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 and playing stupid when it comes to your pet cause.