Should Religious Homophobia be a Firing Offence?

By Doug McConnell

It looks as if Isreal Folau will lose his job as a professional rugby player for expressing his apparently genuine religious belief that drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists, and idolators are all going to hell. Morgan Begg, a research fellow at the Australian conservative think-tank, the Institute of Public Affairs, has recently argued that this is the result of a “totalitarian” and “authoritarian desire to impose ideological orthodoxy on Australians.” I respond that it is, in fact, Begg’s ideological position that is more amenable to totalitarianism and authoritarianism.

Begg claims that freedom of expression should include the right to express sentiments that “many people would profoundly disagree with” and find “deeply offensive”. It is the right of those who are outraged by Folau’s opinion to disagree with him but to ban him from expressing it, Begg claims, is totalitarian. Worse still, this “outraged mob” includes a powerful corporate entity, Qantas. Q

antas is Australia’s national carrier and a major sponsor of the Wallabies, Australia’s national rugby team. Qantas released a statement that, we may assume, is a thinly veiled threat to withdraw sponsorship, which said that Folau’s comments “are really disappointing and clearly don’t reflect the spirit of inclusion and diversity that we support.” For Begg, this too expresses an “authoritarian desire to impose ideological orthodoxy on Australians… While Qantas says it believes in diversity, it doesn’t believe in the right of someone to express a religious viewpoint.”

Begg’s view can be summed up as follows: We should not limit freedom of expression just because some such expressions offend some people. If we do, we will quickly find that there is very little we are free to express.

Begg and I can at least agree on three general points – outrage alone doesn’t settle anything because outrage can be unjustified; it would be bad if we were all forced to share the same narrow ideology; and, we should be concerned about corporate influence overshadowing the interests of individual citizens.

The core of our disagreement is over whether Folau has done something wrong, such that the outrage or prospect of losing his job are at least potentially justified. Begg appears to think that Folau has not actually done anything wrong, so the outrage is unjustified and so too are any knock-on measures to deter such self-expression. Or perhaps Begg would grant that Folau’s actions were blameworthy to some extent, but claim that this cannot justify strong sanctions that would seriously stifle freedom of expression. But if, as I think, Folau has done something seriously wrong, then not only may the outrage be justified, but so too may be some sanction to deter and punish such wrongdoing.

So, what has Folau done wrong? The view he promoted on his social media account implies that homosexual people cannot be respected as moral equals. By the mere fact of being homosexual they are, according to Folau, in the same category as liars and thieves. Perhaps a more charitable interpretation of Folau is that it is fine to be homosexual—that is, to have a same-sex sexual orientation—but to act on such desires is immoral, akin to lying and stealing. This, at least, would mean that those with a homosexual orientation have a chance to change their ways and avoid hell. To be forgiven they would presumably need to do what liars and thieves must do: acknowledge their error and receive some punishment or pay some compensation. Only then can they be welcomed back into the fold as moral equals worthy of respect.

But is it morally wrong to act on homosexual desires? So long as the behavior is consensual, there is no evidence that it harms the participants, bystanders, or society more generally. By contrast, the freedom to express one’s sexual natural in a consensual way brings significant benefits to most people, whether homosexual or otherwise.

There is more to morality than benefits and risks. But the reason for believing that homosexual acts are wrong is often based purely on contested interpretations of a religious text. I assume this is the case for Folau. The problem with this approach is that, to people outside that religion, these reasons have no normative force; they are an arbitrary way to define right from wrong. To expect others outside your religion to conform to your standards—without providing reasons that are not religion-specific—is to fail to treat them as free and equal. Your demands amount to mere foot-stamping: an unjustified attempt at coercion.

In a liberal democracy, the system of justice must be decided upon using reasons that every citizen can understand (i.e. Rawlsian public reason). Among other reasons, this is so that those who are punished in the system can at least understand the reasons for which they were punished and not take themselves to be the victims of arbitrary power.

