Accommodating Minority Religious Requirements vs Human Rights: Ethicist Chris MacDonald Get The Balance Right

garyclementEthics 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.”

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64 thoughts on “Accommodating Minority Religious Requirements vs Human Rights: Ethicist Chris MacDonald Get The Balance Right

  1. I think that making him do the assignment was right, but perhaps not for the reasons the professor gave. Simply put, assignments are crafted as they are for a reason. While a student is certainly free to request special treatment or suggest an alternative, it had better be pretty compelling before they get to buck the assignment created by the professor to fulfill class purposes.

    That’s enough of a reason, though, and should be the primary reason. If is proposed exemption would directly affect females in the class, then that’s also valid, but if it amounted to “don’t make me interview EVERYONE in the class” or “Please agree to have none of my group members be female,” then it has no direct on the female members. They may have a right to be treated with respect, but that means he should not be disrespectful to them- if he doesn’t talk to them it’s really no skin off their nose unless he’s partnered with them and deliberately not contributing.

    The squishy feel-good about treating people equally may be true and ethical, but there’s no treason for it to be the primary purpose for dismissing his request. “You would hurt their feelings” doesn’t hold a candle to “No, you really need to do the assignment as written to get what you need to from the course” as an explanation. Of course my thoughts are all void if his proposed accomodation was something like “make all the girls sit on that half of the room.”

    • If the student had said his religion mandates that he prevent contact with disabled/obese/jew/pygmy people should the professor have accommodated him as well?
      Because it wouldn’t be no skin off a wheelchair user’s nose if he avoided them because they’re disabled.
      Any religion that ask of you that you not treat people equally because of their sex, religion, skin colour or other attributes should be allowed to trump everyone’s basic right to be treated equally?

      Also, I found it cute that you wrote “They [women] MAY have a right to be treated with respect”, not that they have it.

    • Bingo. When you have a perfectly valid teaching reason, it seems to just be an exercise in proving how progressive you are to break out the “no, your religion has unacceptable ideas about dealing with women” when you don’t have to.

      • Or, inform the student that full grasp of the topic will require interaction with all the students, and the professor would be more than willing to accommodate his request, but that his grade may suffer if he is unable to demonstrate a full grasp of the knowledge.

        That would be a great market lesson: You wanna withdraw yourself from half the market? Ok, but there are market driven consequences.

      • “Unacceptable ideas about dealing with women” or not, you go to a co-ed college, you get a co-ed experience.
        You don’t want that experience, for whatever reason (women are inferior, women distract men from their studies, cooties, whatever), go to a different school. Don’t want to go to a different school? Then, suck it up.

        • This option, which advances the lesson to the first market interaction would also work, but the university/college would basically refuse a transaction prior to even knowing the individual’s attitudes. Then ignore an opportunity to educate said individual.

          • Not really. The school is not refusing a transaction. It is simply presuming that the person applying knows that he wants THAT school. Notre Dame does not refuse admission to non-Catholics, but they are right to figure that anyone who applies to Notre Dame is not going to complain about all that “God-talk.”

  2. I agree with Charles James Napier when confronted with the custom of burning widows in India:
    “This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property.”

    • Granny, sati or suttee is ritual suicide, no more to be condemned than seppuku, or self immolation as a political protest or altruistic suicide by proxy as in ‘it is a far better thing that I do…’. That quote from Napier is fairly notorious nowadays. But you knew all that, maybe?

      • Sati or suttee is ritual suicide because widows in India were (and in many cases still are) treated like absolute garbage, and expected to kill themselves because they are not worthy to outlive their husbands. Widows who survive their husbands, even today, are often outcasts, begging from temple to temple. Bruce, if you think you can possibly compare THAT to a political protest, I hope you don’t fancy yourself “progressive” or “compassionate.”

        I wasn’t familiar with the quote above before now, but if it is “fairly notorious” it had better be because it is so absolutely correct.

      • I think Napier had a point. The laws of a nation must be respected and obeyed or one has committed a crime. At the time India was under the direct administration of Britain and subject to it’s laws. In the USA all citizens and non-citizens are subject to federal and state laws. If members of minority religions disagree with the laws and regulations of this country they can work and advocate to change what they don’t like. Personally, I have little patience for those who immigrate here where women have to wear burkas and try to force or coerce public institutions to adopt alien customs.

