Like I said in this week’s post, talk of “rights” is an equivocation and wholly unconvincing when the “right” in question curries moral disapproval by large swaths of the population. In the case below, one man’s rights can often trample the rights of his fellow countryman.

The indubitable Roger Scruton has an excellent post at The American Spectator offering his reflection on what it means when individuals are discriminated against for holding to traditional understandings of morality. The context of the article is framed around British Christians who operated a hotel and prevented a homosexual couple from staying there and were fined for it.

Maybe the British hotel keepers have failed to move with the times; but their “prejudice” is not some blind, dark passion like the visceral fear of albinos. It is one part of a considered religious morality that has stood the test of time. You may question this morality, and it could be that it has lost some of its former credibility. But to marginalize it in this surreptitious way is to do a great injustice to the many who have lived by it and the many who strive still to adhere to it.

THIS, IT SEEMS TO ME, shows what is really at stake in these disputes. They are not about human rights, or about the perennial conflict between liberty and equality. “Non-discrimination” clauses are ways of smuggling in vast moral changes without real discussion. Their open-ended nature, and the vagueness of their application, renders them almost immune to reasoned rebuttal. There is no knowing, from one year to the next, which of our ways of discriminating between people will be ruled out in the next extension of the law. Sex, sexual orientation, and maybe soon sexual practices — so that the hotel keeper will no longer be able to discriminate against the person who happens to live as a prostitute. By penalizing old-fashioned morality in this way you do not make toleration of the new morality more likely. On the contrary, you sow the seeds of resentment, by removing from ordinary people the freedom to follow their conscience in a matter that deeply troubles them.

Liberals do not usually notice this, for the reason that the new society, shaped by the ideology of non-discrimination, seems to be going their way. But it could easily start to go against them, as the Islamists use the non-discrimination clauses in order to protect the segregation of women, polygamy, incitements to violence, and all the other things that Islamists claim to be demanded by their faith, and which it would be “discrimination” to forbid. It will be clear, then, if it is not clear now, that vast changes in the moral standpoint of the law cannot be smuggled in by open-ended clauses, without creating a weapon that can be used as easily by your foes as by your friends.

Lewis spoke that “We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.” In that spirit, this system of rights, which Scruton rightfully labels “open-ended” and “vague” presents the future possibility that we’re fashioning a society where we shun disapproval and are shocked to find our civilization dead, not by murder or outside aggressor, but as Toynbee said, awash in self-inflicted (& rights-based) suicide.

Posted by Andrew Walker

  • casey

    Excellent post, Andrew. It seems that when you culturally remove most moral standards as absolutes it becomes increasingly difficult to make and enforce lawa that aren’t eventually self defeating. The position that “we will tolerate everyting except intolerance” seems like a dog chasing its on tail. It has to either go the way of state imposed morality (you will conform to what we’ve deemed as morality!) or anarchy (we give up trying to make anybody do anything).

    Does Christian political philosophy contain the answer to this? Trying to make a cohesive set of laws for an increasingly multi-cultural (multi-religious, multi-philosphy) society seems difficult.

    Sorry…I’m just thinking outloud and rambling, here.