Philosophical belief and 'ethical veganism'

The world has apparently gone mad. Alright it’s continued with its madness. We now have not only crazy religions, but crazy non-religious ‘Philosophical Beliefs’, given the benefit of protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010 by a Court in the UK.  Jordi Casamitjana, a zoologist by training, with a speciality in wasps, refuses even to travel on buses as they are likely to kill insects.  Obviously he has travelled on buses which go faster than the ones I’ve been on.

As we know, a vegan is someone who does not eat or use animal products. People may choose for supposed health purposes simply to follow a vegan, and so exclusively plant-based diet. They would therefore exclude all meat, fish, dairy and eggs from their consumption. But self-described ‘ethical vegans’ go further and try to exclude all forms of animal exploitation from their lifestyle.  They therefore avoid wearing or buying clothing made from wool or leather, or using toiletries from companies that carry out animal testing. Some would add honey to the list of proscribed items in view of the ‘exploitation of bees’ in its production.

It seems that Mr Casamitjana falls into this second category, but even more so.  He says that he will use the Tube as, he believes, fewer insects will be killed by tube trains than by buses. I’m not sure where his evidence for this comes from.  I’m not even sure why he considers this to be sufficient justification for his use of what would still be a killer train.  Are these unfortunate deaths outweighed by his need to get around London more quickly than if he went on foot or by bicycle? More a utilitarian than ethical view, I would have thought. And what about the rats no doubt killed by tube trains? Indeed, has he examined his footwear to make sure that the sole is so soft that it wouldn’t kill an insect which happened to get into his path?  Has he thought of losing weight himself in order to reduce the load on his feet and so make himself less of a killing machine?

The reason for the court’s involvement is that Mr Casamitjana has been sacked by the League Against Cruel Sports. Very ironic. It was apparently because in breach of his contractual obligation of confidentiality to his employer, he disclosed to people contributing to the League’s pension scheme that their money was invested in companies which engaged in animal testing. But then I suppose that animal testing is not a sport, whether cruel or not. 

The League says that his beliefs were not relevant to their decision. They say that what he said to the contributors in fact amounted to the giving of unauthorised financial advice, something which would normally be quite sufficient to justify a sacking. We shall see what the Tribunal eventually finds in relation to the facts of the sacking, as opposed to his vegan belief system. I suspect this one will go to appeal.

The court’s decision is not actually binding in any future case involving veganism or any other set of beliefs.  But it does indicate a necessary implication from the Equality Act’s provisions – that any set of philosophical beliefs, if sincerely held, regardless of nuttiness level - so just like religions - will qualify, unless shown to fail the tests set out in the Act. These include that it should be a ‘weighty and substantial aspect of human life’, ‘worthy of respect in a democratic society’, ‘not incompatible with human dignity’ and ‘not conflicting with the fundamental rights of others’. In other words a totally subjective set of tests to be administered by our courts.

In the meantime, we have lots of speculation in the press as to what this might mean for the rest of us.  What happens if the person on the till at the supermarket is an ethical vegan? Does he or she refuse to handle the packet of beefburgers or fish fingers? If removed from operating the till, could he then refuse to stack shelves with animal related items? What if Greta Thunberg were to get a job there?  Would she be entitled to refuse to stock shelves with products containing palm oil, in view of the significant contribution its production makes to global warming and so to the extinction she believes we are rushing towards? Would she be entitled to refuse to serve shoppers who had their babies with them, and so were flaunting their lack of concern for the adverse effect of population growth on climate change and so the hastening of our extinction as a species? If a climate change activist who was also an ethical vegan were to take a job with Tesla, would he be justified in causing problems for them until all their electric cars were capable of travelling only at very low speed, so as not to kill too many insects on the way?  Should he perhaps demand the reintroduction of the man with the red flag walking in front of the car?

And the answer to all of this? It’s somewhat murky. 
An employer should apparently consider such a request, and approve it if possible and reasonable. However, it does not have to agree if there are good business reasons for refusing the request and if that refusal is proportionate. Reasons might include serious disruption to the business, putting too much extra work on other staff, or the task being an essential part of the role.  None of this, however, is capable of objective measure.  It is a matter of opinion, with a wide range of possible answers. Good for the lawyers!

But on to a philosophical point.  In what way is ‘Philosophical Belief’, referred to in the 2010 Equalities Act, and the foundation for the judgement, not an oxymoron?  Yes, people have philosophies by which they live their lives - being nice to others who are nice to you etc. These though amount to little more than rules of thumb as to how to live a reasonably peaceful and pleasant life. But any philosopher worthy of the name would recognize that beliefs and philosophy are certainly not natural partners. If a philosopher does not know whether or not something is true, then he should be agnostic about it.  If, instead, he were to decide to act as if it were true, then that is certainly not a rational step to take. It is simply a decision to follow your emotions.  In fact, what is meant by "philosophical belief" in the Act seems to be actually an emotional reaction to a combination of circumstances. This is often then transformed, in that person's mind, without any logical justification, into a set of moral imperatives. Why? Because people, particularly those with extreme views, don’t wish to be seen to rely on ‘feelings’ as their sole justification for acting so differently to the normal. They prefer to categorise it as an ethical stance, which sounds so much more impressive.  Of course, the religious  can always claim that God told them it was so.  But for the non-religious? It would be nice if they recognised that there was no higher justification for their position than their own emotions.

Now, I don’t think that many of us would want to go back to the good old days of persecuting people for their so-called racial characteristics or their beliefs, even though it still seems to be rife in some other areas of the world. In those good old days, however, if you had definite ethical or moral views, you would avoid work which would require you to compromise those views. For instance, no-one in my old church would even have thought of working in a pub or any other alcohol-related business.  In other words, you did not put the onus on others to suffer for your views. You yourself suffered for them. And possibly were proud to do so – in all humility, of course!  So then in our attempt to avoid racial discrimination - which is in fact where all this legislation started back in 1962, with the first Race Relations Act - we seem to have created something of a monster by trying not to upset anyone in any way – regardless of their fruit and nut index.

Paul Buckingham

5 January 2020

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