Update Comment: Is the Secular Left About “Fairness” or “Power”

Over at the Secular Outpost, philosopher Keith Parsons blogs on the following topic:

Calm discussions of “hot button” issues are rare, but I am having this opportunity now. Matt Flannagan is a distinguished evangelical philosopher who has written a number notable works, including Did God Really Command Genocide?, with Paul Copan. I have enjoyed a number of very interesting discussions with him on a wide variety of topics, and have always found his comments to be logical, informed, and civil (Getting even one of these three in an Internet discussion is, alas, rarer than it should be.). I recently asked him some questions about his views of LGBT rights and he responded at length. These issues are too important to be buried in a comments box, so I am posting our conversation here. I asked him five questions, which I will give with his replies. His replies are in bold. Below these I will give my replies immediately after each of his responses.

You can read the blog post here.

Now, in support of the secular side, and in response to the issue of whether Christian Bed and Breakfast owners should have to rent to homosexual couples, one of the commentators named Jason Thibodeau wrote the following:

When a person opens a business that rents rooms to other people, then the business owner is implicitly permitting these other people to use the room for any and all legal activities that are feasibly conducted in these rooms. Such activities include:
-conducting a religious service that consists in worship of Baal
-conducting a religious service that consists in worship of Yahweh
-engaging in sexual relations
-engaging in sexual relations that are legal but contrary to society’s mores
-eating animals
-writing erotic fiction
-writing same-sex erotic fiction
-writing blog posts that condemn eating meat
-writing blog posts that condemn vegetarianism
-writing blog posts that condemn the practice of Christianity
And this is just a small section of a very long list. If a prospective bed and breakfast owner does not want to permit any of the above (or any other) activities to be conducted in the property that she owns, then opening a bed and breakfast is probably not the best idea.
The bed and breakfast owner is selling time in a room to other people. It is not clear that the owner is responsible for the activities that these other people engage in during the time that they rent the room. But if the owner would feel that she would be complicit in whatever activities her renters engage in, then the best policy would be to get out of the business of renting rooms.

Now, mainly in response to this point, I wrote the following comment:


I know that I am a little late to the game here, and I know that some of my points have likely been touched on already—at least indirectly—but I just wanted to make the following observation.

Many people here argue that discrimination by Christian business owners should not stand for various reasons. For example, in one of his comments, Jason Thibodeau argues that Bed and Breakfast owners, when they open such a business, are implicitly permitting other people to use the rented room for any and all legal purposes that could be feasibly conducted in that room. Obviously, this is meant to argue that Christian business owners, such as Christian Bed and Breakfast owners, should not have the right to refuse service to a homosexual couple even though the homosexual couple may engage in behavior that the Christian couple finds seriously immoral.

However, it is here that I wonder whether the argument currently coming from the secular left is a principled one or just one of convenience and power borne out of the fact that they now find themselves on the winning side of this issue.

For example, imagine that a Christian group came to a Bed & Breakfast run by an atheistic homosexual couple in order to rent a room. The Christians then announce that they rented the room because they wanted to have a beautiful view as they conduct a non-violent, fully consensual—and hence legal—prayer exorcism for one of the members of their group in order to expel the “homosexual demon” from that person’s body. The Christians also want to hold a prayer vigil in the room in order to cleanse the whole Bed & Breakfast of its “oppression” from the homosexual demons that haunt it. Now, in such a scenario, I have no doubt that the Bed & Breakfast owners would likely refuse this group service. Furthermore, I strongly suspect that progressives and other secularists would likely support their refusal. And yet, the Christian group’s activity is perfectly legal. Ergo, do the Bed & Breakfast owners have a right to refuse in this case? They do not, and yet I doubt that that fact would stop secularists and progressives from somehow finding an “exception” in this case.

Now imagine, for another scenario, that a foreign Muslim rents a room from the same Bed & Breakfast for a week. The Muslim then tells the homosexual owners that he is a legal scholar from a Middle Eastern country, and he is taking his week-long vacation in this Bed & Breakfast to finish writing new laws for his country on how to put homosexuals to death. Now again, in such a situation, I have no doubt that the owners would want to refuse such a Muslim serve, and many on the Left would agree with the owners and support them in such a choice. But the activity is completely legal. Hence, do they have the right to refuse or not? And why?

Finally, imagine that an individual enters a bakery run by a homosexual man. The individual then orders a cake for a celebration. When asked what the celebration is about, the individual tells the homosexual owner that he (the individual) is celebrating the suicide of his “degenerate homosexual son”. Now again, though abhorrent, purchasing a cake for such a reason is perfectly legal, and so would secularists and progressives defend the right of the individual to force the homosexual cake shop owner to make the cake or be fined? Again, I doubt it.

And so, my worry is that the secular left is applying its “discrimination” outrage selectively, and if the shoe was on the other foot, the secular left would be screaming just as much as Christians are today. Now there is nothing surprising about this fact, as groups that are in power normally use that power to assert their worldview and way of existence, which is what the left is doing today, at least culturally. But we should not pretend that the secular Left is after “equality” or “fairness” in these cases. It is about power and worldview dominance, as it always has been, and as it always will be.

And note that while all these examples are horrid and even morbid, that is the point; they are the extreme examples which show us whether our principles are actually consistent and being applied fairly, or whether they are just tools for greater social and cultural power.

But in the end, what this whole discussion shows us is that a nation cannot survive as a nation when large chunks of its population are utterly divided about fundamental moral, social, and worldview issues. And so, in my view, the solution to this problem is not more laws, but an amicable separation. Let the secularists and progressives go their way, and the Christians and conservatives go their way. Either de facto or de jure separation. That is the only solution that will bring a lasting peace to the culture war, as well as the only likely solution that will keep the culture war from going hot.


The fact is–and as I stated–a good case can be made that these issues are just about power and cultural dominance, not fairness or equality. And that is fine, because that is how humans and human groups operate. But if that is the case, then either expect the culture wars to keep swirling out of control, or expect one side to beat the other, whether physically or not.


Commentator Joe responds to my post. His comments are in bold.



In my view, your reply simply reinforces what I have been saying all along: namely, that when the shoe is on the other foot, secularists and progressives will somehow find an ‘exception’ to their principles in these cases. And your comments are a strong testament to the truth of that claim. Observe…

You said:

“Ok, Scenario 1: Christians aren’t a marginal, persecuted group. They are actively persecuting a gay person, wether [sic] it’s consensual or not. Also, by extension, they are being offensive to the owners, who are gay.”

First, it is not so easy to make broad and sweeping generalizations about marginalization and persecuted groups. After all, how a person looks at the matter changes the perspective on whether a group is marginalized or persecuted. For example, if we are looking globally, then a good case can be made that Christians are one of the most widely persecuted and marginalized groups on the planet. Now, maybe they are not marginal in the United States, but this also depends on time and place. For example, are orthodox Christians living in San Francisco or other liberal bastions marginalized in those areas? A case could be made that they are. Furthermore, it is a bit of a stretch to claim that homosexuals are a marginal and persecuted group today. They may have been a number of years ago, but today homosexuality is downright glorified and celebrated in many parts of the Western world, so the marginalization claim is questionable at best. Finally, using “marginalization” and “persecution” as your criteria for allowing discrimination is a dangerous game; after all, how is marginalization objectively defined so that it can be used in law? Who gets to decide what marginalization is? There are serious questions that must be answered before allowing ‘marginalization’ to be the basis of discrimination.

Second, if marginalization and persecution are your criteria, then simply change the Christians in the scenario to Muslims or a small sect of some religion that has been marginalized and persecuted in the past. Does their request now suddenly become permissible because they too are a marginalized and persecuted group? Is it now the case that the homosexual Bed & Breakfast owners can no longer discriminate against them? Obviously, it is absurd to say that they could discriminate in one case but not another, and yet that is exactly what your statement entails. Ergo, your criteria for allowing discrimination—namely, being a marginalized and discriminated against group—is absurd. Furthermore, I thought this whole issue was about “equality” and “fairness”, but that would include equality and fairness to non-marginalized and non-discriminated against groups; but you seem to imply that being unfair is such groups is just fine…which is an interesting and illiberal way to go, to say the least.

