Gay cakes and business by association

Ethics

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When you engage in business and provide goods and services, is your conscience switched on? Are you in some way condoning the event for which you are providing your wares? Or is it strictly business, as the mafia men might say?

By now some of you will be sick to death of the noise being made about the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, in which the United States Supreme Court (with some dissent) ruled that there exists a constitutional right for same-sex couples to have their unions recognised by law as marriage (via a marriage licence). I’ve commented on the Bill to create same-sex marriage in New Zealand in the past (a Bill that was passed), and – on quite another note – I’ve commented on some criticisms of the observation that the Bible prescribes marriage as the union of a man and a woman. I may have more to say about the latter in the future, but throughout all of these conversations the issue of religious freedom has popped up from time to time. There have been some cases of Christian business owners (bakers and florists in particular) who were asked to supply products or services for a same-sex wedding but who, due to their views on marriage, declined. In a libertarian society this would be a simple matter: They chose not to engage in business with somebody, so no contract was formed. Still, there are plenty of other bakers and florists out there, most of whom will be only too glad to take your money.

But as many of you know, this is not where things ended. Business owners in these situations are being slapped with huge fines ($135,000 US in the most recent case) and effectively shut down, prevented from serving anyone at all. In the most recent case, they are also being effectively gagged, ordered not to publicly express their views that led to their refusal in the first place. Silent, broke, and out of business. That’s where people like this belong, apparently.

We are familiar with animal welfare spokespeople calling for us to be discerning about where we get our bacon or eggs. We see posters with photographs of pigs and chickens living in cramped conditions with detailed descriptions of the unpleasant details of their lives at factory farms. Because these spokespeople and groups disapprove so strongly of what these farmers are doing, they don’t just call on the farmers to stop what they are doing, they call on us, the consumers, to not buy meat or eggs from farms like that, because by doing business with them we are implicated in what they are doing.

In another case, the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA) has called on actress Nicole Kidman to end her professional relationship with United Arab Emirates based Etihad Airways, who are paying her to advertise for them. They say that there is a real conflict here between Kidman’s speaking for equal rights for women and her relationship with a company that “imposes abusive labour practices on its female employees and whose sole owner is a government that stands against the very world that you imagine.”

… there is a widespread understanding – and for plausible reasons – that when we engage commercially with others we express some level of approval of – or at least a lack of objection to – the activity we are commercially patronising.

There are (at least) two parties to a business transaction. These and other cases are evidence that there is a widespread understanding – and for plausible reasons – that when we engage commercially with others we express some level of approval of – or at least a lack of objection to – the activity we are commercially patronising. We also understand (silly posters notwithstanding) that the extent to which we can be implicated in approving the actions concerned will depend on the directness of the relationship between our actions and those actions on the part of the other party, as well as – crucially – our knowledge of the other party’s actions or intentions. These two factors are why it is plausible to think that you are culpable if you serve alcohol to a person becoming drunk as they hold car keys and prepare to drive home, but not culpable if you sell a hunting rifle to a man who says that he intends to shoot possums, but who appears in next week’s newspaper over a multiple shooting homicide.

Things would be quite different for the gun seller if a man came into her store and said “please sell me that handgun so that I can go outside and shoot the guy standing next to the door over there.” Under such circumstances I would hope we all recognise that the salesperson would have some degree of culpability if she sold this man the gun.

Things would be quite different for the gun seller if a man came into her store and said “please sell me that handgun so that I can go outside and shoot the guy standing next to the door over there.” Under such circumstances I would hope we all recognise that the salesperson would have some degree of culpability if she sold this man the gun. For those who believe that same-sex marriage is illegitimate (and hence they cannot approve of the celebration of same-sex weddings), this is what the case is like. They know with some certainty the purpose for which their goods and services will be used, and hence they believe that they would have some culpability for supporting the celebration if they engage in business in the way that is requested of them.

My bet is that we all understand this without much difficulty in all cases other than same-sex weddings. It makes rather obvious sense, but we have an unfortunate tendency to be forgetful when we don’t want someone to sound reasonable. The very social liberals who would gladly support boycotts against those who contract with companies who use slave labour or commercially support deep-sea oil drilling will act in the case of same-sex marriage’s crusade against “bigots” as a completely different person, one who sees no connection between what activities you are commercially connected to and those of which you approve (or at least, are prepared to overlook for the sake of making money).