As Begg sees it, however, the arbitrary power in this case is being enacted against Folau. But is it authoritarian or totalitarian to coerce people into treating others as free and equal? Quite the opposite. Treating others as free an equal is a cornerstone of liberal democracy. A robust liberal democracy therefore needs to protect its citizens’ moral status as free and equal using effective sanctions against those who undermine the principle. To fail to defend that principle and allow a free speech free-for-all might appear to be a libertarian utopia but it allows those who happen to wield the most power to undermine the moral status of weaker groups should they feel like it.

But, one might wonder, why would the strongest want to undermine the moral status of minorities? Well, in that kind of society, there is a reward structure that breeds authoritarianism because if you happen to be the strongest and aren’t prepared to impose your control on others to some extent, you risk losing your spot at the top to more aggressive minorities who may then expose you to arbitrary power.

In other words, liberal democracies can justify exerting some coercive pressure on its citizens so that they treat each other as free and equal because there is massive payoff in ideological freedom for the minorities (such as Pacific islanders living in Australia). Far from being authoritarian, insisting that we all treat each other as free and equal is how we protect society from becoming authoritarian.

But if we have established that outrage at Folau and a sanction are both justified in the name of a healthy liberal democracy, that still leaves questions about the type or size of sanction and who should impose it. It could be that losing one’s job is a disproportionate price to pay. Settling this is a complex issue. One consideration is that the size of the sanction should be proportional to the harm done and this depends on the vulnerability of the group harmed and the reach and influence of the perpetrator.

Certainly the homosexual population is vulnerable due to historic and ongoing homophobia. Self-respect is essential for good mental health and depends on being respected by others. In a context where you are already unsure if you are worthy of respect it is particularly harmful to see someone in a position of power suggest that you are not (e.g. see the study done during the Australian plebiscite on marriage equality and this personal account from Jason Ball). Furthermore, Folau’s words embolden other homophobic people to perpetrate further harm, both psychological and physical, against homosexual people. We can say, therefore, that Folau’s attack on homosexual people is worthy of greater sanction than his attack on atheists and fornicators, two less vulnerable populations in the Australian context.

Folau’s has significant power to cause harm (and do good) with his words. He is famous with many followers on his social media accounts so his words and influence travel far. Therefore, his homophobic posts on social media should face greater sanction than a relatively anonymous person who posted the same thing. His posts should also attract a greater sanction than if he expressed the same view in person on the street to a couple of strangers (assuming he had good reason to believe that it wouldn’t be recorded and disseminated).

Another consideration is whether there is something Folau could do to right his wrong. If he were to, say, show remorse and become an effective ambassador to counteract homophobia in the community perhaps that would be enough and he could keep his job. But if he refuses to make sufficient amends then firing him might be the best way to make up for some of the harm he has done. This is because firing him sends a clear message that even nationally recognized rugby players are not allowed to undermine the moral status of vulnerable minorities without serious cost.

Finally, there is the question of who should impose the sanction. If the justification of the sanction is the protection of liberal democracy then, intuitively, it seems that it should fall to the state. There are hate speech laws in Australia but they vary by state and are cumbersome to apply. Rugby Australia seems like the best entity to impose a sanction. They are the governing body for rugby in Australia and so they are the appropriate authority to ensure the basic standards of liberal democracy extend into the realm of rugby. Of course, it also helps that they have a contract with Folau which means they have a powerful tool to impose sanction.

What about the intervention from Qantas? Is Qantas wrongfully wielding its financial power to coerce Rugby Australia? It so happens that Qantas’ actions here align with protecting the moral status of a minority group and they thus support liberal democracy. I have already outlined how some limitations on freedom of expression can be justified on these grounds.  So is there any problem here? Well we may wonder about the intentions of Qantas, what if their actions were purely motivated by profit and not at all by concerns for liberal democracy and the moral status of minorities? Begg thinks it must be all about the money for Qantas because why else would they be willing to partner with Qatar Airways and Emirates, who are “owned and operated by repressive regimes the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar respectively. Qatar imprisons those deemed guilty of homosexual acts, and the UAE punishes homosexuality with the death penalty.”

If corporate entities like Qantas are purely interested in money, then occasionally they might coincidentally act in ways that are morally good but more often than not they will act in ways that promote the interests of a relatively small group of shareholders at the expense of the public. For this reason, we need ways of regulating corporations. I can’t get into how best to do that here but ideally there would be a way of allowing corporate influence when it was in the best interests of the public and restricting it when it wasn’t.

