The ethics of discrimination

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Peter Brian Rose-Barry, the James V. Finkbeiner Endowed Professor of Ethics at SVSU, gave a lecture as part of the Visiting Scholars and Artists Series, on Wednesday, April 5, in the Rhea Miller Recital Hall.

Rose-Barry’s lecture, titled “The Ethics of Discrimination,” focused on several themes, such as political liberalism, religious freedom and social justice. The focus was on religious exemptions, and the central question of the lecture was to ask if there’s “a moral right to an exemption from laws of general application on religious grounds.”

The Albert J. Beutler Forum lecture was something Rose-Barry had spent months preparing for.

“My original plan was to discuss the concept of discrimination quite generally, with an eye on solving a problem that bothers me in Constitutional law,” Rose-Barry said. “But the mission of the Beutler Forum is to deal with, among other things, contemporary issues in ethics. So, I wound up switching to a very particular topic concerning religious exemptions, given that the Trump administration has at least floated an Executive Order concerning religious liberty that goes well beyond how religious liberty has been understood recently by the Supreme Court.”

Among the many points brought up in the lecture, one of the more challenging ideas Rose-Barry highlighted was the philosophical idea of reductionism. That is, morally speaking, the free exercise of religion isn’t a basic liberty.

“All I’m claiming is that the free exercise of religion reduces to other, more basic and fundamental rights … rights involving free speech, free association,” Rose-Barry said. “Not that there isn’t such a right, but it only ever comes from somewhere else.”

A real-life example Rose-Barry cited to illustrate his point were motorcycle helmet laws that would punish Sikhs who refuse to remove their turbans. While Rose-Barry thinks these types of laws violate a Sikh’s religion, he thinks they are more fundamentally wrong because they are untowardly paternalistic.

One attendee, Hayley Stevenson, was taken by how the lecture highlighted the complexities of the debate surrounding religious exemptions.

“There’s so many nuances that can be negative on both sides of it for people that are very religious and people that aren’t,” she said.

Another attendee, Katie Danks, appreciated the viewpoints surrounding the ethical and moral debates the lecture presented. She felt the ideas brought up were important to help gain a broader perspective.

“In terms of the subject matter, it’s really good for just being able to kind of put yourself in other people’s shoes and understand where other people are coming from and kind of not blindly thinking your opinion is always the right opinion,” she said.

Rose-Barry appreciates the opportunity to get people actively talking.

“I hope that people came away from the lecture with an increased interest in the topic and a better sense of what’s really at stake in debates about, for example, religious liberty and religious exemptions,” he said. “That would put us in a better place to engage in serious dialogue about a very important topic.”

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