Thursday, December 22, 2011

On religious discrimination and cheap tastes.

A serious problem facing religious people is that of religious-based and -justified discrimination. Often, this is gendered, but not always. Conservative variants of Christianity, Judaism and Islam aren't big fans of gays and lesbians, after all. It's bad enough when this is turned against people outside the religious group; but there's something especially problematic about discriminating against members of the group. Often, it's claimed that it's legitimate to treat (say) women as inferior beings because they have voluntarily chosen to join the religion and thus willingly accepted discrimination.

This argument doesn't really work. Not because of false consciousness or similarly arcane notions, but because of how human preferences form and change.

Here's the idea. Amartya Sen says somewhere that political philosophers who write about distributive justice have overlooked a pretty significant problem. Distributive justice, incidentally, is the theory of how goods should be distributed within a society such that they are distributed in a just manner.

Philosophers who worry about this problem talk a fair bit about the problem of "expensive tastes" -- that is, what to do about people who prefer goods that are scarce or difficult to obtain. After all, if your theory says anything like "people are entitled to what they need" or that goods should be distributed (more or less) equally, there's a pretty serious problem looming. Some people have a preference for things that are very hard to get -- Ron Dworkin likes to use the example of quail's eggs and claret. Should they get those expensive things? Or not?

One common response is to insist that people are responsible for their own preferences, which sort of works when applied to the quail's-eggs-eaters. It's not unreasonable, it seems, to say that if you've got expensive tastes, it's not up to society to satisfy them but you to change them. Sen's point, however, is that there's an equally bad problem going in the other direction -- he calls it the problem of cheap tastes. Some people have developed preferences for things which are very easy to obtain. And it's difficult to believe that they should be held individually responsible for those preferences.

Sen gives a number of examples, two of which are quite useful: the happy housewife and the comfortable slave. (The last one's not his term; I don't recall that he coins one.) The happy housewife wants nothing more than to work for the benefit of her husband and children; she wants nothing for herself except what is necessary in order to continue to serve others. Similarly, the comfortable slave prefers being a slave to being free. He wants nothing for himself except to have someone else control every aspect of his life.

Plausibly, these two individuals -- sorts of individuals, really -- have had their preferences altered by their circumstances. After all, humans are an adaptable lot; if one's preferences are continually frustrated by an oppressive situation, sooner or later one will start to prefer whatever one can actually obtain and control. This, of course, raises trouble for the standard reply to the problem of expensive tastes: why think that expensive tastes are more likely to be within an individual's control than cheap ones?

Sen's point is that distributive justice is defective if it treats preferences as entirely the work of individual choice and behaviour. There's a strong social component involved, and that can disqualify a preference just as easily as the individual's action can.

And this gets us back to religious discrimination. It's not enough to say that people are voluntarily members of religious groups which willfully treat them poorly. We have to ask why they prefer to stay. It's plausible that they are so closely connected to the religious group that they have altered their preferences to suit the demands of the group. In that situation, should we really give much weight to their choices? Or should we insist, as with the happy housewife or the comfortable slave, that their preferences are warped and thus to be disregarded?

No comments: