Servant of Two Masters

If I had a car, I suppose I could have a bumpersticker that read “My other Sunday obligation is the New York Times.”  And part of the weekly ritual tends to be glaring at the Ethicist column, which frequently gives questionably ethical advice.

A few weeks ago, a reader wrote in to say that she sorts mail for a group of homeless or at-risk American Indian people and, when she found that one new mother had been sent a free formula sample, wanted to throw it out, so that the woman wouldn’t be tempted to neglect breastfeeding.  She wasn’t sure how to balance her duties as mail sorter with her duties to the child.  In addition, she worked as an infant and maternal health advocate in a separate job.

The Ethicist replied:

You have two unrelated jobs — mail delivery and advocating for infant health. So what do you do if the requirements of one contradict the responsibilities of the other? My advice would be to consider the worst case within each ethical framework and ignore whichever system has the least damaging real-world potential. Throwing away someone else’s mail is absolutely unlawful. (In this case, it’s defined as obstruction of mail and would be treated as a misdemeanor.) On the other hand, there’s obviously nothing illegal about failing to tell someone that formula is less healthful than breast milk. But can anyone objectively argue that the upside of upholding a man-made law regarding the improper disposal of unsolicited mail is greater than the downside of placing an already at-risk child in a potentially amplified position of peril? It’s not as if you’re making this judgment arbitrarily; as someone holding both jobs (and presumably trained to do so), you are in a valid position to decide which edict matters more.

In the specific scenario you cite, however, your two volunteer jobs are not really at odds. Give this woman the formula that was mailed to her, but not before urging her to consider the value of breast-feeding. Use the opportunity to educate her about how these nutritional methods are different, and let her decide what is best for her and her baby. In this way, you’d be performing both of your duties simultaneously.

The Ethicist mentions the law against destroying mail without dwelling on the reasoning for it.  It’s not just one factor in the letter-writer’s utilitarian calculus; it indicates something about the nature of the job she accepted as mail-sorter.  It’s an institutional position of trust.  A trust that would still be violated if she adopted the advice of the Ethicist and gave the woman a lecture along with the formula.

Suppose the woman had been ordering racy books, and the mail sorter had been torn about whether to destroy them and settled on simply lecturing the recipient?  When the woman receives mail, she has not invited everyone who handled the package into her home for a set-to about the contents.  We can use mail because postal workers (and volunteers) leave their knowledge at the job, and don’t use their privileged access to information to harass the people on their route (even if it’s for the ostensible greater good).

If her two jobs come into conflict frequently, she should resign one of them.  And it might be worth asking why she’s not permitted to destroy mail, and being a bit curious about the answer, before she lets her own ethical intuitions play merry hob with the system everyone else is participating in and depending on.

I’m frustrated by this letter because the Ethicist acts as though the mail sorter’s ethics are unrestricted by her role as an agent of an institutional.  The Ethicist assumes the solution is to find a way to “perform both of your duties simultaneously” not that taking on a duty may force a choice.  It’s not licit for her to just ignore whichever job’s restrictions “has the least damaging real-world potential.”  Even though they have downstream effects on people, the NYT ethicist seldom factors the health of traditions and institutions into his moral calculus.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • DontMindMe

    “When the woman receives mail, she has not invited everyone who handled the package into her home for a set-to about the contents.” This. This right here.

  • http://chadmyers.lostechies.com Chad Myers

    This is your advice to the Ethicist. I’m curious what your advice would be to the mail sorter.

    • Kristen inDallas

      For me it’d be pretty clear – deliver the mail. For the reasons Leah lists above and another of my own – I can’t imagine any ethical framework which would allow you to deny a hungry person food. Is breastfeeding better than formula? sure. Is an organic apple better than a bag of chips? absolutely… but if I notice Frito Lay wants to start mailing free samples to homeless folks, it is not ok for me to get in the way of that. We shouldn’t let the search for the perfect overcome the potential for a good. And we definately shouldn’t let it get in the way of someone else trying to do good while we sit on our ass feeling smug. If someone would prefer homeless folks be given apples, then its that persons responsibility to send them apples. If someone truly believes breast milk is best (and I’d count myself in that group) the appropriate response is to donate to a lactation bank. Either way, babies need to eat, the goal of getting them food should never be overridden by the goal of getting them “better” food. That this is even a question someone would need to consult an advice column over is pretty concerning.

    • LeahLibresco

      I think she should deliver the mail and not make any unusual comment to the woman. Presumably she does talk about formula in her other job, but she shouldn’t single this woman out for attention.

      • Scott Hebert

        Whether or not she can single the woman out for attention is a VERY gray area, if the original mailing is unsolicited. If so, there is absolutely no reason why she shouldn’t be able to send her own unsolicited mail as well.

        I see a couple of caveats. I am assuming that the sorter is acting in good faith, and she did not take this job to find out which people are receiving the unsolicited mail.

        Also, I am assuming that the sorter spends exactly as much effort on the mailing as the original.

        It is arguable that her position as a sorter makes her unable to act on ANYTHING she sees while sorting, as it is privileged information. Again, I am unaware of the professional ethics involved. However, this is clearly not an absolute (a sorter shouldn’t allow a bomb to be delivered), so there has to be a point at which ‘the public trust’ is not the overriding issue.

      • http://chadmyers.lostechies.com Chad Myers

        This sounds wise. I can see how knowingly facilitating immoral activity could be draining on the conscience. I would think that she should switch jobs if the job frequently places her in a situation of material cooperation with evil, even if it is somewhat remote.

        I’m no moral theologian, but this smells like a close-enough level of cooperation with evil, that it would weigh heavily on my conscience as well.

  • Randy Gritter

    I think the unsolicited nature of the mail is the issue. Her real problem is that vulnerable people are being pressured into making bad choices. It reminds me of visiting New York a while back and being handed graphic ads for strip clubs just because my friend and I were both male and walking down the street. We were not tempted but we felt sorry for any man trying to make good sexual choices in that city.

    What can be done? Can we say that formula companies cannot use the mail to send formula to new mothers? Pushing for a change like that would make more sense to me than throwing away one package. It totally gets the US Mail into the business of making moral judgements. But allowing this woman to get this mail is a moral judgement too. We need to make them. I agree that every postal worker making their own moral judgements is not going to be good.

    It does get hard when you get into religion. Some would say Catholic literature is just as offensive and should be banned as unsolicited mail. But what if it is a mosque known for spreading antisemitism along with its religion?

    • Scott Hebert

      What can be done is very simple: if you feel that your job (sorting the mail) conflicts with what you see as an ethical duty (do not let vulnerable people be pressured into making bad choice), you need to change either your job or your ethics.

      I hope most would choose the former, but that hope is rather forlorn.

      As for your NYC analogy, it doesn’t quite hold. I rather doubt that the person who handed the flyer to you has the job, ‘take what people give to you and hand it out on the street’. It’s much more likely that this person was hired _by the strip club_ to distribute flyers. In that case, this person is making a much more informed decision to distribute said flyers.