As a final note, I don’t think it’s clear that Qantas were hypocritical in their intervention regarding Folau. Commercial aviation is highly competitive, and it may be that Qantas would have failed as a business if it didn’t partner with Qatar and Emirates. One way to justify the apparent hypocrisy would be to argue that a company shouldn’t destroy itself over a moral position (with all the costs that entails) when it can live to fight another day and continue to work for morally good outcomes.

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8 Responses to Should Religious Homophobia be a Firing Offence?

  • AMD says:

    “The view he promoted on his social media account implies that homosexual people cannot be respected as moral equals.”

    That seems like a dubious inference . Why think this is the case in any serious sense?

    • Géraud Lernais says:

      Agreed, but while the inference is formally invalid, it’s not very difficult to see that it should be complemented with a silent premise (it would indeed be quite silly to say blaming someone for stealing or lying implies failing to treat him or her as a moral peer). The silent premise is: the particular way in which Folau spoke of homosexuality (i.e. as a moral flaw deserving of a hellish punishment) is a way that is hateful and divisive, and as such, is prescribing treating homosexuals as a group that deserve blame simply on the basis of their sexual orientation. This particular way of speaking ascribes blameworthiness to a certain kind of sexual orientation, which is quite different from ascribing blameworthiness to a certain kind of act (cf. lying or stealing). And more importantly, it *ascribes blameworthiness in a way that would make it appropriate to treat homosexuals in a way harmful to them * (i.e. the implicit yet clear reference to hellish punishment).

      That way of ascribing blameworthiness is the locus of the problem in Folau’s speech act. To be sure, Folau’s speech act cannot be reduced to the assertion of the proposition (i.e. the abstract semantic content) that homosexuality is blameworthy. Considered as a whole, the speech act conveys that proposition in way that legitimizes adopting an attitude likely harmful to homosexuals. This is what makes the speech act morally problematic.

      However I do think that you exposed an interesting problem — albeit conceptual — in nowadays’ notions of hate speech. What you exposed is that the justification for restricting / banning hate speech *cannot* simply be based on whether someone engaging in hate speech is prescribing treating someone, or a group of individuals, as less than moral equals. For that is too strong a requirement, which may be met only in extreme cases (i.e. The afterwork pub ‘All these bloody … deserve to die’! slogan). This suggests that a sufficient condition for restricting / banning hate speech is that, whether or not it prescribes treating others as less than moral peers, it prescribes putting them in a normative category that makes it appropriate to have a hostile attitude towards them, likely to be harmful to them on the long run.

      What I like about my sufficient condition is that it closely matches I think most of our intuitions about what counts as hate speech, but makes no use of the notions of ‘reasons’ or ‘moral consideration. Furthermore, given the conceptual connection between hate speech and racism/sexism/speciesism, it allows to replace flawed definitions (looking at you, Western legal systems) relying on this overly demanding condition like:

      “Racism is to treat race as a reason for less than equal moral consideration.”

      or more generally:

      “X-ism is to treat X as a reason for less than equal moral consideration.”

      with much better counterparts:

      “Racism is to treat race as a type of difference making it appropriate to have an hostile attitude likely to harm individuals of such-and-such race, on the long run”.

      “X-ism is to treat X as a type of difference making it appropriate to have an hostile attitude likely to harm the Xs, on the long run”.

      • Doug McConnell says:

        This is a good discussion. The ‘lower moral status’ claim was certainly was a weak point in my argument. Hostility certainly seems to be appropriate when we are trying to pin down that counts as hate speech. Just as an aside, what about discriminatory speech that is not hostile as such but just dismissive of others counting as moral equals… E.g. “Oh those animals, I just don’t even look at them”.

        Anyway, back to the moral status discussion. I wonder if one can put people in a normative category that makes it appropriate to have a hostile attitude towards them on the basis of a characteristic like sexual preference with that *not* entailing that you treat them as less than moral equals. If one treats some people with hostility by default (given their normative status) while not treating others in that way, doesn’t that entail that those worthy of hostility have a lesser (or at least different) moral status?

