Sunday, January 28, 2007

Mock The Ethicist: Inaugural Edition

I picked an opportune day to start mocking The Ethicist; he's in fine, crack-smoking form this week.

Let's start with this week's lead question:

I answered an ad for a job as a data-entry clerk at a faith-based charity, but I stopped filling out the application when it said I could not work there unless I signed a “statement of faith,” affirming that I had evangelical Christian beliefs.Isn’t this religious discrimination? — Janet Lama, Charlotte, N.C.
Why yes, yes it is; it seems that The Ethicist and I agree on that much. But then, as he is want to do, Mr. Cohen starts with a reasonable position and proceeds to make a hash of things.

One thing that I've always admired about him is his untrammeled belief in his own infallibility; it shows he really has a pair. Who else would ask an expert for their opinion on the issue and then proceed to ignore it?

If you ask a lawyer, he will explain why this group can reject non-Christians. Andrew G. Celli Jr., for example, an attorney with expertise in civil rights law, says, “This is what the law allows — and for good reason, given the time-honored constitutional principle of separation of church and state.” This charity sees its work as an expression of faith, Celli says, and “government should not be in the business of telling religious organizations which of their activities are religious and which are secular.”

But if you ask me — and you did — I’m with you. For the law to retreat from making such judgments, even the most straightforward ones, allows religious freedom to mutate into religious discrimination.

Uh-huh... right. Let me get this straight... you're saying that the government has the ability to divine what is religious practice and what isn't? You know, you should listen to your expert; maybe he knows what he's talking about after all.

There's a reason why the government should avoid making religious judgements: it tends to fuck them up royally. Even if there are noble folk somewhere in the great machine who have the wisdom to divine such things, the actual divination often falls to blinkered bureaucratic functionaries who are no more capable of making such a judgement than they are of flapping their arms and flying around the room.

The real question that you should be asking is why do we grant religious exemptions at all? Doesn't this approach, allowing all sorts of exemptions based on religious reasoning while denying the same to those with secular philosophies, represent a government endorsement of religion over non-religion? The only coherent solution to this problem is to grant unlimited exemptions to everyone, or to grant no exemptions at all. Anything else requires the government to decide the truth of metaphysical propositions, clearly not a legitimate function of government.

Whew... after that screw up it seems anticlimactic to pursue today's second question. But I'm going to do it anyway, because I think it demonstrates The Ethicist's penchant for pulling things out of his ass. So here is is:

I was to screen candidates for a job at my office that requires considerable phone time with our high-end, snobbish customers. When my boss said, “Don’t bring in anyone who wants to ‘ax’ you a question,” my first reaction was that she wanted me to exclude African-Americans. My boss claims to support equal opportunity, but was she being racist here? — name withheld, New York

Well, let's look at this question logically. IMHO there's two valid interpretations:

  • This person's boss wants them to exclude everyone who uses non-standard English, "ax" being an example of such a usage.
  • This person's boss wants them to exclude African-Americans, and is using "ax" as a code phrase.
It's basically a push... given the limited details in the letter there's no apparent reason to favor one interpretation over the other. An interesting criticism that can be rendered in this case (though not necessarily one I agree with) would be to question the exclusion of persons using non-standard English, since that occurs in both cases.

So what does the Ethicist do? He makes shit up:

Was your boss brusque? Yes. Uncouth? Perhaps. Unkempt? I can’t say; I’ve never seen her. Racist? I can’t say that either, and neither can you. There’s not enough information. Using “ax” in place of “ask” is sometimes done in casual conversation by some African-Americans, but it is done by other groups as well.
Uh-huh, name me another group that's associated with the use of the word "ax"... didn't think so. Sweet jesus, 5 minutes of googling and he could have found this, which says that modern usage of "ax" in place of "ask" is largely confined to the African-American community1. Right conclusion, but for the wrong reasons.

Tune in next week for another exciting episode of "Mock The Ethicist", same bat-time, same bat-channel.


1 Shame on the OED, btw; their entry for this sense of "ax" is woefully unenlightening.

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