Third, I am shocked concerning your second line. I thought liberals and progressives were all about consent being the sole criterion necessary for an activity to be permissible so long as no one was being harmed. In fact, the whole homosexual rights movement is largely build on that claim. And yet here you are claiming that even though the activity in my scenario is consensual, and even though it harms no one (it is just prayer, after all), it is nevertheless persecution and can thus be discriminated against. Wow! I thought liberals wanted government out of the business of consenting adults; but when it comes to consensual prayer vigils to exorcise the homosexual “demons” out of a person, sudden consent is no longer important and persecution is still occurring. Furthermore, what if the homosexual person clearly told you that he had freely decided that he wanted the exorcism? Would it still be persecution then? Does his consent no longer matter in that case? These are strange positions for a progressive and secularist to take.

Finally, is being “offensive” a sufficient criterion to warrant discrimination? Again, wow! What a Pandora’s box that opens. After all, it is easy for most people to become offended by a great many things, and so once offensiveness can be used as a criterion for discrimination, the doors are open to discriminate in all types of ways.

You said:

“Scenario 2: Executing homosexuals is not legal. Nor is advocating for it.”

You have misunderstood the point. In the Muslim’s country in my scenario, executing homosexuals is legal. Furthermore, in this country, free speech, such as writing—even writing very offensive things—is also legal. And since the Muslim is merely writing about that matter, he is doing nothing illegal. Furthermore, he may not even be an advocate for the law in question. Indeed, he might just be a government functionary or bureaucratic doing what he is told to do. So, your objections are irrelevant even if they were sound, but they are not. The point is that the Muslim would be doing nothing illegal, and yet here you are advocating that he be refused service on the basis of his fully legal behavior. Again, the double standard is starting to seep in.

You said:

“3: Again, persecution by a majority class against a minority. They are free to refuse business on character grounds.”

Again, majority and minority class ‘status’ is a hard thing to pin down. Are the few lone traditionalist Christians at a highly progressive college a minority or a majority class. I would argue that in their local sphere, they are a minority both in terms of the quantity of people opposed to them, and also because most people in power who can directly affect them are ideologically opposed to them. Ergo, in such a case, these Christians would be the minority. So, my point is that it is not so easy to determine who has majority status and who is a minority in each case.

Furthermore, I thought these issues were about “equality” and “fairness”, not who was in a position of majority or minority. After all, does not the majority have the right to be treated fairly and equally as well? Is this to be the tyranny of the minority over the majority?

Finally, permitting business refusal on “character” grounds is amazing and crazy! After all, just imagine the type of reasoning that opens: 1) Every person who engages in homosexual behavior has a bad character; 2) a homosexual couple wants me to bake them a cake; ergo 3) I can refuse them on character grounds. Just incredible! What a Pandora’s Box. As crazy as allowing discrimination on the basis of being “offensive”. And while you may disagree with the assessment that homosexuals have poor character, that is irrelevant, for determinations of good character are a person and worldview subjective thing. So such objections are irrelevant.

You said:

“These examples are not equivalent. Why can’t you see that?”

Joe, we all have our biases, and we all look at the world through our own worldview lens, so I can understand why you wonder why I cannot see that these examples are not equivalent. But at the same time, please understand that what I wonder about is why you cannot see that your points are simply ad hoc rationalizations which try to allow you to protect homosexuals from “offensiveness” and “bad characters” but not allow those same rights to Christians. In essence, I wonder why you don’t see that you are employing a double-standard and using whatever reasoning that you can to justify it. But, in the end, I do understand why this is the case: namely, morality binds and blinds, as Johnathan Haidt likes to say. And so we support our moral group even as we are blind to the reasoning and points of the other group. Who knows, maybe I am the one guilty of this. But right now, it sure looks like you are the one applying double-standards and post-hoc rationalizations as a means of protecting your group in a way that you do not wish to allow for other groups.



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