Anything less than submission at every level is unacceptable, and if you will not bow, you will be crushed.

A recent case of a jeweller actually providing rings for a same-sex couple, only for the customer to demand a refund (after the custom-made rings had been produced) on the grounds that the jeweller held (and freely expressed) the belief that marriage is properly between a man and a woman fans the suspicion that actions like these are not really about the human rights of the customer being violated, but rather about targeting and punishing those with the audacity to remain unpersuaded by the new orthodoxy. Anything less than submission at every level is unacceptable, and if you will not bow, you will be crushed. When the first bullet missed (and the retailer provided what was asked for), a second was fired. Of course, by demanding a refund and choosing not to do business with the jeweller because of the jeweller’s beliefs, this couple serve as an example of people who completely understand that commercial engagement and approval are related.

Look, if you think bakers, florists, and jewellers (or anyone else) who believes that marriage is between a man and a woman are ignorant bigots, go ahead and say so (but you really shouldn’t think that). Argue about that issue. Engage with the arguments about the nature of marriage. Try your best to get people to appreciate your point of view and to understand why they ought to reconsider their stance on marriage. Go for it. But lies are beneath us. You ought to stop feigning the inability to understand why a business owner believes that in commercially acting in support of an event, they are somehow condoning it. I don’t believe this is a special one-off genuine failure to understand, except in the sense that you have managed to convince yourself, possibly. You understand perfectly well how guilt by association works in other scenarios. Stop making exceptions playing stupid when it comes to your pet cause.

Glenn Peoples

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{ 11 comments… add one }
  • Ciaron July 9, 2015, 3:14 pm

    Indeed, there seems to be a fair bit of goalpost shifting going on.
    Given what Romans 13 appears to teach in submission to ruling authorities, where does that leave us when those authorities legislate un-Godly behaviour? In the same way that Christians are not responsible for their taxes being used to fund abortions (for example), do we actually have any culpability in providing services to same sex unions, as they are not now (in NZ) illegal?

    Intuitively I want to say no, we are still culpable, in light of the criticism that Jesus leveled at the Pharisees for worshiping the traditions of men. but I wondered if there are better grounds to stand on…

  • Glenn July 9, 2015, 3:20 pm

    I read Romans 13, as I read most moral instructions, as prima facie. When the apostles were warned not to evangelise, they broke the rules and said that it is better to obey God and not men. When Daniel was prohibited by law from worshiping Yahweh, he did it anyway. And as for Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego… etc. 🙂

  • David July 9, 2015, 9:36 pm

    When you engage in business and provide goods and services you do so in the full knowledge of the law relating to that provision.

    In this specific case the law prohibits discrimination in providing goods and services based on, among other things, sexual orientation. There is no religious exemption in the law, nor should there be.

    These arguments are identical to those used in the US to defy the government over mixed race marriage laws.

    Your purported arguments drag in many extraneous issues, but none of them are analogous to the case of a wedding cake.

    IF, and it is a huge IF, the bakers in question also refused to bake wedding cakes for adulterers, divorcees, fornicators then perhaps I would concede they had a religious objection. But regardless, religious belief is not a get out of jail free card.

    Yes, I believe that people have a right to follow their conscience, but they must also be prepared for the consequences of that choice. I have stood against a law that was wrong by my conscience, but I also accepted that stand could have led me to imprisonment. I did not cry persecution, I did not beg for financial aid, I simply stood shoulder to shoulder with those who shared my opposition to the government, come what may.

  • Glenn July 9, 2015, 9:43 pm

    David, I haven’t said anything here about whether refraining from engaging in a particular business transaction for any particular reason is legal (one issue) or should be legal (another issue). This blog post is about the issue of whether or not it’s plausible to think that engaging in business transactions can indicate approval (or lack of condemnation) of related activities. Ev everything you have said about that could be correct (it’s not), and yet this blog post could be right on the money.

    I think the frequent comparison to interracial marriage is laughable, but again, here it is completely beside the point.

    Less polite version: As far as this particular blog post goes, I just don’t care what you think about whether or not people should be allowed to follow their conscience and to what extent. That’s a different issue.