        • I’m glad you agree that it is arrogant to go to another country and expect women to drive cars and not wear a burka. We are at one on that – both edges of the rule though, not just one way traffic, if you please.

      • As I say, it is hard to know where to begin. Sucidal issues can depend on beliefs about the afterlife and conditions that apply to a hiigh status there/then/on that plane/in reincarnation.This is an extreme example and the main post is about education not suicide. I’m not sure why Granny chose to inject the issue here. However just to show there can be a matter open to debate:
        We praise Aitzaz Hasan the anti sucide bomber, but condemn a sucicide bomber who attacks a freindly barracks as a murderer. We might praise a dead war heroe who falls on a grenade, but treat cowards ‘like garbage’. Though we condemn suicide in general we accept that the bereaved may take to the bottle and the street, eat from a dumpster and freeze to death, round about…now, We don’t ritualise death of the bereaved by booze/drugs. But we might sing a sad song or two. Are we so far from Sati?

        Please note I do not say there is no platform from which to judge cultures on a common basis. But it would not be a simple straight forward matter and first reactions (ethno-centric or ethno-specific? would those be the right terms) can mislead us.

        • Are we so far from Sati?

          Yes. Yes we are.

          Because we allow for the person falling to the bottle and the street the choice to do so. The women burned upon the deaths of their husband were not so frequently give the choice.

          • Yes they were given choice. Sati is Sati, murder is murder. They are different. If you plead cultural indoctrination I respond the same for our strange attitude to alcohol.

            • Suti was a practice of “go burn with your husband’s corpse or we will cast you out to die in wilds”.

              If I put a needle in your arm and tell you to inject yourself with poison or I will throw you out into the sub-zero night without any shelter, which option would you take, and which one would not be murder?

              • And heroism is a culture of ‘fall on this grenade or we will treat you as a coward and cast you out on the streets with a head full of bad memories’

                As for the rest it’s even between the cultures as described. If you want to call a homeless death murder then fine. The West has as much to answer for as the East on that score. Like I said. You claimed cultrual indoctrination – i counter claim it against that West and alcohol. There is a away to find the truth on this but we need to get away from easy assumptions.

            • Some according to their understanding of Hindu religious practices did commit suicide in this manner. However, many sects of Hinduism opposed this practice and the element of coercion and peer village pressure cannot be overlooked. Common sense trumps “cultural sensitivity” imho. Support of Sati, including coercing or forcing someone to commit Sati, can be punished by death sentence or life imprisonment, while glorifying Sati is punishable with 1–7 years in prison under current law in India.

              • That’s quite correct as I understand it. In some western states, I believe, in our Western world suicide is a crime, in order to deter anyone from assisting the suicide. But we still give no prosecutions for unsuccesful suicide bids. Strangely that seems to make suicide illegal but not unethical.

                Coercion and village pressure are also present in the west. That it happens in the east at all does not make our culture superior. And that is what we are getting at I think.

                Common sense does trump most things but what is truly common? Common to the whole world?.

                • “But we still give no prosecutions for unsuccessful suicide bids. Strangely that seems to make suicide illegal but not unethical.”

                  Huh? The fact that the state prosecutes or doesn’t prosecute conduct is completely irrelevant to whether or not that conduct is ethical, as is the choice as to whether conduct is illegal or not. One purpose of the law is the enforce ethical conduct when societal standards won’t or don’t and the harm is great. But much that isn’t unlawful is horribly unethical.

                  And attempted suicide assistants are prosecuted, as any other accessory to attempted murder is. The laws against suicide, in fact, are primarily in place to deter third parties, as well as to register society’s formal objection to the act as one of violence against the living and society generally.

                  Which it is.

                  • Whereas I don’t care if someone kills themselves. Yes yes, horrible for those who knew them, but the freedom to choose means the freedom to choose poorly, and I certainly don’t begrudge someone dying slowly and painfully the right to end the suffering.

