Charity and the Big Society

Posted on March 30, 2011


We reported here recently on the case of Bed & Breakfast owners sued by a same-sex couple for refusing to allow them to share a double-bed at their Cornish hotel.

It now emerges that the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), who funded the claim, are investigating gay hotels for possible unlawful discrimination against heterosexuals. A spokesperson for the EHRC said that ‘there is a need for the Commission to establish an “objective balance’’,’ and that they are ‘looking in to the matter [of] the potentially discriminatory policies towards heterosexual couples that some (…) “gay-only” establishments may hold’.

No reports give examples of discrimination against heterosexual couples, who are probably not banging on the doors of the nearest gay hotel, and one newspaper’s description of such a hotel in Bournemouth at which ‘clothing is optional’ makes one wonder how many families are likely to take advantage of their right to stay there. I doubt that many will be cancelling their holiday at Disneyland as a result of the EHRC’s announcement. Last Saturday saw one of the largest demonstrations in history as people took to the streets to protest cuts to services many regard as vital, and yet the EHRC, whose Chairman is paid £112,000 a year for a three-and-a-half day week, deems it fitting to spend public money on non-existent cases of discrimination. I am not supporting the right of gay hotels to turn away heterosexuals – or even to exist in the first place – but the announcement is a startling illustration of a bizarre rights-based mentality which needs questioning.

Everyone is currently talking about the Government’s ‘Big Society’ agenda. Yet it is difficult to see how such an ideal will ever be realised in the face of the litigious mentality fostered by current anti-discrimination laws. Social commentators have spoken about the dangers of a ‘rights culture’ in which citizens think only about what someone else owes them. One proposed solution is to stress the responsibilities logically attendant upon rights. A right is a claim of justice regarding something to which I am entitled, and so genuine rights always presuppose an obligation upon someone. My right to life as a human person presupposes obligations upon other people who must refrain from killing me for food or sport as one might in the case of animals, and who must do what is in their power to ensure I do not die for lack of basic goods which can be provided by the community (food, water, etc.). The governing authority, which has responsibility for the common good, has an obligation to ensure that my right to life is subject to an appropriate degree of protection. I, in turn, must respect the right to life of others or I may find myself deprived of my own life through execution, or as a result of defensive manoeuvres taken against me.

Yet, introducing talk about responsibilities – while a step forward – does not alter the fact that our civil discourse, and our life in common, remains stuck within a legalistic and inhumane framework. The enforcement of rights and responsibilities – provided they are genuine and grounded in the moral law – is essential to the proper administration of justice in any society. But we must understand the distinction between the State, which is a legal entity, and society – an interrelated network of individuals, families, and communities, made up of unique persons. Whilst the State, as a legal body, may confine itself to administering justice, the wider society can never do so, because it is made up of persons, social beings who have needs which go beyond the requirements of strict justice. The most powerful illustration of this is the universal human need to be loved, and yet it is difficult to affirm that people have an obligation in justice to love others (although they may have obligations to care for them). This should prompt us to realise that a healthy society must go beyond justice and become animated by charity.

I had the opportunity recently to question a senior member of HM Government on the anti-discrimination laws. The justification he gave for maintaining them (I joke not) is that if the laws were repealed then a Muslim taxi-driver who considered dogs unclean could refuse to accept a blind woman with a guide dog as a passenger. (One can only imagine the kind of anarchy that would ensue if – as is highly unlikely – such an incident ever occurred in the real world.) But would it really be so difficult for the Muslim taxi-driver politely to explain his religious objections and to offer to telephone for another taxi? Or for the blind lady to respect his views, eccentric though they may appear to her, and wait five minutes for another taxi? The answer, at present, is ‘Yes it would be too difficult’, and if such a non-incident were to happen tomorrow, it would probably result in a dramatic court showdown billed as a clash between ‘disabled rights’ and ‘religious freedom’. But how much easier things might be if – not the Government – but we, society, injected a little charity into our common life.

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(Photo of Iustitia: © belgianchocolate)