  • David July 9, 2015, 10:26 pm

    OK.

    I run a small business, a newsagent/stationer/gift shop/ lotto shop, etc. Among the products I sell are small, plastic zip lock bags. Some are sold to store craft items, like small beads, etc. Some are sold for pills or weed. I know this, but can I be expected to know which are which? Should I query each customer about their intended use?

    Or should I just be happy that I buy at 35 cents and sell at $3.95?

  • Glenn July 9, 2015, 10:36 pm

    “but can I be expected to know which are which?”

    No, and I’d say that probably matters when it comes to the people who would decline to sell in some cases. I covered this, using the gun seller example. If, however, somebody came to you and asked for a load of equipment for, I don’t know, making / storing / selling drugs and they told you what they were up to and you refused on those grounds, then I think (whether actually right or wrong), your refusal would be understandable since we would all understand why your conscience might be troubled (assuming you had a problem with drugs).

    Querying customers about their intended use seems pretty unnecessary and nosey. Unless you actually had a reason to think they were using it for some purpose that you wanted no part of, the question should never arise.

    Sound about right?

  • Brown July 10, 2015, 9:34 am

    @David

    The issue facing Christians is much more direct than your zip lock bag example. Progressives will seek out those they know will be offended to deliberately put them in a position of difficulty. I was taught that respect is a two way thing but clearly I was misinformed.

  • Jojo Alva July 10, 2015, 7:22 pm

    I’ve always wondered what would happen in this hypothetical scenario. For those that are in favor of forcing business owners to participate in celebratory ceremonies that violate their deeply held personal convictions, how would they would respond if Elton John were to refuse to provide entertainment services at a Dolce&Gabbana pro-natural family celebration? Mr Dolce has expressed pro-natural family and anti-commercial surrogacy views that Elton John strongly disagrees with. Elton John has a booking agent as is often booked by high profile celebrities for various functions. Being that all three men are gay the last thing we would be able to call Elton John is homophobic or bigoted. You’d be able to accuse Elton John of being a principled man that stood by his deeply held convictions but the favorite naughty labels would be tabled.

    Also when a baker bakes a wedding cake for adulterers, divorcees or fornicators they are not being asked to provide a service in the context of celebrating adultery, divorce or fornication. I think David misses that.

    Great stuff Glenn.

  • Mick July 14, 2015, 2:48 am

    Refusing to supply cakes to the procreationally challenged is one level. But what about cases like where a B&B owner refused to let out a double bed in their house to two lesbians as occured recently?
    To be consistent they would have to look at marriage licenses for heteros. Are some occupations therefore off limits?

  • Glenn July 14, 2015, 11:07 pm

    “to supply cakes to the procreationally challenged”

    I know it may seem picky, but whenever I see this sort of language I try to be consistent in pointing out that it is not about supplying cakes to certain types of people. It is about – as I hope is clear from this blog entry – materially supporting an event or action (or believing that they would be supporting it) that they do not morally support, in this case a same-sex wedding.

    The issue of B&Bs, in order to be viewed in terms of what this blog entry is about, would have to be cast as follows: “To what extent are B&B owners involved for the short-term cohabitation of unwed couples that happens there?”

    It’s not at all true that to be “consistent” they would have to check for marriage certificates (licences, at least in NZ, are permission to marry – the certificate shows that you are married by law). After all, the issue in the case of the bakers is that they found out without trying to. If they sold a wedding cake that ended up being used for a same-sex wedding and they were unaware of it, they would probably not feel like they “participated,” since they never knowingly supplied the cake for that purpose. Similarly, a B&B owner might have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” type of policy where they were happy not knowing what people did, but if they found out that something was going to happen that they weren’t comfortable with, they would refuse.

    From this it certainly wouldn’t follow that some occupations are off limits. That seems to be quite the wrong sort of line to draw. Maybe the real line would be some measure of how “nosey” the service provider was in terms of finding out what their product or service was going to be used for.

  • Standifer May 7, 2016, 3:06 am

    The meme with the kid is completely void of common sense & logic & can be torn down in so many ways. I award it’s maker no points, and may God have mercy on his soul. Of course selling a gun to a known murderer makes the seller complicit in the crime. The meme easily makes the point if those it’s opposing.

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