                  • In categories of behaviour:
                    Illegal unprosecuted unethical: is familiar
                    Legal not relevant unethical: is familiar
                    Illegal unprosecuted ethical: is new to me, I’d not seen it in the support material, so i flagged it. Thanks for the reply.

        • “We praise Aitzaz Hasan the anti sucide bomber, but condemn a sucicide bomber who attacks a freindly barracks as a murderer. We might praise a dead war heroe who falls on a grenade, but treat cowards ‘like garbage’”

          Are you trying to establish that our society holds contradictory attitudes? Because there is absolutely nothing contradictory about any of the attitudes you mention.

          • No, only that there is a certan consonance or similarity betwen the results of a superserficial glance at our culture through a critics eyes and our similar glance at another’s culture. By raising the question of how far are we from our own version of Sati I’m hoping to see things from their point of view. It’s more complex than some think.

    • In case anyone cared, the full quote Wyo cites (because I think the whole thing is just so much more powerful)

      Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.

      I would, as an aside, suggest the reading of this post by Dale Franks over at QandO. You might consider it a musing on civilization.

        • I took the hint and read this. It seems very close to the beating heart of this blog. I’d certainly recommend it as a short introduction or flavour of the place. As my own general postion is both adamantly in favour of a fraction and equally trenchantly opposed in detail and in character to the remainder, I’ll say no more.Thank you for leading me to it.

          • “It seems very close to the beating heart of this blog. I’d certainly recommend it as a short introduction or flavour of the place.”

            What, how so?

            “As my own general postion is both adamantly in favour of a fraction and equally trenchantly opposed in detail and in character to the remainder, I’ll say no more.”

            Do say more.

            • I’ll try to express this carefully since it interests you. Thank you for your interest. And thank you AMS for bringing the lnk forward in the first place. it’s appearance is timely as it happens.
              The linked document has many of the features the host and contributors of his blog generally approve of, or so it seems to me. It is well argued succinct, vivid, passionate, popular, accessible, devoted to freedom, concerned for the legacy of great America.

              One could add: Distressed but by no means despairing on the state of the US nation. Sees salvation in education, return to old values and the unapologetic use of force. Is generally libertarian in outlook but not to the extent of ranting. Inclusive and permissive in its extensive comments and commentators. There are other virtues but I hope you understand why both the document and all that surrounds it reminds me of the blog. Creditably.

              If you want more I’ll say more.

              • I wonder if you intend to get to the trenchant opposition in detail and character or if you want to be begged for it.

                or maybe I don’t … it’s been several days now and blogs move on.

                • I acknowledge my innate duty to explain the trenchant opposition, I don’t need to be begged exactly. But I am aware that a ‘mind dump’ on such a broad scale could be long and hard to read and to state the case clearly on such a scale would need work (to make it brief and interesting to absorb the minimum of other people’s time). to that extent it was a bad thing to say on a blog post, which as you say moves on.

                  So given that the content of my brain is sometimes not much use, I ask the questiion – is it actually interesting, on the basis of the first part answer? As you have expressed an opinion, I’ll consider it, favourably.

                  • Well I did try, but honestly my responses are so individual and took so much background reasoning. I would need to write a book. Which no one would read. So I’ll tackle it issue by issue as the posts arise. But probably no more than once a month and then largely to suit the commenters. I’ve no wish to distract commentary flow again unlesss someone asks me to for some specific reason..

  3. I hardly know where to begin. I don’t know which culture the student came from, but a request not to interview women does not necessarily spring from a lack of equal respect for women. It is allowable or conceivable that a culture may establish equal but different rules for example the presence of an elder person to secure the honour of the woman from criticism for entertaining a private interview with a man to whom she is not related. I don’t say it is likely So far as ‘ve found, all the cultures of that kind end up with ‘honour’ rules which are I find deeply misogynistic (but western culture hardly shines bright as an example in that regard so we may have something to learn). But it is conceptually possible that the student is respecting women by other means in his request. I would need to know more than appears on the post to decide.

    I agree that the contract the student officially or implicitly enters is binding. If the student doesn’t fit the culture as sold, well caveat emptor buyer beware. I agree that one option is to withold the credit for the assignment. But accompanying that decision with a claim of cultural superiority is arrogant and offensive.