        Another way of thinking about this is to compare the thief to the homosexual. I agree that in fact the thief is be default treated as a moral equal, this is the basis of blaming him, we show that we think he is capable of meeting the shared moral standards. But if he consistently steals despite all our efforts to encourage him not to, at some point we give up and think, well, he just isn’t morally capable and has to be treated as less than a moral equal. Folau’s position suggests that we take the same attitude to homosexual people – if they consistently fail to meet the standard of behaviour demanded then they cannot be treated as moral equals… So it does end up boiling down to questions of moral status

        I’m not totally convinced of my argument here by the way, just a couple of thoughts…

  • Anica Alvarez Nishio says:

    A few caveats: I am an amateur follower of this blog. I have not been trained professionally in Philosophy, and am not au fait with the details of this case beyond what has been reported in MConnell’s piece above. For the record, I was raised by an atheist father and a lapsed Jewish mother. I am now myself a church goer within the small ‘c’ non-prostelytizing Church of England tradition. Also, although I am now married with children, I previously enjoyed same-sex relationships. As for the rest of Isreal Folau’s list of moral ills, I still remember taking up a dare to steal sweeties aged 9 or so, and I’ve been known to have a few drinks… So you can see where Folau feels I am headed. That said, although I agree with McConnell’s social stance, I worry far more about the arguments set out in Mc’s piece — as it were, on my side of the moral divide — than I do about the slings and arrows of Folau’s pronouncements.

    Let us take McConnell’s arguments in order:

    Is homosexuality wrong? Personally and theoretically, I concur entirely with McConnell here: it is not. Indeed, it is arguably beneficial.

    Does religious expression carry an a priori normative force for those outside the religion? I argue that it does not, for the simple reason that, if one is outside of a religion — and in this increasingly secular age that is a growing majority of the population — then arguments based on religious texts or religious reasoning carry no validity. Indeed, those outside the religion tend simply mock religious beliefs, then ignore them.

    ‘Treating others as free and equal is a cornerstone of liberal democracy.’ — Agreed.

    ’A robust liberal democracy therefore needs to protect its citizens’ moral status as free and equal using effective sanctions against those who undermine the principle. To fail to defend that principle and allow a free speech free-for-all might appear to be a libertarian utopia but it allows those who happen to wield the most power to undermine the moral status of weaker groups should they feel like it. But, one might wonder, why would the strongest want to undermine the moral status of minorities? Well, in that kind of society, there is a reward structure that breeds authoritarianism because if you happen to be the strongest and aren’t prepared to impose your control on others to some extent, you risk losing your spot at the top to more aggressive minorities who may then expose you to arbitrary power.’

    Well, I write this from room at Yale University where I have just spent the past weekend at a series of events overshadowed by the question of the future of Ethnicity, Race and Migration studies at the university. I can assure you that the definition of stronger and weaker groups is shifting — has shifted — rapidly. Previous minorities are quickly becoming the majorities. And here is the crux of the problem. So as long as there are fewer gay men than straight religious men, by your argument it is okay to impose limits on the latter but not the former. But what happens, Mr McConnell, when homosexuals come up against an even stronger minority, or are no longer a minority at all? Who gets to impose coercive limits on speech then? If indeed statistics and informal experience alike bear out the idea that everyone is on a spectrum and there is no hard and fast line between gay and straight, then homosexuals are already in the majority, and by this argument already ought to have their speech coercively curtailed.

    Which brings us to the question of coercive limits on free speech: ‘In other words, liberal democracies can justify exerting some coercive pressure on its citizens so that they treat each other as free and equal because there is massive payoff in ideological freedom for the minorities (such as Pacific islanders living in Australia). Far from being authoritarian, insisting that we all treat each other as free and equal is how we protect society from becoming authoritarian.’

    Surely ideological freedom is just that: the freedom to think what one likes? Moreover, the implication that Pacific Islanders Living in Australia are not intelligent/well-educated/thoughtful, etc. enough to make their own choices about their beliefs without the ‘benefit’ of having a (so-called) liberal democracy impose a set of approved ideas upon them is shocking. Or worse.

