I’ve noticed an interesting inconsistency recently over public moral reasoning over anti-discrimination laws. Every so often, religious groups will flare up over the requirement to not discriminate against gay and lesbian people. Under the previous government, Catholic adoption agencies decided to shut after they were not exempted from laws forbidding discrimination by adoption services towards same-sex couples seeking to adopt.
There have been incidents since with hoteliers and cake manufacturers and dating websites and so on, but let’s stick with the adoption agency for now.
When faced with a law that would require adoption services to not discriminate against same-sex couples, the Catholic Church seeked exemption on the basis that greater good would be provided to society by Catholic adoption services continuing even if they engaged in discrimination against same-sex couples. That is, the harm of discrimination against the same-sex couples is outweighed by the benefit of helping opposite-sex couples adopt.
What’s interesting about this is the moral theory behind it is purely utilitarian. If the government were to have granted an exception to the Church, the happiness of society would have increased: the closure of the adoption services would have reduced the societal good done by ensuring that children are adopted (albeit only by heterosexuals) and this is not outweighed by the good of reducing discrimination in society.
Despite my antipathy to religion and to the Catholic Church, as a good utilitarian, I ought to give that argument some consideration. (Of course, I wonder whether we would give similar credence to the Mormons before 1978 wishing to have an exemption from laws forbidding racial discrimination. Because, lest we forget, the Mormons only started believing black people were actually people in 1978.)
What I think about the merits of the utilitarian case that the Church made is irrelevant though. The astounding thing about it is that the Church—in order to protect their desire to discriminate against gay people—were willing to advance such a utilitarian argument.
The Church and utilitarianism do not go together. On topics like embryonic stem cell research, abortion and euthanasia, the Church loudly objects to utilitarian moral arguments. Indeed, utilitarianism is frequently decried by Catholics as one of the causes of a ghastly society like ours where the unborn are routinely aborted and the elderly forcibly euthanised etc. etc.
Another point here: the Church is dedicated to the doctrine of double effect. The doctrine of double effect is used as a justification when some harm is done but with a noble end in mind. The theory goes that the harm is not intended even though it is perceived as an inevitable consequence of the action. Double effect reasoning is used most notably in end-of-life care. When you have someone at the end of their life, a doctor cannot euthanise that person, but they can prescribe them very strong pain reduction drugs that have as an inevitable side effect the shortening of their life. The doctrine of double effect says that so long as the intention is to reduce pain, the secondary consequence is acceptable.
But the Church seems unable to accept that governments might also avail themselves of the double effect principle. In passing equality legislation, the government’s action is morally good: it intends to reduce discrimination on the basis of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation etc.—which even the Catholic Church deems to be morally good (§2358 of the Catetchism says that with regards to gay people “Every sign of unjust discrimination should be avoided”). The secondary effect of passing the legislation is that organisations that do good work but which engage in discrimination (like Catholic adoption agencies that do not serve clients that are in a same-sex relationship)—that is foreseen but not intended. It seems strange that the Church would prefer to apply a utilitarian rule to the affairs of their adoption agencies than accept that their closure is an unfortunate secondary effect of an intended moral good.
When the Church—indeed the current Pope—says that they “love the sinner, hate the sin” when it comes to homosexuality, and point to §2358 of the Catechism and its call to accept gay peple with “respect, compassion, and sensitivity”, consider the case of the adoption services. The Church was willing to throw a fundamental piece of their moral theology—their non-utilitarianism—under the metaphorical bus to continue discriminating against gay people. As we saw with Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, when one is in a war, one is sometimes willing to throw away one’s stated—even sacred, axiomatic or foundational—moral principles. Despite the Catechism and the Pope’s call to the contrary, this is what we saw: the Catholic Church in Britain was so enraged by the demand that they obey the same anti-discrimination laws as the rest of society that they were willing to throw away one of their moral principles in the fight.
The horrifying spectre of Heather having two mummies managed to turn the Church into utilitarians. This should tell you how much stock the Church places in the Catechism’s call to avoiding unjust discrimination against gay people. Remember that next time Pope Francis mouths some widely-reported, pious PR horseshit about how the Church really loves gay people.