A Voluntaristic Perspective on Religious Freedom Laws

April 3, 2015

Recently Tim Cook came out with an opinion piece in the Washington Post opposing “religious freedom” legislation introduced in several states. I want to take this opportunity to talk about the ethical implications of anti-discrimination laws, as well as the sentiment expressed by Tim Cook itself.

He ends his piece with these words:

This isn’t a political issue. It isn’t a religious issue. This is about how we treat each other as human beings. Opposing discrimination takes courage. With the lives and dignity of so many people at stake, it’s time for all of us to be courageous.

I couldn’t agree more. However, I’m sure that my understanding of these lines is diametrically opposed to what what Tim Cook had in mind.

Fundamentally, this whole thing — as any legislation — is a moral issue. The basic moral crux doesn’t lie in the act of discrimination itself though, but in the laws prohibiting discrimination in the first place. That’s a bold claim, but let me make the case for it.

First of all, I believe it’s crucial to separate how you feel about this kind of discrimination from legislative actions banning or allowing it. With regard to the former, I’m confident that I’m on the same page with most of you. People discriminating purely based on e.g. sexual orientation have a value system that’s incompatible with mine, and I wouldn’t want to associate with them. The benefit of separating those feelings from the legislative issues is that we can examine the latter from a more rational point of view.

Next, we have to acknowledge that we all discriminate against others in our personal, romantic, and professional relationships, i.e. we choose with whom to engage to what degree based on subjective preferences. We do recognize though that we all have the necessity and the right to do so on the personal level, and that the act of discrimination itself is a peaceful one, i.e. we don’t initiate force against anybody by discriminating.

If it’s acceptable (in a moral sense, i.e. we might disagree with it but are not justified to use force to change the behavior) for someone as a natural person to discriminate against others based on e.g. political orientation, sexual preferences or any other trait, this standard cannot suddenly be reversed when the same person stands behind the counter of his shop. Introducing opposing moral standards for the same person under different circumstances leads to insurmountable contradictions in your ethical system.

To drive this point home a bit further, consider the other side of economic transactions: If a store owner is not allowed to discriminate, why are the customers allowed to do so? How can it be legal for a customer to discriminate against a gay shop owner by bringing his business somewhere else, but not the other way round? They’re both human beings subject to the same ethical standards.

At the beginning of his statement Tim Cook says:

A wave of legislation, introduced in more than two dozen states, would allow people to discriminate against their neighbors.

The key word here is allow. If you don’t allow somebody to do something, you have to prevent it from happening. Leaving all personal feelings aside, laws against discrimination are bans on otherwise peaceful actions enforced by the threat of lethal force. If you support this kind of legislation (or oppose legislation that tries to reverse it), you’re implicitly expressing consent with the threat and ultimately the use of lethal force against individuals for the act of refusing to engage with other individuals.

Would you be comfortable to pick up a gun yourself, walk up to an individual who would be targeted by anti-discrimination laws, and coerce him or her into acting otherwise? If you wouldn’t be comfortable doing this — and I sincerely hope you’d be repelled by the mere idea of it — you only have two options: either you reject the same behavior by proxy of the state, or you admit that you’re not opposed to this on principle, but you just want to keep your own hands clean.

Tim Cook ends his statement with an appeal to courage:

Opposing discrimination takes courage. With the lives and dignity of so many people at stake, it’s time for all of us to be courageous.

I’d argue that opposing discrimination in the form of supporting a particular legislation takes no courage. To the contrary, you’re hiding behind an abstract entity called the state to support the use of force against peacefully acting individuals, as undesirable as their actions might seem to you. I’d call that cowardice.

What really takes courage — and what really makes a difference — is to stand up against discrimination in your personal life, face to face. In the abstract it’s easy to advocate for laws whose enforcement you never have to witness, let alone enact. Voting for a politician or going to a rally is much easier than calling out the wrongdoings of people around you, engaging in conversations with them, and accepting the personal and social consequences of standing up for what you believe.

Let’s bring these issues down to a personal level, put down the gun of the law, and work towards peaceful solutions.