      The mail sorter in question is at least slightly more in the right, as she may not have expected (rightly or wrongly) to find that her professional ethics would conflict with her personal ethics. However, that does not disoblige her from having to make a choice of ethics.

      What I find most interesting is that nearly ever casuistry I’ve ever seen is also a deeper ethical question. Specifically, casuistry requires an evaluation of the fitness of your ethical code, and i must admit to the view that an ethical code that can be shaped to fit any circumstance has rather little form and therefore little use.

      • Randy Gritter

        I was not suggesting quitting or not sorting the mail. I was suggesting asking her employer to change the policy. I hate to tell someone to do nothing if their conscience is bothering them. Telling your employer that you feel this activity is immoral is something you can do. They might not make a change but you never know.

        As far as the strip club goes, I am not really concerned about the relative culpability of the employer/employee there. I brought that up because I agree with Mary Beth above. That is that formula is not such a terrible thing to present a new mother with. I do think presenting vulnerable people with an invitation to make a bad choice can be bad. I am just not sure it is THAT bad in the formula case.

  • stanz2reason

    I’m assuming that a ‘mail sorter’ is someone who simply matches names/addresses with letters & packages, not someone whose job it is to actively pass on or throw out pieces of mail.

    That being said, short of the mail being a bomb, it’s not the job of a mail sorter to be that of a censor. Their job isn’t to apply their own ethical framework onto the type of mail people receive. Not wanting someone to be tempted into using formula rather than breast feeding does not pass the smell test here for them taking action (or inaction). While there are advantages to breast feeding, giving a kid formula isn’t exactly like giving a kid a bottle of arsenic. She could give money/time to organizations that promote breast feeding in a manner separate from her access to peoples personal information from work if it makes her feel better, but otherwise she should mind her business and do her job. If she’s unable to do her job, she should resign her position.

    • Kristen inDallas

      Even if the mail *is* a bomb…. my mom used to be a mail sorter (at USPS, so likely more regulated that this woman) but even if they suspected a package of containing drugs or weapons or other items which are illegal to ship… the best she could do is report it, set it aside, and let the brass figure out whether or not it was suspicious enough to investigate.

      • stanz2reason

        Limiting to a bomb wasn’t my intent. The point was to differentiate between items that are illegal (weapons, drugs, etc.) and items the sorter takes it upon themselves to not deliver because it bothers them somehow. Sorry for the confusion.

  • Dan

    It’s a bit off-topic, but I’ve always wondered if the correlation between breast-feeding and better health, higher IQ scores, etc. is spurious.

    The Ethicist and the mail carrier come across as rather patronizing. But I suppose that’s a problem with utilitarianism. Classism also seems to be a potential landmine. The woman who the mail was addressed to was assumed by all concerned to be unable to make a rational decision without guidance from her betters.

    • avalpert

      It is very spurious: http://stats.org/stories/breast_feed_nyt_jun_20_06.htm

      Both the mail carrier and the Ethicist here are in the wrong and could be doing far more harm than good. Actually, this is one of the worth Ethicist answers I have ever seen and provides more support for my general policy of not getting my ethics from trite pop-news sources.

  • Mary Beth Baker

    Not to mention, if we’re advocating choice…can’t the mother choose what she wants to do for her baby? I’m sorry, but at the end of the day it’s not up to an advisor to make that kind of a decision for the person she’s advising. If she can’t find the line between giving good advice and stepping back and letting the person advised run their own life, she should probably consider doing something else with her time.

  • MumbleMumble

    How do you feel about a pharmacist refusing to give out birth control, or a baker refusing to make a cake for a same-sex wedding, or a wedding photographer refusing to shoot a same-sex wedding? (tone: curious, not snarky)

    • Scott Hebert

      Well, answering for myself, the last two are quite easy,as AFAIK there is no professional ethical reason against it, and therefore nothing but someone’s personal ethics at stake. You might as well ask about the ethics of someone who refuses to make a cake for a Catholic wedding, or a Shinto wedding.

      Pharmacists and birth control, though, is a slightly different issue. I am not that familiar with the ethics of pharmacists. If part of their professional ethics is that that must fill all duly created prescriptions, then there is a conflict between a pharmacist’s professional ethics and, presumably, their personal ethics. Having said that, I would hope that anyone who is against birth control ‘medication’ would have already considered that situation before deciding to become a pharmacist.

    • LeahLibresco

      I think distributing prescriptions is part of the basic function of being a pharmacist, and those that have an objection to commonly prescribed medicines should still distribute them. Without a lecture. Just like store clerks should ring up condoms without comment, not refuse to process the transaction unless that item is omitted.

      Re the cake and the photographer, I feel more mixed, since those aren’t jobs where you do say yes to each person. And when it comes to the photographer especially, it might be prudent to say no if your distaste for the wedding will interfere with you taking pictures. So I’m less sure about those cases, but I don’t think there’s as obvious a duty to the customer to breach.

      • MumbleMumble

        So, please stop me if I am wrong here, but are you saying that it is ethically okay to refuse service to someone because of their sexual orientation? I realize that people like to come up with ‘what if’ scenarios in this game (e.g. “what if it was a black guy refusing service to a klan member!?”), but I’m asking specifically about someone refusing service to someone else because of their sexual orientation.

        I think all your answers (the three posted) are troubling, because none of you seem to be considering whether it is right to refuse service based on sexual orientation, and instead are looking at whether it is institutionally allowable. You are looking at whether some other governing body is out there that supersedes the beliefs of the service provider, not whether the beliefs themselves are questionable.

        • Randy Gritter

          But should the state judge when someone’s beliefs are questionable? Isn’t it the essence of religious freedom that they don’t do that?

          • stanz2reason

            When engaging in commerce with the public you’re opening yourself up to being held to different standards. It’d be beneficial if someone with legal background could chime in here for clarification. We wouldn’t accept religious objections to serving people of a different race, if not legally then certainly not ethically. Religious freedom doesn’t mean you do whatever you want. Continuing practices of bigoted discrimination will only end up adding more and more sub-groups to laws barring such practices.

          • Randy Gritter

            Participating in the free market should not mean you lose freedom of religion.

          • stanz2reason

            I know it’s the trendy feel good get out of jail free card to justify or oppose nearly anything, however citing freedom of religion doesn’t absolve people from discriminatory practices. I can refuse to offer food to a black person if I’m cooking in my home, as it is my right to be a bigot, for religious reasons or otherwise. If I own and operate a restaurant I am not allowed to refuse service to someone on grounds of their race. Participating in the public square (not just on strictly matters of the free market) you are willingly giving up certain rights. I don’t think the state has the right to compel a person or business to serve 100% of people looking for service (ie. the KKK example above), but I do think the mere fact that someone is gay does not qualify as grounds for refusal of business, regardless of whether you want to hide behind the nonsense of religious freedoms.

