Gay cakes and the politics of conscience

2 Mar

A fascinating ethical and practical issue is playing itself out in Northern Ireland at the moment, but it has much wider implications. The issue started with a family owned and self-declared ‘Christian’ bakery refusing to bake a cake that would be adorned with a pro-gay marriage slogan. Lots of media and political commentary followed that showed how Northern Ireland – like many other societies – hosts very diverse views on moral issues. While some voices are at the forefront of a progressive equality mission, others remind us that biblical literalism is alive and well.

The issue has made the news afresh because a member of Northern Ireland’s largest political party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), has proposed a ‘conscience clause’ in equality legislation that is due to come into force. The Catholic Church – often the target of DUP ire – has come out in support of a conscience clause. A case of social conservatives sticking together, I suppose.

My first inclination was to be abhorred by the notion of social conservatives coming together to discriminate against certain groups in society. Especially abhorrent was the cynicism of specifically applying the conscience clause to equality legislation that is there to protect discriminated-against groups. Let us face it, the Catholic Church and the DUP social agenda often seem stuck in centuries past. And some of their respective representatives seem prone to practising what they do not preach in relation to sex and morality. The notion of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation (or race or religion etc.) is despicable, and the fact that this is even an issue is embarrassing.

But the notion of a conscience clause, and particularly the politics of conscience, got me thinking. We all have a conscience, or think we have one. It often engages with the very core of our being – drawing on intuition and our affective dimension. It is not wholly subject to our rational self (or I suspect that to be the case). Moreover, the idea of conscience moves us away from the thinking of ideologues who follow a particular ‘line’ regardless of the issue. Conscience might free us from that and reveal the inconsistencies and contradictions that most of us harbour. It also frees us (and politicians) from the weird rule that political parties must be obeyed by their members and that one subscribes to all parts of a manifesto. In thinking of a conscience, I am thinking of politicians who may want to deviate – on moral grounds – from party policy on issues like the death penalty or experimentation on embryos.

So the idea of the politics of conscience (as opposed to the cynicism of a conscience clause) is attractive (I am indebted to discuss with Professor Marie Breen-Smyth for differentiating between a conscience clause and the politics of conscience). It seems liberating and humane and gives space for agency and the individuality that is often excluded from orthodox politics. It is also a reminder that politicians are (or can be) individuals with a conscience.

But then we come back to the case we opened with: the right of a business owner to discriminate against customers on the basis of sexual orientation (or race, religion etc.). It offends my liberal sensibilities that anyone would discriminate on such a basis. But then I thought of my own practice – both professionally and privately. I withhold my labour in political ways. For example, I think twice about cooperating with colleagues at Israeli institutions lest I support apartheid. I have engaged in strikes for better conditions, and avoided dealings with some other institutions when they were involved in labour disputes. Personally, I alter my shopping habits on the basis of politics and conscience. None of this is to give the impression that I am some sort of ethical saint. I am not. But it does underline how conscience plays a role in our everyday practice and worldview.

As any good liberal would be, I am tortured over this issue of conscience and the implications it has for discrimination and social conservativism. In the case of public services one can see how they should be open to all, without discrimination on the basis of gender, sexuality, religion etc. In the case of privately run businesses, I am not so sure, even though that brings me to a morally very uncomfortable place. On the one hand, do we really want to live in a society with a series of no-go zones for sections of the population (but then we already have that in reality – especially in relation to economic ability)? On the other hand, do we really want to force individuals to do things that they find (for reasons we might profoundly disagree with) morally abhorrent?

What we are probably seeing in Northern Ireland is the cynical use of a conscience clause to dodge the responsibilities of equality legislation. That should not detract from allowing space for individuals and societies to develop a politics of conscience.

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