Friday, February 22, 2008

Thought For The World - Stephen Law - What is the difference between political schools and faith schools?

Stephen Law

Thought for the day - Friday

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Stephen Law

15th February 2008

The last century or so has seen some huge improvements in our moral attiutdes. Many of these improvements concern discrimination and prejudice. It is no longer considered morally or legally acceptable to refuse to employ women, or homosexuals, or those of other races.

Nowadays, the suspicion that we are being unfairly discriminated against is widespread. Take religious discrimination, for example.
Recently, some Christians have complained that schools are permitting Sikhs to wear turbans, but are not permitting Christians to wear crucifixes. They claim this is unfair discrimination against Christians.

In order to assess whether such claims of unfair discrimination are warranted, we need to be clear what we mean by discrimination, and under what circumstances it is warranted.

The kind of discrimination I'm going to focus on is where a society or organization extends certain rights or other privileges to some, but not to others.

Actually, this sort of discrimination is not always a bad thing. Adults discriminate against children, for example. We don't allow them to drive cars, or vote. But this discrimination is justified. There are obvious differences between adults and children that explain why this discrimination is fair - most children are not sufficiently mature and responsible enough to vote or drive.

Preventing women, or those of other races, from voting and driving, on the other hand, is morally wrong. Yes, women are different to men, but these biological differences do not justify withholding the vote from women. Nor are differences in skin colour relevant to our ability to drive.

That's not to say that racial and sexual discrimination is always wrong. Women are entitled to breast screening. Men aren't. Is that unfair? Of course not. There are biological differences between men and women that justify this difference in treatment. These biological differences may be irrelevant when it comes to the vote, but they can be very relevant indeed when it comes to medical matters.

So, discrimination is not always wrong. In fact, discriminating on the basis of sex or race is not always wrong.

What makes discrimination wrong is when it is morally unjustified.

The moral is this. If we want to extend to some rights and privileges that we then withhold from others, the onus is on us to identify not just some difference between the two groups, but some morally relevant difference that justifies this difference in treatment.

If we can't meet this challenge, then we will rightly stand accused of prejudice.

Let me leave you with an example of this challenge in action.

Suppose political schools started opening up and down the country - a communist school in Putney followed by a neo-conservative school in Billericay. Suppose these schools select pupils on the basis of parents political beliefs. Suppose that each day begins with the collective singing of political anthems. Suppose children are expected to accept the teaching to be found in the schools revered political texts. Suppose that portraits of political leaders beam down from classroom walls.

What would be the public's reaction to such schools? Outrage. These schools would rightly be accused of educationally children - of forcing their minds into politically-approved moulds. They are the kind of schools we find under totalitarian political regimes, such as Stalin's Russia or Mao's China.

But notice that, if we cross out the word "political" and write "religious", we find that there are already many hundreds of such schools up and down the country. Many are state-funded.

Is this discrimination justified? Why, if political schools are totally unacceptable, do we deem their religious equivalents to be acceptable, or even desirable? What's the difference between religious beliefs and other political beliefs that justifies such dramatically different attitudes?

Perhaps there is such a difference. But unless we can identify it, we will rightly stand accused of pro-religious prejudice.

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