08 November 2009

Is Bigotry Another Name for Philosophical Belief?

There's something troubling about the recent ruling in Grainger plc and Nicholson -

"A belief in man-made climate change, and the alleged resulting moral imperatives, is capable, if genuinely held, of being a philosophical belief for the purpose of the 2003 Religion and Belief Regulations. The belief must be of a similar cogency or status to a religious belief, the ECHR jurisprudence is directly material and the limitations on the concept and extent of a philosophical belief can be derived from that, without the need to place any additional limitation on the nature or source of the belief."

Whilst my edition of the shorter OED has, "Bigotry - ...; obstinate and blind attachment to a creed"

The court case is a rich vein in equality jurisprudence; it is worth reading again and again. Firstly, it doesn't give a definition of 'philosophical belief'; instead it draws our attention to what Baroness Scotland (sic) said in Hansard,

"...the term 'philosophical belief' will take its meaning [from] the context in which it appears; that is, as part of the legislation relating to discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief."

Secondly, Scotland goes on to limit the scope of the philosophical belief which Burton J also sets out (para 24)

  1. The belief must be genuinely held.

  2. It must be a belief and not, as in McClintock, an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available.

  3. It must be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour.

  4. It must attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance.

  5. It must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, be not incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others (paragraph 36 of Campbell and paragraph 23 of Williamson)."

Is this an acknowledgement that a philosophical belief is just another form of bigotry? Or is there a distinction between philosophical belief and bigotry? Is the passage above saying that it isn't bigotry if it is genuinely held, if it is more than a view point or opinion?

Interestingly, the ruling says that it must be worthy of respect in a democratic society; what, like eugenics? This was worthy of respect in the early part of the twentieth century in Europe; I appreciate that this is not the case now but what else are we going to protect now due to our ignorance or lack of perspective?

Thirdly, para 30 has,

"In my judgment, if a person can establish that he holds a philosophical belief which is based on science, as opposed, for example, to religion, then there is no reason to disqualify it from protection by the Regulations. The Employment Judge drew attention to the existence of empiricist philosophers, no doubt such as Hume and Locke. The best example, as it seems to me, which was canvassed during the course of the hearing, is by reference to the clash of two such philosophies, exemplified in the play Inherit the Wind, i.e. one not simply between those who supported Creationism and those who did not, but between those who positively supported, and wished to teach, only Creationism and those who positively supported, and wished to teach, only Darwinism. Darwinism must plainly be capable of being a philosophical belief, albeit that it may be based entirely on scientific conclusions (not all of which may be uncontroversial)."

... which is contradictory. "[I]f a person can establish that he holds a philosophical belief which is based on science, as opposed, for example, to religion, then there is no reason to disqualify it from protection by the Regulations." Is it a philosphical belief if it is based on science? Surely not? But Burton J gives an excellent example, "Darwinism must plainly be capable of being a philosophical belief". It is if the person holding that idea holds it as a belief; rather than holding the belief, and understanding that it is only valid because, thus far, it hasn't been falsified. (Falsification is, Popper's criterion for distinguishing between science and non-science).

But surely this is bigotry: the blind and obstinate attachment to a creed. Just because, at the time the view is expressed, it may be concurrent with scientific understanding, it doesn't mean that this will always be the case.

This jurisprudence is straying into territory where it shouldn't belong: not the philosophical belief per se; but, the idea that non-science dressed as science can be protected in law is wrong. It breaks one of the criteria set out in para 24 by Burton J; it is not "worthy of respect in a democratic society".

Again, not necessarily the particular idea; since, as Burton J points out, or at least implies, the philosophical idea may be concurrent with current scientific thought, eg Darwinism. However, Darwinism as a philosophical idea is not worthy of respect.

Does it matter? It matters when it matters. That is, when new data, new hypotheses emerge and the philosophical idea is no longer concurrent with science.

In conclusion - a philosophical idea based on science is a contradiction in terms, it is not worthy of respect in a democratic society, and should not be protected by law.

Mr Justice Burton was wrong.

Note that as yet, I don't have any opinions about other philosophical beliefs that one would want to protect in law. Just those supposedly based on science - which I regard as a contradiction. If Burton J wanted to protect Nicholson's belief if Nicholson didn't regard 'man-made climate change' as based on science then that's another matter (I doubt that it would be compatible with a democratic society).

As for the law protecting marriage as a philosophical belief ... I'll leave that for another post.

Update 12th Nov 2009, "Police worker fired for backing psychic investigations claims religious discrimination" from the Daily Telegraph,

"At a tribunal in London, Mr Power will claim that Greater Manchester Police broke the law by sacking him for believing that mediums should be consulted in criminal investigations.

In an initial judgement seen by The Independent, Judge Peter Russell said that the case had merit because his Spiritualist views "have sufficient cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance" to be covered by the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003.

The judge wrote: "I am satisfied that the claimant's beliefs that there is life after death and that the dead can be contacted through mediums are worthy of respect in a democratic society."

Mr Power's former employers are expected to argue that Judge Russell's ruling was not justified, and highlight that the trainer did not initially claim that his belief in the usefulness of psychics to police investigations amounted to a religious conviction.

A couple of points: why does the Telegraph file this under religion? Turning to the ruling: is it really worthy of respect in a democratic society?

This creeping ignorance is beginning to be disturbing; when will these people start appearing as expert witnesses?

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