    It is a matter of style in the way the student is considered that will make a difference in the success of the approach. More a matter of practical diplomacy and politeness than of ethics, I’d say.

  4. Did they ever say which religion this student was? $10 says if he was from the Religion of Peace he would have gotten his accommodation.

  5. Once the university took his money they were obliged to offer him a Canadian university education. One of the vital parts of that education is learning to interact with different people and learning that your lifetime of stereotypes can’t survive contact with reality.

    Accommodating him would be cheating him.

    A lawyer from a minority group develops this idea further at

    That blogger sees so much educational value in diversity that he’s willing to approve of admissions processes that work against people like him.

    • Then again, there are people who – with a straight face and no irony at all – think that a Muslim who applies to work for a grocery store (and in so doing states that they are willing to perform the required duties of the job) should never be forced to touch even wrapped bacon when working as a cashier.

      • These are the same idiots who think it’s perfectly ok for Muzzie cab drivers to refuse to transport dogs (even those needed for services) or quiz customers on the contents of their luggage to make sure they aren’t carrying pork or alcohol. Go back to the sandpit.

  6. Did he hold females in contempt? If so then I would agree. If his reason were to,say,avoid temptation then I don’t agree. Why would females have a civil right to his company? He could go to an all male school but they aren’t allowed anymore are they? I wonder though if he were female if there would be such a fuss?

    • Interesting take. But I don’t see contempt as the line. Segregationists don’t have to hold blacks in contempt for the treatment of them as separate and not fit to be in the company of whites to be damaging. Most (not all) of those who object to gay marriage don’t hold gays in contempt. Culturally, endorsing the position that all individuals should not be treated with equal opportunity and respect is allowing a form of status-demeaning.

      • Agreed, the central matter is how to give equal treatment to both the women and the religious minority. Considering gulit or innocence of anyone won’t help.

        Are the women only treated equally if they are treated the same way, or is ‘equal but different’ a possible alternate egalitarian culture? And if it existed would our educational culture on plurality and openneness to new ideas indicate engagement or avoidance of that other culture? And if so on what terms? I think that is the core of the problem.

        The pracical solution is to appy the contract and the objective of learning, ie duck the essential question. But that’s not interesting.

        • What would this student do if they had a class with a female professor? Never ask a question or use office hours?

          There are a fuck load of women in the world. The poor dear should learn how to interact with them, if only so banking (as most tellers are female) and medical care (same with nurses) doesn’t become virtually impossible.

          • Such cultures have been around a while. Ways are found of making life practical, as long as everyones the same. A pluralist culture would be a bigger achivement.

            • Ways are found of making life practical, as long as everyones the same.

              Rather my point – We aren’t the same, and so this poor delicate flower will have to either retreat from civilized society, or learn to suppress whatever it is that requires he not interact with women.

              I mean, jesus, what would he do if he got hired somewhere? Never interact with a boss or co-worker? That would be asinine, not to mention impossible.

    • I forget the specifics, but there was quite a fuss raised over a Canadian Airline that had a policy that unattended minors could not be seated beside an adult male. Once the policy hit the media, there was an absolute shitstorm (as far as Canadian shitstorms are concerned anyway) and the policy was rescinded. So yeah… I don’t necessarily see this as a gendered issue.

  7. As the University’s dean states, though, there are mitigating (?) factors: Prof Grayson has exempt overseas students from the project altogether before and, for whatever reasons (practical, religious, social anxiety-related…), people might select online courses to minimise human interaction.

  8. Yay CanCon!

    What your write up doesn’t say, and has been overlooked by media here in Canada as well, is that the student had registered the course as distance ed. specifically to avoid this problem, but wanted to complete the course in house. The reason York eventually gave for allowing the student out of the group (even though he had already done it….) was that a distance education student should not be expected to do any group work. I have the feeling that’s the excuse they figured would be most acceptable.
    My take is that his views were discriminatory, inflammatory, and otherwise lame. But he has those views, there is a duty to accommodate enshrined in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the women in his group probably would not have been overly concerned with his absence. It’s a weak argument, but the alternative is an argument that the group was entitled to his participation. I don’t particularly like the idea that people have a right to diversity within their groups, especially since Freedom of Association is also enshrined in the Charter.
    It was an interesting conversation though, which charter rights trump others? What is reasonable accommodation? How far does it go?

