliefs.

So which beliefs or moral frameworks should count here. ‘Deeply held (religious or philosophical) beliefs’ is one such formulation. But this begs the question of who judges the depth of a belief, or whether it is religious or philosophical, as is the case here. The simple answer is to not make the judgement at all. All beliefs can lead to a desire or requirement to do something. If we take the issue of Sunday working, there are a whole host of reasons why someone might believe they shouldn’t work on a Sunday:

a)      it’s God’s day and one should be in church

b)      it’s a family day and one should be with them

c)      it’s a football day and one should be on the pitch (or on the terraces)

d)     it’s a day to celebrate anarchism, and one should be free from rulers

e)      it’s a day to celebrate Gaia, and one should be gardening

It’s the should that makes them ethical-like beliefs.

Using religious belief privileges a). Using religion and philosophical belief privileges a), d) and e), unless football is seen as a religion (a la Bill Shankley). Why privilege any? If it can be accommodated by the employer, then they should let the person not work Sundays. If it can’t then they shouldn’t. As long as the employer doesn’t discriminate on the basis of something irrelevant to the job, then I don’t see why there should be a problem.

I think this takes me back to a secular framework… however, it is one where individuals bring a set of beliefs to each social situation, not no beliefs. These beliefs may conflict with the requirements of the situation – in which case they need to be dealt with, reasonably – or they may be irrelevant. One of the tests that should be done is whether these beliefs lead to particular actions that conflict with the social situation. Football as a religion may reasonably lead to making Saturday (or more Sunday now) sacred, but a belief that one needs to wear football boots at work seems less reasonable. Similarly, a Christian belief might reasonably lead to a need to wear a cross, but perhaps not a Jesus Saves tattoo. These need to be argued out.

I suppose the problem our society has is that we don’t talk through stuff reasonably, but instead see these problems as a battle between religion and secularism, or the vestiges of a racist system, or part of an Islamophobic society. These issues are real, but the question of, say, whether a Muslim should get time off for prayers can be dealt with easily. Traditional arrangements didn’t include this time off as it wasn’t an issue. But instead people had tea breaks and fag breaks. Letting someone have a break at prayer time shouldn’t be any more of an issue than letting someone have a fag break. It’s not giving anyone a special deal, it’s not disadvantaging non-Muslims or non-smokers if they can also have a break when they want to. Personally, I’ll take my breaks to read the papers.


*One thing that has annoyed me in the past is the belief that without religion you can’t be moral. Of course you can have religion without ethics and ethics without religion. But it seems obvious to me though, that religion is more likely to generate ethical beliefs than science because that’s sort of the point. The ontological claims of religion (e.g. there is a God, bad people go to hell) are essentially untestable and don’t necessarily have an impact on society. It’s their moral claims that matter (e.g. killing people is bad). In science, this relationship is the other way round. We can prove certain physical laws but these don’t necessarily help guide our beliefs about what is good or bad. There is a relationship between the knowledge and the ethics but it isn’t a simple one.


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