Cakes and conscience

By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, December 22, 2016
(Slightly revised July 1, 2017)
Cakes and conscience
You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Or so the saying goes.
In view of Christian bakers in the U.S. and Ireland being sued enormous sums of money (e.g., $137,000 U.S.) for not making gay wedding cakes, some persons clearly not only want to have their cake and eat it—but also wish to force others to bake it for them!
Let’s look at three popular arguments in favour of using the law to coerce Christian bakers to bake wedding cakes for same-sex weddings, and let’s assess those arguments.
Keep in mind the bakers are conscientiously objecting to using their artistic talent to affirm or celebrate what they believe is immoral. They wish to exercise freedom of speech—freedom not to be compelled to say/ express something they think is false or wrong.
Argument 1: The Christian bakers are discriminating against gays.
Assessment: Nope.
Yes, the bakers choose to refuse to bake cakes for gay weddings, but, no, the bakers are not discriminating against gays in general.
The bakers serve gays in day-to-day business by serving cookies, pastries, cupcakes, birthday cakes, etc. But the bakers refuse to participate only in what seems to them as contributing to the celebration of a particular event—a same-sex marriage ceremony—which goes against their moral conscience. The bakers are refusing to use their creative talent to make a message with which they disagree.
This means gays are here not being discriminated against as a class as, say, blacks have been discriminated against as a class. It’s not as if gays are not being served at all at a lunch counter.
Again: Only a particular type of event—a same-sex wedding—is not being serviced and celebrated by some (a few) bakers. (Significantly, there’s no shortage of other bakers who are ready and willing to bake the desired cakes.)
In other words, the oft-assumed racial discrimination analogy is faulty.
Surely, in a tolerant and pluralist society bakers should be free to refuse some business on moral grounds.
Think about it. Don’t we think a Muslim baker should be free not to bake cakes celebrating pornographic images for a stag party? Or a Jewish baker should be free not to bake a cake celebrating the pork industry? Or a black baker should be free to not to bake a cake celebrating the Ku Klux Klan? Or a gay baker should be free not to bake a cake for an anti-gay celebration at Westboro Baptist Church (of “God hates fags” notoriety)?
Answer: We do think they should be free not to bake such cakes.
Argument 2: When somebody opens a business that serves the public, they should serve all of the public.
Assessment: Yes and no.
Yes, ideally, it would be nice if all the public were to be served. But, no, life isn’t always sugar and spice and everything nice.
Surely, we should allow some limitations to make room for religious/ moral conscience if doing so isn’t a huge burden on the public. After all, we live in a diverse society.
Think about it (again). In a diverse society it’s important that we don’t force a Muslim baker to go against her conscience, nor force a Jewish baker to go against his conscience, nor force a black baker to go against her conscience, nor force a gay baker to go against his conscience, nor force a Christian baker to go against her conscience, etc. It’s called tolerance.
Argument 3: If you’re not going to bake gay wedding cakes, then you shouldn’t become a baker in the first place.
Assessment: This argument tells us that if anyone doesn’t agree with gay ideology, then any conscientious objections will not be tolerated. In other words, pro-gay ideology is trump.
But whatever happened to freedom of conscience? Whatever happened to tolerance and live-and-let-live? Whatever happened to pluralism and diversity?
Folks, life in a diverse pluralist society won’t always be easy. Let’s not force people to violate their moral conscience when there are many other, less oppressive ways to get a cake.

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is associate professor of philosophy at Providence University College. The views expressed in this column do not always reflect the views of Providence.)

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