          • Randy Gritter

            Religious freedom is hardly trendy. In fact, the trend is to ignore rights especially religious rights. Forcing political correctness is trendy. What is fashionable is being imposed by the state. The trouble is gays assume homosexuality will remain fashionable forever. If it ceases to be so then every victory they have won in forcing Christians to submit will be used against them because the state no longer has to respect individual moral standards.

          • stanz2reason

            No, religious freedom isn’t trendy. Hiding behind it as grounds to think you have the right to do whatever you want is. If you think somehow the majority of people are going to have a change of heart regarding treatment of homosexuals, you’re not only delusional, but haven’t paid attention to poll after poll noting approval among younger people. It seems unlikely that views on rights for homosexuals isn’t going to stop and hoover at the 50% for / 50% against level. You’ve lost this one. If its not glaringly obvious now, it will be in a decade or so as the older folk die off and the younger people start having kids.

            The state’s role is to balance the rights of the individual to do business as they see fit with the rights of the individual not to be discriminated against. When you don’t get your way, it’s not because the state is trampling your religious freedoms. They are saying your views (religious or otherwise) aren’t sufficient grounds to discriminate based solely on sexual orientation alone.

          • Randy Gritter

            I am under no illusions about Christianity being popular. The gay marriage issue has moved quicker than I expected but I have not been optimistic about society for a long time. I expect it to get worse. I expect society to get more and more anti-Christian. Who knows how far it goes but there are no signs of the end being near.

          • stanz2reason

            If 3 in 4 Americans is Christian, and better than 1 in 2 approve of legally recognized gay marriage (more so among younger people) it seems like you guys are having a bit of an identity crisis. The more you hop up and down about the gays, the less popular Christianity is going to be.

            It’s remarkable that the faithful are always dreading the future. Your crisis of faith is self-caused, and the notion of it somehow being anti-Christian is another in a long list of make believe fairy tales.

            Legalized abortion isn’t anti-Christian. If you don’t want one, don’t get one. Mandatory abortion is anti-Christian. But that’s not reality.

            Legal recognition of gay marriage isn’t anti-Christian. Again, if you don’t want to marry a member of the same sex, you’re free not to. Mandatory gay marriage is anti-Christian. But that’s not reality.

            Opposition to public school sponsored prayer isn’t anti-Christian. If you want to pray, go and pray, just don’t expect the school to run such things. Prohibiting students from praying is anti-Christian. But that’s not reality.

            The list goes on and on. Again, that you’ve convinced yourself that the world is a Christian world and the US is a Christian country (rather than a secular one made of up many Christians… BIG difference) is your own fault. That you take the constant reminder about this as some sort of anti-Christian sentiment is unfortunate. The quicker you come around, the better it’ll be for everyone.

          • ACN

            100% Correct. Well said stanz.

          • Randy Gritter

            I am not dreading the future. Modern western society can fall. We serve a savior who knows his way out of a grave.

            Abortion is killing an innocent human being. Of course that is anti-Christian. Marriage is instituted by God. Gay marriage is only one of the many ways we mock marriage but doing so is anti-Christian.

            But that is not really the center. These are symptoms. Society has grown from expecting Christianity to respecting Christianity to tolerating Christianity to hating Christianity. That has happened within the lifetime of my parents. Where does it go? It has been ugly and it will be uglier. I know that Jesus wins. I also know how He wins. It is through death and resurrection. The church takes the sins of society on herself and does again what Jesus did.

            I am not dreading that. It is just sad that it comes to that. Still I would rather stand with Jesus than with those crucifying Him.

          • ACN

            You can’t crucify someone who doesn’t exist.

            There is no dichotomy.

          • Randy Gritter

            The church is the body of Christ. When society turns away from God they get offended by the church. If it gets to the point of attacking the church then it becomes very much a replaying of the crucifixion (followed by a resurrection of course). It does not have to get to that point. A society can repent. Still a lot of people see it coming.

            Secular people tend to think that a decline in religion will just keep going and then we will just get on with it. That has been predicted many times. Catholicism does not just insist that man will continue to be religious. It says that the Catholic church will survive yet again.

          • Kristen inDallas

            There is a diference between refusing to serve an individual based on race/gender/sexuality and refusing to provide a particular service across the board. If a church agrees to marry any one woman with any one man (regardless of the sexual preferences of those individuals) they aren’t being discrimanatory as those same rules apply to everybody. If a baker refuses to serve a big white, flowerry to a guy who “looks like he might be gay” that is discrimination, as here an identical service is being refused on the bases of sexuality. Is someone refusing to serve an individual based on who the individual is… or is someone refusing to participate in an action across the board?

          • stanz2reason

            Kristen… your description of refusing to provide a particular service across the board doesn’t really make a lot of sense. Were you to say If a church agrees to marry any man of a particular race with a woman of that particular race, they aren’t being discriminatory as those same rules apply to everybody, I’m skeptical you’d say that wasn’t at least a teeny be racist.

            That being said, I don’t really have an issue with a church refusing to marry gay couples. So long as people aren’t harmed or held against their will, within their walls I think religious groups have the rights to operate as they see fit, though as soon as they step out of those walls, including matters of money, their entitlements change. They’re free to be bigoted, as myself and others will continually remind them, but I see no reason for the law to force them to marry people they don’t want to. The push for recognized gay rights is an issue with the state and it’s laws, not the church and it’s doctrine. I know some gay couples find that upsetting, but why should they want the blessings from such people to begin with?

          • Randy Gritter

            within their walls I think religious groups have the rights to operate as they see fit, though as soon as they step out of those walls, including matters of money, their entitlements change.

            That is precisely what freedom of religion is not. People who limit religion to what goes on in church just don’t understand religion. Worship only matters if it impacts everything else in our lives. If it does not it is just a sham. Saying we are free to speak our covenant with God but no free to live it is not freedom at all.

          • stanz2reason

            No. People who limit religion to what goes on in church DO understand religion. All too well. More the reason why we insist it must remain there. You’re free to live however you see fit. You’re not free at all to make that in any way my problem.

          • Martel

            The problem, Stanz2reason, is that you simply assume the correctness of your own opinions–that such opinions are, as you put it, “obvious”–and then proceed to rail against other viewpoints as irrational. This method of argumentation is doubly irrational: it not only proceeds irrationally, but it accuses others for an offense against reason that it itself is guilty of.

            A few examples:
            Stanz2reason wrote, “It’s not difficult to argue here that someone refusing service to homosexuals on grounds that they’re homosexuals is, by definition, bigoted discrimination. It’s a point so obvious I won’t argue it further.”

            Based on your definition of bigotry, your above statement constitutes bigotry.

            Stanz2reason wrote: “But if a gay couple comes in to order a birthday cake for their son and the business refuses… well then first off F them… and next they deserve to be hit with a lawsuit under whatever anti-discriminatory laws are on the books.”

            So does the latter.

          • stanz2reason

            Based on your definition of bigotry, your above statement constitutes bigotry.

