Where I am spending some time visiting my mother, there is a controversy about a nearby drug store which is refusing to fill prescriptions having to do with birth control. The store in question is the nearest store to where my mother lives, and the only pharmacy in the neighborhood. It has recently been purchased by a couple who are Catholic and who announced that they would use this policy in their store. The local newspaper picked up the announcement and the story has generated a fair amount of debate.
The debate concerns a conflict between the rights of a store owner to sell what they please, versus the rights of individuals to obtain whatever legal medical care is available without being required to pass a religious test.
On the side of store owners being able to sell what they please, we must consider the case of a grocery store that makes a choice not to sell meat. Most people would not get too upset about the option. We do not require a grocery store to sell every type of legal food available. Indeed, we permit some grocery stores to sell only a limited set of foods. We do not call this an act of discrimination or bigotry against customers who do not like the food that the store serves. We simply say something like, “This is a vegetarian grocery store,” and we move on.
Similarly, we do not hold that a Catholic church is guilty of discrimination for holding only Catholic religious ceremonies. They are not engaging in discrimination against Jews and Muslims because they do not host religious ceremonies outside of their own tradition.
An example that is more directly relevant to this is the case of medical care. A hospital is not required to make all possible forms of medical care available to its patients. It can decide not to purchase particularly expensive equipment or to have particular types of skills represented among its doctors. This is its right.
Yet, there is an important difference in the case of people seeking birth control and other forms of medication when compared to people seeking a good steak or a place to pray. In the case of buying meat and prayer, the inconveniences are small, and we have less reason to condemn private beliefs for these costs. In the case of birth control and similar medical options, the price is significantly larger. In other words, this is a case in which the world would have been a better place if people did not have attitudes such as these, so people have much stronger reason to condemn those who have these attitudes.
Religion, Harm, and Causation
I would like to use this opportunity to briefly discuss the relationship between religion and harm. A few days ago I criticized Christopher Hitchens for making claims about similar situations that the only reason these wrongs get done is because of religion. In spite of my protests to the contrary, I worry about some people taking my argument to mean that I think that religion is impotent, and that we can ignore religion as a cause of harm.
I would like to use a quick analogy to explain my position.
Imagine that somebody in Colorado hops into a 1967 pickup and heads off to San Francisco. In a case like this, we would have to acknowledge that the 1967 pickup is not impotent – it has the ability to take a person from Colorado to San Francisco. However, the fact that it is not impotent does not imply that it is uniquely potent.
If we rid the world of 1967 pickups, we can rest assured that nobody will ever go from Colorado to San Francisco in a 1967 pickup. However, it is still the case that there are substitutes – that people in Colorado can still travel to San Francisco in something other than a 1967 Pickup.
My view on the relationship between religion and harm follows this model. Clearly, religion is not impotent – it can and is used to get people to adopt attitudes that adversely affect the well-being of others, as in the case of the couple that purchased the nearby pharmacy.
However, acknowledging that religion has the power to cause people to adopt attitudes that diminish the well-being of others does not imply that religion is the only entity with this power. Acknowledging that a 1967 pickup can get a person from Colorado to San Francisco is not the same as acknowledging that it is the only vehicle one can use to get to San Francisco from Colorado.
Consequently, I can condemn a particular set of religious beliefs, in this case, for creating a situation that will make the lives of some of my wife’s neighbors worse off than they otherwise would have been. I can say that they are being made worse off for no good reason. In saying this, I am not saying that non-religious options cannot generate the same (or worse) results. This can still be true, even if this time religion, and not some other entity, fills this role.
When people act so as to make the lives of others worse off than they would have otherwise been, and uses poor reasoning to defend their action, it is perfectly legitimate to condemn them for it. Condemning a person for saying or doing something contemptible is not the same as violating their rights.
This couple can quite honestly say that they have the right to choose what to sell in their store. However, I have argued that a ‘right’ to do something only means that a person should be free to do that thing without somebody responding directly with violence and harm. The right of the American Nazi Party to hold a march through some Jewish neighborhood means that they have a right against violent interference with their actions. It is not a right to be free from condemnation. Nor is it a right to be free from whatever private actions (e.g., boycotts) in response to their adopting this policy.
It is a matter of empirical fact that these people will be making the lives of many of those in the neighborhood worse than those lives would otherwise have been. I also assert that they have no good reason to do so. The desire on the part of others that this attitude is thwarting gives them reason to inhibit this attitude through condemnation and private actions. An interest in preserving the peace denies others the right to inhibit this attitude through formal sanctions or violence.
In fact, I would argue that it is a bit counter-productive to focus on the question of whether the state should require these owners to sell a product they do not wish to sell. Instead, I would propose using this as an example of people who are acting in ways that lower the quality of life of others. Claiming that people have a right to practice their religion seems quite benign, until one points out that what their religion commands them to act in ways that are harmful to others.
This is also a case in which people are using religious arguments to defend actions that make the quality of life worse for others. Those arguments are highly questionable. Those who are to be made worse off by the actions of others have a right to condemn others who use such poor reasons for doing harm.
All of this is quite consistent with the claim that religion is not the only medium one can use to ‘justify’ doing harm to others, and that where no religion exists we can still expect people to form ‘tribes’ that treat outsiders unjustly an even brutally. Animals – particularly primates – form groups like this without any belief in a God to guide them.
It is the medium being used in this case, and those who do so are deserving of some measure of condemnation for it.