    • the student had registered the course as distance ed. specifically to avoid this problem, but wanted to complete the course in house.

      And he made that choice to complete it in-house knowing full well that it would mean interacting with women. You are suggesting that the professor had a duty to alleviate this idiot of the consequences of his choices.

      That is bullshit.

      • Then again, I find the Charter of Rights and Freedom you have in Northest Dakota to be largely bullshit, as it is more concerned with people being free from being offended than it is with any concept of free expression – my right to speak is less important than your right to not have your feelings hurt.

        Not only is that condescending (“oh, you poor dear, you aren’t capable of dealing with things that upset you, so we’ll go punish that mean man so your fee-fees don’t get hurt again”), but it is antithetical to any fair concept of “freedom”.

        • I find a lot of things that happen in Canada’s Mexico equally disconcerting. I think on balance, I’m ok with the trade.

          That said, the feeling police are on the wane. It was a social experiment that went wrong, and I can’t remember the last time it was enforced the way you infer.

      • Look, people like this, they’re going to have a hard time. Eventually, he’s going to get a job, and will probably have to deal with women. I’m not defending his stance, it’s backwards. But he had taken the time and thought to concoct a scheme to do what he wanted to do, and as opposed to ” the professor had a duty to alleviate this idiot of the consequences of his choices” I would instead posit, ” the professor had no duty to put the idiot in the group in the first place.” and then “the idiot had no duty to participate.”

    • “There is a duty to accommodate enshrined in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the women in his group probably would not have been overly concerned with his absence.”

      And this flags the central problem with that Charter, or perhaps the U.S., depending on your point of view and where your hut stands.
      The second part of the statement is the Unethical Tree In the Forest crossed with “No harm, No foul.” Embracing bad conduct and flawed ethical principles is always harmful, and “like a cancer grows.”

    • I would normally agree with Jack that a university student should not be able to avoid working with women due to a religious conviction.

      However, I think the ethical calculus becomes murkier if the rule was that a student in an online course could be exempt from group work for just about any reason so long as it is not an odious one. Saying that you are not allowed to do what everyone else is allowed to do because your reason for doing it is wrong seems excessive to me.

  9. I tried to be open-minded about this guy but I simply could not.
    Once I read someone’s comment of “that’s bullshit!”, I could think of nothing else.

    The year is 2014.
    At this time in history, women are world leaders.
    Get over your extreme ignorance and obsolete world view or FO back to your craphole homeland.
    Why is anyone even humoring these freaks?

    • Because it’s his culture and we can’t judge other people like that because it might hurt their fucking feelings.

      God, don’t you know that? How brutish and non-progressive of you.

      • They corrupt our youth with rock and roll, alcohol, disrespect for elders, lewd fashions. Why is anyone even humoring these freaks. Don’t they know it’s 2014 and we had a female President in Pakistan already?

        Because it’s their US culture and we can’t judge because it might impinge their precious blaspheming free-speech. In the name of the prophet don’t you know that? How unmanly and insular of you.

  10. Jack,

    I’m certainly opposed to the draft, I’m not sure I recall your opinions on it. But, as the law of the land includes the possibility of a draft, what is your opinion then of religious exemption from that duty?

      • A status which would not have been included, if it hadn’t been for the same type of person as the subject of this post agitated for an exception to be made based on their religion. Thereby compelling other people to pick up the burden of the effort they are now exempt from.

        It’s analogous.

          • A) A duty has been imposed on a common body of people.
            B) A subset of the group demanded exemption from the duty on religious grounds.

            In one case, the exception was granted (on absolutist accommodationist **1st amendment grounds). In the other case, we’re debating it. But the outcomes don’t break the analogy, the premises above establish the analogy: the outcome only shows an inconsistency in the rationale.

            I suppose an argument could be made that one case is political, the other case is in the free market; however, I don’t think that shakes the analogy.

            **in fact, the original draft of the 2nd amendment, included a clause granting religious exemption from militia duty, if the militia was called out en masse.

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