Discriminating on the basis of homosexuality

Cassie asked:

Is it wrong to discriminate on the basis of homosexuality?

Answer by Graham Hackett

By ‘discriminate’ I take you to mean different treatment of people on the basis of some real or perceived differences between them. This treatment could range from different distributions of goods to different people, all the way to denying the right to certain groups to live freely, or even to live at all.

You also ask ‘Is it wrong…’ which suggests that you are asking if there is any valid ethical justification for such discrimination. This would automatically rule out any defences of discrimination based on political or social convenience. It has never been easy to defend an argument for discrimination against a group on the basis that this would please those who are not members of the group.

You may remember the UK court case which was bought by a gay couple refused accommodation by a hotel owner who disapproved of homosexuality. In this case, the gay couple desired a service (a hotel room) which they were refused on the basis of their sexual orientation. The court upheld their claim that they were discriminated against, and that religious objections were not a valid reason for the different treatment.

There is nothing inherently wrong in the idea of discrimination. For example, it would not be difficult to construct an argument for discrimination in favour of a certain group (such as gays or blacks) on the grounds that this is a kind of restorative justice to compensate for past inequalities. This is the so-called ‘positive discrimination’. It is controversial, because discrimination in favour of group A might be interpreted as discrimination against group B, if we view the problem in a zero sum sense.

Nevertheless, an argument can be made that such positive discrimination is ethically justified.

It is difficult to see how a valid ethical argument could be made for discrimination against a group on the basis of sexual orientation (or colour). Those who discriminate often seem to tacitly acknowledge this by quoting other reasons for the discrimination (that homosexuals are prone to be pedophiles, or that black people are less intelligent and capable than non-blacks, etc). Bernard Williams wrote , in connection with colour discrimination

“If any reasons are given at all, they will be reasons which seek to correlate the fact of blackness with certain other considerations… such as insensitivity, brute stupidity, irreducible irresponsibility etc.” (The Idea of Equality, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society LVI 1955-6).

We could easily rephrase this comment and make a similar observation for homosexuality. So many expressed views in favour of discrimination often masquerade behind spuriously concocted reasons. To quote Williams again;

“[T]he Nazi anthropologists who tried to construct theories of Aryanism were paying, in very poor coin, the homage of irrationality to reason.”

If we are to defend discrimination then we must be prepared

(a) To find, for every difference in the way people are treated, a reason for this difference;

(b) To say why the reason quoted is relevant to the case.

This is the approach suggested by Bernard Williams in the work cited. Clearly, it would be unacceptable just to say ‘I support discrimination against these people because their sexual orientation is different to that of the majority’, without also saying why this is a relevant reason for the difference in treatment. I believe that arguments for discrimination against gays would fail the relevance test.


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