Monday, July 11, 2011

Discrimination, pt3/3 - Philosophers

I posted the other week about legal protection from religious discrimination. Atheists may be asking "how is it that the law protects people for the faith in an invisible sky lord, or a magical elephant headed helper, but not the beliefs grounded on evidence or reason?" Well good news everyone. The law also covers "philosophical belief" or even "lack of belief" (handy for agnostics).

Of course, this begs the question, what counts as a "philosophical belief"? One test is that beliefs are of "sufficient cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance and are worthy of respect in a democratic society." Another is that the beliefs have an impact on the actions and behaviour of the individual. (This is also a useful test of whether they are genuinely held - if someone doesn't act on their beliefs they're probably not serious about them.)

There are two notable cases here.

The first concerns Tim Nicholson, the former Head of Sustainability at Grainger, a major building & property company. He had frequent clashes with other managers and the firm's CEO, who it appears did not share his beliefs in sustainability. After he was made redundant, Nicholson took the company to Employment Tribunal, claiming unfair dismissal and discrimination on the grounds of religious or belief.

In the course of proceedings,
John Bowers QC, representing Grainger, had argued that adherence to climate change theory was "a scientific view rather than a philosophical one", because "philosophy deals with matters that are not capable of scientific proof."
Fortunately the judge disagreed. As Nicholson's QC said, "the end result would be that the more evidence there is to support your views, the less likely it would be for you to enjoy protection against discrimination".

In another case, Joe Hashman was dismissed from his job as a gardener after his employers found out he had been an active hunt saboteur and animal rights activist. In court he was queried as to his beliefs. Why, for example, he found it acceptable to kill caterpillars or (by accident) worms - he drew a distinction between vertebrates and invertebrates. Interestingly, the other side's lawyers also suggested his beliefs endorsed violence and thus were not worthy of respect. However the judge found that Hashman's beliefs did qualify for protection. The case is now proceeding to an employment tribunal to determine whether those beliefs actually were the reason for the dismissal.

It's good to know that the law doesn't simply protect beliefs based on superstition and tradition. I wonder, though, how easy it will be to apply. Although people within religions believe loads of different things, they do tend to have some central authorities proscribing beliefs and behaviour. Secular philosophies tend to lack these - indeed they often encourage thinking for yourself and heterogeneity. Are people going to be categorised if they depart from mainstream veganism, or if they apply utilitarianism inconsistently? The law seems to penalise individualistic beliefs. But then again, the point of the law is to protect groups who have historically suffered persecution or disadvantage, so maybe that is not a problem.

Incidentally, another side-effect of this is the same principle as preventing gay clubs from excluding straight customers. It would be just as illegal for, say, a vegan restaurant to refuse to employ an omnivorous person as it would a regular restaurant to employ a vegan. (In fact, the vegan restaurant would be in a trickier position, as it'd generally be harder for a vegan to work in a regular restaurant.)

No comments: