Equal Opportunities vs. Duty to Conscience

Recent news articles have brought attention to a human rights dilemma that is becoming increasingly contentious in our society.

These cases are just some of the latest battles in a long-running debate over the proper balance of influence in our legal framework between:

  • The right (perhaps duty) to act according to one’s own conscience,
  • The right to equality of opportunity, so that supply of goods and services will not be unreasonably denied.

Since the BBC has neglected to publish the comments I submitted at their general invitation regarding the new pharmaceutical code, I will publish my comments here:

Respect for conscience is a principle that should be applied across our entire society.  This works in both directions – from customer to pharmacist, and from pharmacist to customer.
The conclusion reached by the General Pharmaceutical Council is entirely reasonable – it is based on the premise that customers must respect the pharmacists conscience, and that if pharmacists are found to be disrespecting the conscience and needs of their customers, they will be required to behave in a certain way that encapsulates that necessary “respect”.
Last year an agency for striptease models asked me to write some computer software to help make their operations more efficient.  I had to tell them it would be unprofessional of me to engage in a project I couldn’t fully support because of my conscience.  However, so as not to offend against THEIR conscience, I suggested an alternative supplier they could contact (something I didn’t strictly have to do – since really it was their responsibility to find alternatives, and presumably if they were smart enough to run a business, they were smart enough to find an alternative supplier.)
>> Terry Sanderson…  “It seems incredible that pharmacists can arbitrarily tell people”…
- What brashness and arrogancy from Mr. Sanderson, to suppose that any matters of conscience are entirely “arbitrary”.  Unfortunately we’re seeing this kind of polemic against morality in various sectors of politics at the moment – there is a general attack on conscience in progress in our society.  …
We have all encountered situations where a person’s misguided morality has caused us some discomfort or embarrassment.  But why should morality have no influence on a person’s behaviour, whether that person is a pharmacist, a software developer or a hotelier?
We all implicitly acknowledge that morality has a place in our society.  Why should we not explicitly acknowledge this fact? Why would anyone try to legislate AGAINST conscience, the entire foundation of our society? If there is no morality, there can be no justice.

Conscience, Accountability and the Law

If anyone is to be forbidden from acting according to their own conscience, so that “equality” laws encroach further on the domain of conscience; how are people going to be held accountable before the law? Should we accept the defense of “…only following orders, Your Honour…”’; as the inevitable outcome of allowing our laws to trample on conscience and discretion? Accountability is fundamentally based on the principle of people being allowed to exercise their own free will according to our own conscience.  If we are not permitted to do this, then how can we be asked to justify ourselves? What legitimate basis can there be then for the administration of justice? What should a person do in an urgent case when two such instructions conflict? Should they use their own discretion and follow their conscience? Then surely, it is the exercise of our own conscience and sensibility, and not the mere following of instructions, for which we are ultimately accountable.  (Anyone who sincerely tries to follow ALL of the instructions they have been given will soon encounter unforeseen situations where one or more of the instructions given conflict.)

Pick-and-mix with principles

If we support the claims of Mr. Michael Black and Mr. John Morgan, the homosexual “couple” who were turned away from the B+B guest house; we will necessarily offend against the conscience of their intended hosts, the Wilkinsons.  The debate is therefore not (as it is being presented by many journalists) a clear-cut case of the flat denial of vulnerable people’s obvious, fundamental human rights by a pair of prim and prejudiced prigs.  Rather, this is, at best; a balance between the rights of the guests not to be inconvenienced or embarrassed, vs. the rights of the hosts and their other guests not to have their principles violated and to choose accommodation where they will not be asked to sit across the breakfast-table from a “couple” whose presence in that setting is offensive and discomforting to them and embarrassing in that their children might start asking questions (particularly if the “homosexual couple” are trying to make a point of their “sexuality”).  Are we to allow discrimination against B+B guests on the basis of their “sexuality”; or are we alternatively to discriminate against B+B hosts on the basis of their religious beliefs? As with many situations in life, there is a fine balance to be had.  Should we say that practising religious folk (for whom it is against their conscience to admit homosexual “couples”) should never be allowed to own a guest house, or that guest-house owners should never be permitted to start practising such religious beliefs?

In all this whirlwind of contention that they have drummed up, Messrs. Black and Morgan appear to have forgotten how easy it would have been for everyone to have got what they wanted.  In terms of choice and diversity, it is much better for everyone if some guest houses advertise themselves as “family friendly” while others promote themselves as “welcoming to alternative lifestyles“, and for all guest houses to be free to implement their own individual policies and differentiate their goods and services in the marketplace according to their own conscience and discretion.  Indeed, this is what already happens to some extent – from what I hear, there are plenty of homosexuals-only hostels that Messrs. Black and Morgan could have visited if they had so wished, hostels which are well advertised within the homosexual community.  If the customers understand in advance what kind of service they’re likely to receive, everyone can be happy, and nobody will need to trample on anyone else’s conscience to get what they want.  While the Wilkinsons’ customers may benefit from their principled adherence to conscience, e.g. by dealing with someone they can trust; some customers (like Messrs. Black and Morgan) would apparently like to pick and mix the principles they want the Wilkinsons to apply – they want the honesty, the trustworthiness of business and the pleasant atmosphere of the Wilkinsons’ home which are all created in part by their strict adherence to principles; however, they want to dictate to the Wilkinsons which of their principles must be ignored or suspended on a particular occasion for the personal advantage of particular guests.  They demand total integrity to certain principles (guaranteed only by the Wilkinsons conscience), whilst trampling on the very conscience that guarantees those benefits.

My principles are NOT a buffet from which other people may choose their advantages.  If I work for someone, they get all of my principles as part of the package.  They cannot choose when to take advantage of my principles, and yet demand that I suspend my principles and override my conscience on other occasions.  If the employer wants an honest employee who will not steal from the stock-room or lie about colleagues to gain promotion, they can have me if I am available; but they should not expect me to meddle with their accounting to gain tax advantages, nor fix the management statistics for the shareholders meeting, nor tell creditors that they are not in the office when they are actually present.  If they want me to be dishonest for them, they can forget about employing me – I won’t work for them at all.  If some sycophant wants to lick their shoes at the expense of conscience and integrity, in pursuit of that elusive “promotion” dangled like a carrot for the donkey by such an employer, that’s their business; but not me, thank you very much – my conscience is not for sale.  IT’s all or nothing.  The same principle applied to the striptease agency – they had no right to benefit from my integrity in business as long as they were not willing to respect my integrity to family values.  If I was willing to compromise any of my principles for mere temporary personal benefit (e.g. for a well-paid contract), my “integrity” would be a sham – a mere facade.  No part of it would be on safe ground.

In the name of equality and diversity

In the name of “equality“, homosexual activists have worked hard to stop the work of several adoption agencies who placed children exclusively in good homes with a married father (man) and mother (woman).  While this might appear at face value to be a step in the direction of equality, consider the wishes and choices of the birth-parents…  The more successful the activists are in their obvious goal of shutting down any agencies that disagree with their agenda, the less options there will be for a birth-parent who wants their child to be adopted into a stable home with a married father and mother living according to principles the birth-parent wants their child to be taught.  If the activists are very successful, it might become almost impossible for birth-parents with such views to confidently place their child for adoption at all.  The very suggestion that all cohabiting adults should have an equal opportunity to adopt implies that children placed for adoption are a commodity to be equally shared out regardless of principle – it implies that those children do not personally have any rights e.g. to expect to be brought up in a certain kind of home.  Under recently passed legislation, it has become harder for adoption agencies to respect the conscience and wishes of birth-parents, and harder for birth-parents to influence the kind of home their child will be placed into; and therefore harder to persuade birth-parents that adoption is the right option for their child.

So while crowing about the need “diversity“, homosexual activists like Messrs. Black and Morgan are actually fighting against diversity.  They are pressing the legal system into service for the purposes of creating a homogenous society of amoral robots who merely follow instructions in fear of the punishments threatened for disobedience, in aspects of their lives that are related more closely to conscience than to civil and neighbourly behaviour.  The homosexual community is seeking to impose upon the religious community the same sanctions and restrictions they suffered in the dark days when homosexuality as a matter of conscience was prohibited and punishable under the law of the United Kingdom.

Respect for conscience in a diverse world

The issue is not of whether or not the Wilkinsons were right to hold “religious beliefs” that find homosexuality offensive; especially, within the walls of their home.  If that were the issue, then we would be equally justified in asking whether Messrs. Black and Morgan were justified in feeling embarrassed or offended to be denied accommodation on that night.  Try as we might, the two forms of sensitivity cannot be separated; if equality is truly our goal, then we must treat both forms of sensitivity on an equal basis.  It is perhaps noteworthy that Messrs. Black and Morgan are attempting to draw attention and criticism to the Wilkinsons beliefs whilst implicitly claiming a kind of human-rights-based immunity-from-criticism for their homosexual tendencies.  If the Wilkinsons’ religious beliefs can be regarded as “arbitrary” in any sense, then “sexuality” as it is so framed could be regarded as equally arbitrary and equally subject to scrutiny.

At worst, the case of Messrs. Black and Morgan is one of deliberate provocation and attempted extortion by scheming activists, and sadly, there is a smell of this coming from their direction.  When the BBC article was first published, it explained that Messrs. Black and Morgan are respectable middle-aged gentlemen, indeed; that Mr. John T. Morgan is a POLITICIAN, the Liberal Democrat group leader in the Huntingdon constituency.  Perhaps the BBC noticed their mistake in publishing these facts, and realised this information might out Black and Morgan as obnoxious provocateurs; for they soon edited these details out of the final version of the article in order to politically sanitise the message in favour of the plaintiffs.  Nonetheless, other news publishers have retained this information subsequently wiped from the BBC, which potentially points to a darker motive for the whole affair.  It appears that the true intention of Messrs. Black and Morgan was a pre-general-election political stunt to curry favour with the homosexual community, while lining their own pockets with gold by suing the Wilkinsons under equality law; all at the expense of the Wilkinsons conscience; whilst as far as possible taking a few cheap shots against the religious sensitivities and beliefs of their intended hosts.

Each time a new “equality” law is introduced, we are categorically told that it will not be applied contrary to the religious sensitivities of honest hard-working citizens; yet this is time and again in many cases, the way in which those laws have actually been applied.  It is time for our politicians to be honest with us, instead of trying to play a double game of attempting to curry favour with both sides of the debate at once.

Mutual respect for conscience in a high duty-of-care environment

Messrs. Black and Morgan, the politically savvy respectable middle-aged gentlemen that they are, while no doubt “embarrassed” by the experience of being turned away from the Wilkinsons’ Bed and Breakfast; were clearly not so vulnerable and unintelligent that they would have been incapable of finding alternative accommodation; nor were they so sensitive and traumatised as to be unable to relate the experience almost immediately to the mass-media.  No doubt there would have been plenty of hotels willing to take their money (including, apparently, many hotels and guest houses that do advertise themselves “homosexual-only” accommodation and that would welcome a gay “couple” with open arms whilst on the other hand turning away any practising Christian couple on the basis of their religion – hotels and guest-houses whose practices Messrs. Black and Morgan apparently would not criticise).  There would have been no shortage of hotels and bed-and-breakfast accommodation in the area, and no shortage of Directory Enquiries style companies willing to assist them in their search.  In my experience, this kind of search could have taken less than 20 minutes for men of their intelligence.  But apparently this was beneath their dignity, if they bothered at all- we are not told how they responded to their “embarrassment“.  For all we know, they went elsewhere for the liaison they could have had elsewhere in the first place without offending the sensitivities of their hosts.

Clearly, the Wilkinsons did not have an over-riding duty-of-care toward these two intelligent and respectable gentlemen.  This is the other key point.  IN the provision of some essential goods and services to certain vulnerable segments of society, it may be that there is such an over-riding urgency and duty-of-care in the provision of those services that the religious sensitivities of the service-provider must not be allowed to inhibit the provision of the service – the provision of service must be made in those cases, mainly or purely on the clear and credible assent of the person requiring the service.  In cases of high duty-of-care (such as medical incapacitation) where the service-provider’s conscience would prevent them from providing the service requested, it is the professional’s duty to recuse themselves and refer the service-user to an alternative source of support; or else, if no such alternatives exist and the person’s very life or actual wellbeing depends on the provision of the service, to swallow their pride, do the honourable thing and respect the conscience of the person who cannot stand up for themselves.  It is clear that no such duty-of-care stipulation applies in the case of Messrs. Black and Morgan.

Conclusions

Sadly, it appears that homosexual activists, since rightly being emancipated from criminal prosecution for conscience or persuasion; have begun to indulge in a narcissistic and malevolent political campaign against those they perceive to be their former persecutors.  Fearful of renewed marginalisation, they have gone on the offensive; turning their hatred toward religiously minded people and furthermore starting an ugly crusade against religion itself.  Their activism represents a threat to our very democracy, as they seek to shame and silence any alternative points of view and inconvenience anyone whose conscience differs with theirs on the subject.

The activists’ campaign of hatred will ultimately win them few friends and do them few favours – for it is against the very equality they claim to espouse.

It is time that respect for conscience should be re-enshrined as a guiding principle in our nation’s legal framework.  It is high time that this most civil and sincere form of respect should be equally applied for all people as a common and mutual feature of our society.

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