Ethics Alarms is an unabashedly U.S.-centric ethics blog, for both practical and philosophical reasons, but mostly practical: I can’t cover all the worthy ethical issues that arise in this country, much less cover the world. Obviously useful ethics problems arise outside U.S. borders, and here was one I missed until now.
Paul Grayson, a professor at Toronto’s York University, was confronted with a male student’s request for a religious accommodation in a class assignment so that he would not be required to interact with female students in his class. The professor denied the request because, he wrote, “it infringed upon women’s right to be treated with respect and as equals.” The student accepted his decision and completed the assignment, interacting with female students as the assignment required. That did not end the tale, however. The dean of York University’s faculty of arts told Grayson that the student’s request would not have a “substantial impact” on the rest of the class, and should have been accommodated. That, in turn, prompted a national debate in media, religious and educational forums. Some, citing Canada’s commitment to “pluralism,” felt that the student’s religious beliefs should have trumped the culture’s commitment to gender equality and non-discrimination.
I think that the professor was easily the correct party here, and that an ethical culture can only be built by setting clear standards that participants in the culture are bound to accept. Pluralism defined as “your right not to be discriminated against gives you the right to force us to allow you to discriminate against others,” which is what the school’s defenders’ argument amounts to, is culture-wrecking, ethics weenyism—that is, the refusal to acknowledge that sometimes other cultures are in fact unethical, and should not be granted equal footing with ours, as they violate our core values.
Canadian ethicist Chris McDonald manages to make the same case without using the term “ethics weenyism,” for which he has my respect and admiration. He writes:
“…the general trend is that religion will be accommodated only up to the point where it interferes with someone else’s rights. So that’s (again, very roughly) the legal standard. But I think the ethical standard could be stricter still. For even if religious accommodation doesn’t literally violate someone else’s rights — if, for instance, accommodating the student in the case above weren’t found to have violated his female classmates’ right to equal treatment — there would still be grounds for denying the request. Some religious requirements should not be accommodated simply because they are unacceptable on principle. Yes, religious conviction is worthy of respect. But all religions evolve, and do so in part because the views of individual members of those religions evolve, as do their interpretations of specific religious requirements. Rather than accommodate religious beliefs that hold half the human species in contempt, we ought to gently encourage those who hold such beliefs to reconsider them.”