Sunday, October 07, 2007

Reasonable accommodation:

From "Normblog", today:

Too hot to handle

Sainsbury's is permitting Muslim checkout operators to refuse to handle
customers' alcohol purchases on religious grounds. It means other members of
staff have to be called over to scan in wine and beer for them at the

And next is? Vegetarian employees not having to handle sales of meat products? Pacifist staff not having to deal with war games or toy guns? Green checkout operators only having to process sales of locally produced foods?

But stick with it for a moment in order to get a further angle on this. We are to assume that having to handle alcohol purchases is deeply offensive to some fundamental moral principle of the staff concerned. If you have trouble with putting yourself in their shoes, then substitute something else, something that would be deeply offensive to your own principles. You're working for a well-known supermarket chain, and find that they're selling human flesh as veal. You don't wish to be implicated by handling the sale. Or, if that's too far-fetched, then try this instead: you're having to sell products being produced by the super-exploitation of overworked and under-age labourers, that is, young children.

And all you do is to ask to be excused from handling such goods. You cooperate in an arrangement that gets the goods sold, calling over other staff to do the business, and you continue to work for the outfit that is selling these things.

Perhaps not so fundamental a moral principle after all.

But of course the repugnance to Muslims in handling alcoholic products is not claimed on the ground of its deep moral taboo. It is claimed on the basis that it is a religious taboo. Some religious taboos are commensurate with moral taboos (like paedophelia, incest, murder, theft, etc). Some are not (like Jews forbidden to eat pork, shrimps and creepy crawlies, or Siks having to cover their hair in turbans). The moral taboos are generally universal values. There is no nation, culture or religion, to my knowledge, that allows murder or incest or thieving. By comparison, the religious taboos are idiosincratic, as in aforementioned examples. Jewish people are usually well aware of the exceptionalism of such religious decrees. And treat it as something for which they, and they alone are responsible. In other words, they choose to obey their own bizarre taboos knowing full well the onus is upon them to to do, or not to do so. And each decision comes with its own set of compromises.

I'm beginning to think that more than the concept of freedom, compromise is actually the key term that defines a functioning democracy. Or maybe these two concepts are inter-related in a much more fundamental way that we care to remember. A democratic ethos is a never ending flux of compromises between individual freedom and universal freedom. In other words, if I choose to live as an observant Jew, in order to exercise my right to do so, I need to give up that job which obliges me to work on a Sabath. I have to accept, a-priori, that certain choices are not avaliable to me, due to my decision to live a certain way.


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