    Certainly the homosexual population is vulnerable, in Australia and elsewhere. Certainly, Folau has followers, and his words may have the power to do harm and good. Here I am, admittedly, on more shaky ground because I have not followed his remarks in detail. It seems, though, that Folau is not calling for homophobic acts. (If he were, then surely McConnell would have cited this.) He is simply expressing his own personal religious beliefs. Forcing him to ‘show remorse’ and ‘make amends’ takes us back to a time I think none of use would wish to see: Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing being two of the most famous examples of this in a British context.

    Which brings us to the question of retributive justice: Is it not a question of: we have been powerless, we are now powerful? Are McConnell and others who argue for ‘coercive freedom’ not simply trying to (one might say ‘finally’ and ‘not before time’) have their moment of power, get their pound fo flesh?

    My worry as a person who probably falls on the same side of many moral questions as McConnell is what is being done in ‘my’ name. I would like to see those of us who have experienced discrimination, exclusion and indeed hatred for being none other than what we are use these experiences to build a stronger society along better, more enlightened lines, rather than simply perpetuating the misconceived ills of an authoritarian past, albeit with a face of a slightly different colour/gender/orientation?

    I leave you with this thought: instead of harming us, perhaps Folau has done all of us a moral favour: by lumping in homosexuals, fornicators, thieves and liars he has, in fact, put us all on equal footing — in the best possible way.

    For which among us can say, with utter honesty, that in the many decades of our lives we have not uttered a single lie, explicit or implicit, through speech or omission? Indeed, how many of us can say that about our actions just today? ‘How’s the coffee?’ ‘Lovely, thank you.’ No it’s not.

    And so, we ‘misfits’ of the world are, in fact, the norm. We have nothing to fear from Folau’s ramblings. We should use our powers of reason and rational argument, and our desire for justice, to effectively counter these mistaken beliefs rather than denying their right to be expressed.

    • Doug McConnell says:

      Theres a lot here but just to reply to a couple of things.

      “But what happens, Mr McConnell, when homosexuals come up against an even stronger minority, or are no longer a minority at all? Who gets to impose coercive limits on speech then? ”

      The idea is that it wouldn’t matter who is the majority or the minority – everyone should treat each other as free and equal. It is just that minorities often stand to benefit more from this because they tend to be more vulnerable to being treated as less than free and equal. This is why I pointed out the Pacific Islander’s in Australia stand to benefit from some rules to ensure people are treated as free and equal.

      “Surely ideological freedom is just that: the freedom to think what one likes? Moreover, the implication that Pacific Islanders Living in Australia are not intelligent/well-educated/thoughtful, etc. enough to make their own choices about their beliefs without the ‘benefit’ of having a (so-called) liberal democracy impose a set of approved ideas upon them is shocking. ”

      I didn’t say anything about restricting what people can believe. I’m talking about limiting public expression of views that fail to treat others as free and equal and this would apply equally to all people in the liberal democracy. I absolutely did not imply that “Pacific Islanders Living in Australia are not intelligent/well-educated/thoughtful, etc. ”

      “instead of harming us, perhaps Folau has done all of us a moral favour: by lumping in homosexuals, fornicators, thieves and liars he has, in fact, put us all on equal footing”

      But Folau has not put everyone on the same footing. Those who believe in the God he is talking about and who are prepared to live according to the specific rules of the religion he follows are on better footing than those who are not.

  • Brian Salter-Duke says:

    Folau does not have just any kind of job. He is a professional Rugby player and working closely in a team is crucial. Would the team be just as good if it contained gay players as well as Folau after he made these remarks? This issue is the only issue that the manager raised on TV yesterday in spite of the interviewer trying to extend it beyond that point.

  • Rud Crawford says:

    He has the right to express his views no matter what we think. We can see how out of touch he is and ridicule his stance. But . He works for an organisation that promotes modern liberal views to appeal to the mainstream. His contract has been violated regarding his use of social media.
    A firing offence. Why read anything more into this than the ramblings of a very out of touch person thinking his views are worthy of consideration

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