            That doesn’t make a lick of sense. I’m not using my definition of bigotry, but the word for word definition from arguably the most recognizable dictionary in the world. I’m not suggesting that the hypothetical treatment of homosexuals is bigotry because I don’t share the sentiment, but because it fits the literal definition.

            What might constitute bigotry in my second sentence is an obstinate notion that baker is an outright a-hole for not making a kids birthday cake. Seems like an unreasonable stretch of the definition of the word and how it applies when used in typical language, but then again the entirety of your post seems unreasonable so I suppose that’s fitting.

            Personally I think you’re falling into the group that doesn’t like the implication of being called bigoted, so you’ll blindly try to return the favor and use the term in situations when it is not at all relevant. Re-read the definitions (again not mine, but those from Miriam Websters dictionary) of both bigotry & discrimination and ask yourself if the treatment of homosexuals described in the hypothetical arguments (or reality for that matter) constitute bigoted discrimination. It seems self evident. And it’s not bigoted to point that out.

          • MumbleMumble

            Exactly. Why is this distinction lost on so many people?

          • Martel

            Because these other people use reason. “A man can no more possess a private religion than he can possess a private sun and moon.” -G.K. Chesterton

          • stanz2reason

            When your delusion is that the world is governed by a Christian God, it doesn’t make sense to some why matters of state shouldn’t conform as so. This delusion is pervasive, influencing every aspect of their lives to the point that they can’t conceive an alternate worldview, and consider those views hostile and in a sense they are. Alternate viewpoints are a reminder that yours might not be the correct one. Those with different beliefs, or none at all, can be an illusion shattering notion for some people. The ‘attacks on religious liberty’ nonsense is a reasonable response in a way from someone temporarily woken from their religious fantasy worlds and those people often lash out with paranoid conspiracy charges and quoting scripture. The figments of their imagination are being assaulted by reality. This does not apply to all believers, as many, if not most, recognize that they despite their convictions, they do not have the right to make that someone elses problem.

          • Randy Gritter

            It seems to apply to you. You seem to think that because your belief system does not involve a god concept that it is somehow privileged. The irony of you saying “they can’t conceive an alternate worldview” with such condescending certainty is completely lost on you. The state must conform to my will because I am right. BTW, others who demand the state must conform to their will because they are right are not just wrong but they have some sort of mental defect.

            This is precisely why we need religious freedom. This happened in the 17th century big time. You seem to think you are above it now. Yet you very words show you are not.

          • stanz2reason

            You seem to think that because your belief system does not involve a god concept that it is somehow privileged.

            False. I think it is privileged as it is informed from the verifiable study of the world and the has flexibility to evolve upon reasonable reassessment & the acquisition of further knowledge. It has little to do with the truth or falseness of God. I don’t need to retreat to dogma or assume it’s truth, Catholic or otherwise, to defend myself, nor am I bound by it. If my views don’t hold up to criticism & scrutiny, then they are amended or discarded. That your views require indulging in figments of yours or really someone elses imagination to be comprehensible is unfortunate.

            The irony of you saying “they can’t conceive an alternate worldview” with such condescending certainty is completely lost on you.

            It’s not ironic. It’s condescending. It’s arrogant. It’s also correct.

            The state must conform to my will because I am right. BTW, others who demand the state must conform to their will because they are right are not just wrong but they have some sort of mental defect..

            Wait, are you saying this outright or sarcastically? That it’s hard to tell says a lot.

            This is precisely why we need religious freedom. This happened in the 17th century big time. You seem to think you are above it now. Yet you very words show you are not.

            I’m not entirely sure what you’re getting at. I think you’re under a further delusion that freedom of religion means that one persons religious views can and should be forced on someone else, when of course this is not true. If your views don’t stand up to public scrutiny, they deserve to be relegated back to dark corners from whence they came.

          • Randy Gritter

            Hard to know how to respond. You are a poster boy for intolerance. You can’t see it because you are so sure you are right. The fact that you are not right does make it worse but that is not what the bill of rights was about. What it was about was preventing the tyranny of the majority. The concern at the time was that an Anglican majority would make things intolerable for Catholics and other minorities. But they saw that this situation was fluid. The majority could be something else someday. Now you say that if the majority is atheist they don’t have to worry about making things tolerable for any other religious group.

          • stanz2reason

            Concerns about preventing the tyranny of the majority… I’m sorry, what percentage of the US population identifies as Christian? The math is not on your side for your complaints to make any sense.

            If being intolerant is objecting to people who feel their religious convictions give them the right to impose them on others and that everyone else must be forced to share in their delusion, then sure call me intolerant. I think it unwise to allow a child who believes in Santa Clause to create elf-based policy that doesn’t stand up to the scrutiny of public argument. I’ll be the poster boy for that.

            Secular laws & policies are not atheist laws & policies, and honestly I’d have a hard time pin pointing what an atheist law would look like as the simple disbelief in deities doesn’t translate into a specific worldview. Secularism on the other hand is quite different. Even in a society with zero atheists, it is best for people of differing beliefs to govern themselves via laws that respect individual beliefs & practices, but otherwise ignores religious claims to dictate policy. In addition, it is my experience that most atheists, including myself, don’t really care one way or the other about peoples religious beliefs so long as they keep them to themselves. You need stronger arguments than Jesus told me so to determine what the laws of the land are. You simply have difficulty understanding this.

          • TerryC

            Religious freedom certainly doesn’t mean doing whatever you want, it means living in a certain way. That way may include prohibitions on support of certain kinds of immoral behavior. Being engaged in commerce does not mean that you are not longer able to follow moral principles. It is not “bigoted discrimination” to refuse to support by your actions someone else’s immoral behavior. Actions are not morally neutral.

          • stanz2reason

            From Miriam Websters Dictionary:

            Bigot – a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices

            Discrimination – the act, practice, or an instance of discriminating categorically rather than individually

            It’s not difficult to argue here that someone refusing service to homosexuals on grounds that they’re homosexuals is, by definition, bigoted discrimination. It’s a point so obvious I won’t argue it further.

            Being engaged in commerce (or really any matter in the public square) does mean you have agreed and accepted to abide by the law, which includes prohibition of certain discriminatory practices which might not apply to Joe Schmo. It does not mean you are obligated to create a KKK ice cream cones or swatstika cookies, nor does it obligate them to create a cake shaped like a giant penis going lord knows where for the gay couple down the street. But if a gay couple comes in to order a birthday cake for their son and the business refuses… well then first off F them… and next they deserve to be hit with a lawsuit under whatever anti-discriminatory laws are on the books.

          • TheodoreSeeber

            “Bigot – a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices”

            Thanks, I think we have ample proof in this discussion that you are intolerantly devoted to your own opinions and prejudices.

          • stanz2reason

            Which doesn’t make a bit of sense when a defining characteristic of my views are specifically NOT being devoted or tied down to them. So way to swing and miss on that one. Not. Even. Close.

          • TheodoreSeeber

            If you aren’t tied to your beliefs, why do you have such a problem with other people expressing their beliefs?

          • Roki

            I don’t think race is the best analogue here. The discrimination in question regards behavior rather than persons.

            An example that strikes me as more apt is the following: you are a photographer. Someone asks you to photograph their orgy for distribution as pornography.

            For the sake of argument, assume there’s nothing illegal about what they are doing. But it is distasteful to many and downright sinful according to most major world religions.

            Are you, a photographer who shoots all sorts of other social events, including private parties, obliged to photograph this one? At what point does the vendor have the right to say “no” to a customer?

          • stanz2reason

            Consider for a moment the high likelihood that sexual orientation is an inherent characteristic like race.

            What then is the difference between the ‘behavior’ of an interracial couple getting married vs. that of a homosexual couple?

            You could make a stronger case for someone having grounds to not photograph a sexually explicit orgy for distribution, which I’d imagine is dissimilar to the type of work a wedding photographer might typically do, than for having grounds not to photograph two women getting married, which is similar and for all intents and purposes (with the exception of the obvious) identical to the type of work a wedding photographer does.

          • Roki

            You’re assuming that a wedding between two persons of the same sex is the same “behavior” as a wedding between a man and woman. You may be correct about this conclusion, but this is exactly what is under contention by those who defend and promote traditional marriage.

            Those who defend traditional marriage argue that a marriage between a man and a woman from different “racial”, ethnic, or genetic backgrounds is still a marriage. (Indeed, it was because racists recognized the marriage and the implications of marriage – children – that they objected to interracial marriage.) The argument was never that they are incapable of marrying. The argument was that “those sort of people” marrying “my sort of people” was a Bad Thing.

            Here, the argument is different: it is that same-sex couples may call what they are doing “marriage,” but it isn’t actually marriage at all. You may disagree with the line of argument, but I hope you can recognize that it’s a different argument than one based on racism.

            The argument against same-sex marriage does not necessarily imply objections to homosexual persons or their relationships – though often those objections do arise as well.

            Likewise, the choice not to participate in a same-sex marriage, even in a remote degree, is not necessarily a discrimination against the homosexual couple as homosexual; but rather against the act of denigrating or re-defining marriage. Such a person could consistently also object to baking or photographing those who wish to “marry” animals, or inanimate objects, or “themselves”.

            Note: this does not necessarily make it right to discriminate even against actions. But it does clarify the question and prevent strawmanning.

            My question remains: at what point does a vendor in the public market have the right to say “no” to a customer? What is the principle here?

          • stanz2reason

            I recognize that the majority of differences between the complaints for inter-racial marriage & same sex marriage are superficial at best.

            I’m curious what might be the difference in ‘behavior’ between a couple at a same sex wedding vs. a heterosexual wedding? The acts of being married here are for all intents & purposes identical. I’ve assumed this as it seems self-evident. I’m willing to listen to where the notable differences are and why they matter enough to make an distinction.

            Those who defend traditional marriage argue that a marriage between a man and a woman from different “racial”, ethnic, or genetic backgrounds is still a marriage.

            I’m not so certain that this was the case 50, 60 or more years ago. I believe you’re commenting through the lens of someone in the 21st century. The arguments used back then were eerily similar.

            Having children be the justification from drawing a distinction is a non-starter. You would have to then prohibit older couples from marrying, infertile couples, even couples who outright choose to remain childless. You would also have to prohibit marriages that require a sperm or egg donor or those that adopt, as homosexual couples are equally capable of all of that. It also would follow that were marital rights bestowed to help raise children, that they should then be rescinded upon a child reaching a certain age.

            The argument against same-sex marriage does not necessarily imply objections to homosexual persons or their relationships

            Nonsense. Legally recognizing and elevating a heterosexual relationship while failing to recognize an identical homosexual one implies an objection.

            You speak of strawmans yet you have no problem implying in passing some sort of equivalence between recognizing homosexual marriage and marrying animals, inanimate objects or themselves. Don’t do that. It doesn’t make a lick of sense and sounds ridiculous.

            The state’s role is to balance the rights of the individual to do business as they see fit with the rights of the individual not to be discriminated against. Ethical judgements are ultimately subjective opinions. Here is mine. Where the line is drawn is determined in a case by case basis. Asking a vendor to engage in something that is grossly out of the realm of their typical business transactions or a specific example of an overt threat (swatstika, burning cross, etc.) would be where I’d personally draw a line. This rough outline probably isn’t as specific as you’d like but I think it’s a good start.

            Different areas have different laws. A judge or jury in one case might lean one way or another based on a number of factors, and is likely to vary as the gray area here of no mans land is at the behest of the subjective judgments of those making a decision.

          • Roki

            Two quick points:

            Ethical judgements are ultimately subjective opinions.

            1) This really is the foundation of our disagreement. But it’s essentially off topic in this post, so I’ll simply say that I find subjectivist ethics to be contrary to reason and to fact. If you’d like to talk about it elsewhere, I’m happy to discuss.

            2) The questions of homosexuality and same-sex marriage are, in many ways, irrelevant to the legal and moral issue at stake. The question is, at what point does a person’s individual convictions have to bow down to the demands of another. Can someone be compelled to betray their conscience? Can someone be forced to act contrary to what they see as truth and justice?

            I think we would agree that the answer is something like, “Yes, when that person is both clearly wrong and acting harmfully to others.”

            But we disagree about what is clearly wrong, and about whether and what kind of harm is being done.

            I think cakes, flowers, and photos are an odd, even a petty, hill to take a stand on; but the principle remains. Pharmacists have higher stakes, but also more complex responsibilities.

            I’m not sure there’s an easy answer. I just want all sides to take each other, including each other’s worldviews and arguments, seriously – not assuming bad faith, and not assuming irrationality, and certainly not assuming that one’s current answer is the only right or possible one.

          • stanz2reason

            Yes, lets leave ethical subjectivity to another day. While that might be a fundamental disagreement, I think we’re in agreement with what the issue here is: “1) at what point does a person’s individual convictions have to bow down to the demands of another? 2) Can someone be compelled to betray their conscience? 3) Can someone be forced to act contrary to what they see as truth and justice?” (though 2 & 3 are essentially the same question)

            You’re correct as well in that homosexuality & same sex marriage are incidental to this particular issue.

            Establishing a line that will hold true 100% of the time is impossible, as different circumstances require different judgments and different people will have different judgements given the same set of circumstances (hence the subjectivity)

            When people interact they do so in a shared environment, and as such accept and recognize that other people might not and probably do not share an identical worldview. This is even moreso for a business, whose mere existence is predicated upon the notion of person interaction. By choosing to interact in the form of a business you’ve agreed to provide specific service. The wedding photographer shoots weddings, the baker bakes cakes, etc. In other words, you’ve already agreed in part to potentially act contrary to convictions.

            I stand by “Asking a vendor to engage in something that is grossly out of the realm of their typical business transactions or a specific example of an overt threat (swatstika, burning cross, etc.)…” as the starting point for determining the line of grounds for their refusal of service. I’d have a hard time arguing photographing or baking a cake for a same-sex wedding as ‘grossly out of the realm of typical business’ for a wedding photographer & baker respectively.

          • Randy Gritter

            I’d have a hard time arguing photographing or baking a cake for a same-sex wedding as ‘grossly out of the realm of typical business’ for a wedding photographer & baker respectively.

            That is just the point. The whole talk about recognizing others don’t have an identical worldview really does not happen. This is totally out of the realm of typical business for a person who sees same-sex marriage as immoral. To dismiss that means the state is imposing its worldview on the person in question. That amounts to establishing a state religion.

          • avalpert

            ” This is totally out of the realm of typical business for a person who sees same-sex marriage as immoral.”
            That’s a ridiculous sentence. If the only thing being changed in the business act is swapping one subject of the photograph’s sex that is quite clearly within the realm of their typical business.

            Unless, as a typical part of their business, they interrogate all customers to ensure that they don’t have a moral objection to the marriage then the defense that photographing weddings they find immoral is disingenuous at best.

          • TheodoreSeeber

            Only because you want to force YOUR religion upon others.

          • avalpert

            Nope, has nothing to do with that. Oh, and I neither have a religion nor want to force it on others.

            Sorry Teddy.

          • TheodoreSeeber

            If that is so, then you have no problem whatsoever in letting other people discriminate. It is one or the other- you either must tolerate other people’s religion, or you are forcing your beliefs upon others.

          • avalpert

            One does not follow from the other. The reason we as a society have a problem with allowing discrimination in public accommodations is not based on religion or tolerance concerns.

            It isn’t about forcing beliefs on others it is about structuring a functioning society that balances rights and responsibilities.

          • TheodoreSeeber

            There can be no balance between rights and responsibilities. Rights are either absolute or they are worthless.

          • avalpert

            Than I guess they are worthless because no rights in the real world are absolute.

          • stanz2reason

            Recognizing different worldviews happens just fine, and giving room for people to act (or not) on conscience happens just fine too. Neither happen in an endless sort of fashion. These instances require a case by case judgement and an assessment of reasonableness. Expecting a wedding photographer to photograph an actual wedding seems like it should fall within the realm of things that typically go on. Again, you’re crying that you don’t get your way.

          • Randy Gritter

            Your “assessment of reasonableness” just boils down to do they agree with me. That is always what happens. Opinion becomes enshrined as truth and imposed by force. We get back to the idea that the founding fathers were trying to get rid of. That is that the king’s religion is assumed to be right. It becomes the king’s secular philosophy or perhaps the intellectual elite’s secular philosophy but it is imposed on people’s consciences nonetheless.

          • TheodoreSeeber

            You don’t recognize different worldviews, why do you expect others to? You are crying that you don’t get to impose your immorality on others yourself.

          • TheodoreSeeber

            1 Never
            2 Not without betraying the humanity of the person or entity doing the compelling
            3 Not if we are to have any integrity or honesty at all.

            A shared environment that requires betrayal of conscience is a tyranny that needs to be destroyed.

          • stanz2reason

            “A shared environment that requires betrayal of conscience is a tyranny that needs to be destroyed.”

            Thanks for making my points better than I can. I’m unable to describe and articulate the level of crazy that just comes so easily from you. Bravo.

          • TheodoreSeeber

            “Consider for a moment the high likelihood that sexual orientation is an inherent characteristic like race.”

            It isn’t. Your entire argument is based on a lie.

          • stanz2reason

            Sorry Ted, I’m all booked up dealing with crazy here. I don’t have the time to deal with yours.

        • stanz2reason

          There are ethical issues with a business refusing service based on sexual orientation but also with the state compelling said business to provide service. For me (an opinion as I don’t have legal knowledge to comment here), as soon as a person or business chooses to operate in the public square, they have made the decision to be held to a higher standard than if they were just a citizen. While it is admittedly in a gray area, in my opinion, someone being gay does not qualify as grounds for refusal of service and the state is right to compel the business to do so.

          Leah chooses her words and arguments carefully and dances around the gay issue here and elsewhere when she can. That might be a prudent tactic, even if you’re not getting the response you’d like.

          • TheodoreSeeber

            There are significant ethical issues with a business providing services to individuals with whom they disagree.

          • avalpert

            That’s why most businesses have detailed questionnaires they provide to customers before providing them services to ensure they don’t have any major ethical disagreements…

        • Mr. X

          “So, please stop me if I am wrong here, but are you saying that it is ethically okay to refuse service to someone because of their sexual orientation?”
          No, she’s saying that it’s ethically OK to refuse service at a particular activity (i.e., a same-sex marriage).
          (On a side note, it’s bizarre how many people seem to think that “gay people” and “participating in a same-sex wedding” are synonymous. The one refers to a class of people, the other to a particular activity.)

          • MumbleMumble

            Actually, she wasn’t saying that. Please read her later comment.
            (On a side note, it’s bizarre how many people will go to great lengths to justify their discriminatory beliefs.)

          • TheodoreSeeber

            (on a side note, it’s bizarre how many people will go to great lengths to justify sexual perversion)

          • avalpert

            like you and your irrational fear of the clitoris?

          • TheodoreSeeber

            Or like you and your irrational fear of pregnancy.

          • avalpert

            Sorry, not afraid of it – I embrace it.

          • MumbleMumble

            You are part of the problem.

          • TheodoreSeeber

            Yep, I’m part of the problem alright- in that I insist that reality exists and can’t be changed by your wishes and fantasies.

          • MumbleMumble

            You are denying the reality of millions of people. Your mean spirit is matched only by your ignorance.

          • TheodoreSeeber

            Reality is physical, not emotional. Emotional is fantasy.

          • MumbleMumble

            Just out of curiosity, would you think it unethical if you were refused service at a restaurant due to your religious beliefs?

        • introvert_prof

          I would suggest that, stated as Leah did, the photographer is in the position that I am when a student asks me for a letter of recommendation. If I can’t write a good letter for them, for whatever reason, shouldn’t I tell them?

          If the photographer is out-of-sympathy with same-sex marriage, will they be able to do justice to the occasion? I don’t know whether you’ve observed wedding photographers, but the best ones are *participating* in order to get the best casual shots.

          • MumbleMumble

            The problem is the reason of why you would not be able to write a good letter of recommendation. If the only reason is because of their sexual orientation, then there is a serious problem.
            And why would the photographer not be able to perform their job to the best of their ability? If the only reason they are unable to do so is because it is a same-sex wedding, does the problem reside in the photographer or the people getting married?

          • introvert_prof

            You miss my point, and the fact that comparisons are never exact. Quite enough people (myself included) will write recommendations that are not glowing if that’s what is the honest thing. But there’s some debate over whether one should tell a requestor when your recommendation letter will not be positive; I fall on the “tell ‘em” side. The reasons are going to vary with the letter writer, but in any event I’m not being asked to participate in something I don’t approve of (unlike the photographer) but to comment on the suitability of a candidate. “Suitability” is unlikely to depend on sexual orientation.

            My point is that it doesn’t matter if the photographer’s reluctance is “legitimate.” Would a black or interracial couple want a white supremacist photographer to photograph their wedding? Were they to insist, even if the photographer tried to maintain professionalism there’s a fair chance her disdain would come through in the pictures. What’s the point, othher than to punish someone of whose opinions you disapprove?

          • MumbleMumble

            Gotcha. Sorry about that. That was a big old swing and a miss on my part. I do disagree with you – I think the reason behind the reluctance (i.e. whether it is legitimate or not) is important. In the example of your recommendation letter, if you were to tell a student you couldn’t write a good letter because they only got a C in your class, or because you just didn’t know them that well, those are all perfectly acceptable reasons. But if you were to say you can’t write them a good letter because they’re gay, then the problem is with you, not the student, and they don’t deserve to be punished for your religious beliefs (a hypothetical “you,” I don’t mean you specifically).

            I agree that photographing a wedding and writing a letter of recommendation are not on the same level as each other. The photographer needs to be more engaged, more involved, and it could be harder for them to do their job. But I think they still need to do their job. Otherwise, there is simply this unspoken approval of their discriminatory beliefs, and I don’t think that’s okay. What if this is a small town and there’s only one wedding photographer? What if this is the only wedding photographer the couple can afford? Should they have to seek out less qualified or more expensive options simply because someone has an irrational bias towards them? That’s not fair. If you’re a wedding photographer, and you’re hired for a wedding, then do your job.

            And my advice to same-sex couples looking to get married would be to ask for examples from the photographer of same-sex ceremonies that they’d worked.

          • avalpert

            “The photographer needs to be more engaged, more involved, and it could be harder for them to do their job. But I think they still need to do their job.”

            Yes, basically it is a question of are they capable of being professionals. Professionals don’t let personal animosity get in the way of doing their jobs and doing them well. This is true whether the professional is a photographer or an academic writing a recommendation letter.

        • TheodoreSeeber

          It is right and just to refuse service based on the fiction of sexual orientation, for the same reason that it is right and just to refuse service based on the fiction of somebody believing they are the dictator of the world.

          • avalpert

            It is right and just to refuse service based on the fiction of interracial relationships…

          • TheodoreSeeber

            Good, if that is a belief of yours. I have no problem with that.

            Other people can open businesses that do not discriminate, and compete with you.

          • avalpert

            Well I see not only is sarcasm lost on you but so apparently is the history and current understanding of public accommodations law

          • TheodoreSeeber

            Public accommodations laws are based in a contradiction. They are internally inconsistent and worthless.

          • avalpert

            Its hard to know sometimes with you whether to laugh or cry. Ah well, clearly your understanding of legal history is as poor as you understanding of female anatomy.

          • TheodoreSeeber

            Legal history is fictional. Anatomy is fact.

          • avalpert

            So you manage to get your facts and fiction wrong – quite a feat Teddy

          • MumbleMumble

            What is the contradiction?

          • TheodoreSeeber

            Between tolerance and intolerance- to be intolerant of the intolerant is intolerant. You can’t teach tolerance by being intolerant yourself.

          • MumbleMumble

            All laws have this contradiction. All laws restrict freedom in some form or another. All laws are intolerant of someone’s preferences. Are you in favor of complete anarchy?

          • MumbleMumble

            The fiction of sexual orientation? So you’re saying that it is okay to deny service to someone based on something that doesn’t even exist? That doesn’t make any sense at all.

          • TheodoreSeeber

            I’m saying that sexual orientation doesn’t exist at all, therefore any discrimination against those who claim to have an orientation different than their physical gender is not discrimination at all.

          • MumbleMumble

            I don’t think you are aware of what sexual orientation means. Putting that aside, you think it is okay to discriminate against people who think that they are homosexual, even though you believe that they are not homosexual? That is still discrimination.

      • MumbleMumble

        Okay, this thread has been sort of taken over by a side issue. I am really not asking about what the state should or should not do in these cases. I am asking about the ethical nature of individual behavior. Is it ethical for the pharmacist to refuse to give out birth control? Is it ethical for the baker to refuse to make a cake for a same-sex wedding? Is it ethical for a wedding photographer to refuse to shoot a same-sex wedding?

        Leah, do you think these individuals acted in an ethical manner when they refused to provide service to others due to their own religious beliefs?

        • LeahLibresco

          Oh, I was answering the state question.

          In the personal domain:
          I don’t think the pharmacist should refuse to provide birth control. If ze sees it as tantamount to murder, because the drug in question is an abortifacient, then I think ze should not be a pharmacist, at least not in any large chain that does fill prescriptions.

          I think the baker should make the cake, and I don’t know what the photographer would do. The cake is done in advance and in isolation, but the photographers work might really be spoiled by a sense of in-the-moment revulsion or discomfort, which would be good for neither zer nor zer client.

          • MumbleMumble

            Thank you. As far as the state question goes, I think sexual orientation should be a protected class, like race or religion, which would prohibit folks like the baker from refusing service on those grounds, regardless of religious beliefs. But wherever people fall on that question, I think what often gets lost is the morality of the original behavior. People seem to get hung up on whether or not someone should be allowed to discriminate, and they ignore the question of whether or not the discrimination itself is bad behavior.

          • http://chadmyers.lostechies.com Chad Myers

            Is it ever right to discriminate? What if you were a baker in Mexico a known sex-trafficker was having a “wedding” with an under age girl he kidnapped from the US and was being forced against her will? Could you discriminate then?

          • MumbleMumble

            Sure. I don’t think that being a kidnapper/rapist/pedophile should grant you protection from discrimination based on that status.

          • Randy Gritter

            So you are saying Catholics should not be pharmacists? Abortifacients are routinely prescribed and the vast majority of pharmacist jobs would require filling such prescriptions.

          • MumbleMumble

            I think you are over-generalizing. Not all Catholic pharmacists would refuse to provide prescribed birth control.

          • stanz2reason

            Why the change from ‘should’ for the baker to ‘would’ for the photographer?

            While ‘I’m not sure’ might be an honest answer for the photographer question, your response is dancing around the issue by focusing on what could potentially be a consequent of offering the service, which is ultimately a distraction from the actual ethical question being asked. Contrasting the work in isolation vs. work in the moment is a weak dodge.

          • LeahLibresco

            I don’t think it’s a dodge. If your beliefs will interfere with carrying out your job, then you shouldn’t pretend you can do the thing you’re being hired for.

            If I were a much better singer than I am, and a high school bully asked me to sing at her wedding, I would decline. I should forgive her and be able to sing warmly and expressively, but I’m not that good a person yet.

            It seems like the photographer could be in the same position, where zer beliefs, correct or false, would interfere with serving this client.

          • stanz2reason

            Mumbles question was Is it ethical for a wedding photographer to refuse to shoot a same-sex wedding?. He/She isn’t asking about discomfort or their job performance, but whether or not their objections to the same sex wedding alone justify a refusal of service, which itself carries a similar level of discomfort (and insult… and frankly unprofessionalism).

            I feel you’re conceiving a potential awkward moment (while ignoring another) and suggesting affected job performance as the reason for refusal in order to avoid making a judgement call on the photographers objections here.

            If there exists justification for the photographer to refuse to do the job for ethical reasons, I don’t see why the same reasons wouldn’t also then apply to the baker. That the baker does the majority of the work beyond the geographical location of the same-sex wedding (but for said wedding none the less) seems an arbitrary distinction. Both are asked to make contributions and otherwise play important roles in supporting the events of the day.

            Had there been no resolution between being bullied in highschool and being asked to sing at her wedding, you would be justified in refusing. You don’t owe forgiveness that isn’t honestly asked for, nor should you be expected to give it unrequested. This person slighted you specifically and the onus is on them to make amends.

          • TheodoreSeeber

            Why is the corporation assumed to be ethics free?

    • Mariana Baca

      I actually wrote a long essay for a “Drugs politics and culture” class about the birth control issue. I think pharmacies (the store) in general *don’t* carry all medications and have no obligation to do so (e.g. allergen-free compounded medicines, obscure antibiotics) — they are products at a store, after all. An individual pharmacist could have a religious exemption provided a pharmacy could make reasonable accomodations like having more than one pharmacist on call. (most large pharmacies do — smaller pharmacies might rethink their hiring policies). As long as the pharmacy didn’t give lectures on religion and clearly labeled their policy so consumers don’t waste time, I don’t have a problem with it and I don’t see why it should be a legal issue.

      The latter, is about refusing services (not an individual product) for specific events is trickier — it is an issue of whether the services are being refused on the basis of who they are or what the type of service is. I have less sympathy for the cake maker (he makes a cake, it is just a cake, and he doesn’t attend the ceremony, most wedding cakes don’t have messages, cake topper can be attached by wedding party — his material participation is very remote to none). A photographer actually attends an event, etc — that might be more of a problem, I think an a bit trickier. Some religions don’t allow participation in other people’s religious ceremonies, for example, we wouldn’t force a musician who is Jewish to sing “Ave Maria” at a wedding just because she sings at certain weddings for pay (ETA: not saying all jews would or would not have such objections — would depend on congregation an individual beliefs. But some religious people might object to singing lyrics that contradict their religious beliefs, even if they are willing to sing or play other songs).

      • Randy Gritter

        You are getting into to fine a detail. When you judge someone’s material participation to be remote you are making a judgement that someone else might not share. This cake maker did think it was close enough participation to say No. The question is whether the state has the right to overrule that.

        To my mind it depends only on whether you are in a position of power. If you own the pharmacy you can decide not to carry birth control drugs. People have to adjust. If you own a bakery you can refuse any wedding that bothers your conscience. Many employees won’t have that power but in every business someone does. If they choose to apply some principles from their particular religion rather than making their business secular that should be allowed in a free society.

        • avalpert

          If you own a hotel you can turn away african americans, if you own a country club you don’t need to consider Jewish applicants, if you own a restaurant you don’t need to serve Catholics…

  • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com/ Christian H

    I see another issue that the commentariat haven’t brought up yet: mail sorters are bound by codes of confidentiality, too. The new mother’s mail is supposed to remain private, and while postal staff cannot help but notice the content of flyers since they lack envelopes, at the very least they must act as if they are ignorant of her mail’s content. Sending unsolicited advice on that content is a breach of confidentiality, as well, or at least marks a breach of confidentiality.

    Now, to be fair, I’m importing a lot of this discussion into postal professional ethics from library professional ethics, which I’m more familiar with, but I think it’s fair because both professions have very serious concerns about privacy and confidentiality.

  • Martha O’Keeffe

    I’m wibbling on this a little. I’m assuming the free formula sample was not solicited by the woman but was junk mail, of the kind that regularly comes through the letterbox (I’ve gotten small free samples of tons of stuff). Also, the volunteer isn’t the ordinary post office worker dealing with the post for the general public; she’s working in a place that offers to be the mailing address for a specific group of people (homeless and at-risk Native Americans) who don’t have a fixed address or can’t access their mail regularly or safely, so it’s a slightly different situation – this is not me ordering a package from Amazon and someone in the sorting office in Cork deciding should I be spending my dosh on fripperies, it’s someone providing services (possibly government-funded, possibly not) as part of a scheme for a social service.

    And obviously the intention of companies who give you free samples is to entice you into buying their stuff. And if this person knows the circumstances of the woman, that she has a limited income and can’t afford to buy sufficient/expensive formula, then maybe she does have legitimate wider concerns.
    I agree that post should not be tampered with, because the whole point of providing this service is that the people availing of it can have the same kind of service the rest of us take for granted. And I agree that there is a strong strain of paternalism running through the ‘dilemma’, especially a kind of snobbery about breast-feeding – some women simply can’t, some don’t want to, and if it’s more convenient re: work or being able to feed the child to give them a bottle with formula, then that’s the mother’s choice. It also smacks of de haut en bas for a woman with more choices to lecture a woman with fewer on what she should be doing and trying to guilt her about being a bad mother if she doesn’t do that.

    On the third hand… formula companies are out to make money, not be the mother’s little helper. It would be cheaper and better if the woman could breast feed. I think offering advice is not beyond the pale; not a lecture, but help to the woman about “If you have a baby, here’s some recommendations from my training” and giving her not alone a list of ‘dos and don’ts’ but practical help (is the mother getting adequate nutrition herself? If she’s homeless or at-risk, it seems a possibility that she’s not).

    But really – you have to write agonised little letters to a newspaper ethicist about performing a corporal work of mercy? Is it that hard a decision to make that (a) this woman has the right to have her human dignity be respected, which includes not interfering with her post (b) my duty of confidentiality (c) I have qualifications and training in this area, they might be of use (d) ASK people availing of these services if they want this kind of advice, don’t IMPOSE it on them.

  • Mariana Baca

    Except there is absolutely nothing immoral or dangeorus about formula. First off, it is not as if the mother is ignorant of the existence of bottles and baby formula and that it is not easy buy it at the store. Getting a coupoun for it won’t magically make you feed it to your kid. And even if you *did*, in the US, where there is a good source of clean drinking water, etc. feeding formula to a kid will have absolutely no long term effects on the kid. So she has no obligation as a health professional to destroy mail.

  • Martha O’Keeffe

    Eve Tushnet has a post up which may be pertinent (the role of counsellors in the lies of their clients).

  • TheodoreSeeber

    I’m going to start ignoring any reference to the New York Times. Recent articles there have proven to me that the editors are a bunch of eugenicists who have decided to spread homosexuality to reduce the excess population.


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