On Purity taboos and the Profane (Updated 27/10)
It is very rare that I come across a blind spot among the commentariat and front pagers here at OT, so it astounded me when I actually did come across one recently. I will attribute this to something like Haidt’s claim that liberals and libertarians just don’t rate purity as a value that highly and as a result, fail to appreciate how high a burden renting a wedding hall to a gay couple can be for someone for whom homosexuality violates serious purity taboos.
Everyone seems to think that merely renting a wedding hall to the gay couple is not very burdensome. It is often compared to allowing gay people into a restaurant. But this is not the case. Wedding halls are not restaurants, even though the latter can be used to host wedding dinners. From the perspective of someone who takes purity seriously and who thinks that marriage is linked to a number of purity norms, wedding halls are a different sort of thing from restaurants. Instead, wedding halls are like churches. Just as splashing pig’s blood desecrates a mosque’s grounds and thus makes it unfit as a place of worship, for the Knapps, after a gay marriage is conducted on those grounds, it may not be fit for conducting weddings any more. That may sound bigoted, and perhaps it is, but such is their religion and such are their religious duties, at least as they interpret it*. Such things are beyond rational enquiry or at the least the subject of reasonable** pluralism. The psychological burden on them is high and are at the least significant long term problems with a society which forces a significant number of its people to experience such significant burdens. I would like to anticipate one sort of reply which is typically tone deaf and demonstrates a complete inability to even empathise with people who care about purity taboos.
R1: Of course we liberals/libertarians hold things sacred: we consider things like fairness/harm/liberty to be sacred.
Obviously you don’t grok what I mean by a purity taboo and you obviously have only a crude understanding of how sacred-ness works. Sacred-ness is not just about valuing things a lot. There are some associated patterns of thought which are neither typically present nor appropriate in the way we think about harm, fairness or liberty.
R2: Well so much the worse for purity if it involves us making trade-offs against fairness and harm. We should not give any weight to purity because we have to sacrifice fairness and harm against it.
This argument is circular. It presupposes the conclusion it is trying to prove. The mere fact that one value conflicts with another does not mean that one of the values is false or worthless. It is also unclear why it is purity which must give way before fairness and harm and not the other way around. Now, suppose it is the case that since values like harm and fairness are more widely shared than values like purity, then there might be a colourable argument that it is the shared values which must prevail. Yet, talking at such a general level obscures the fact that there are shared reasons to give people space avoid the things they see as taboos even when we cannot understand why they see it as taboo. For one, it would be a real set back to their interests if they had to avoid certain classes of activity in order not to be forced to violate their taboos. Being sensitive to the role such purity taboos play in people’s lives means we understand that people can be harmed at least in a sense that is relevant to justice. People experience real psychological pain when forced to violate their taboos (even the purity related ones). These purity taboos connect up with preferences that are intimately linked with fundamental features of a person’s life plans. It seems at least intuitively appropriate to say that it is desirable for their sakes that they not be forced to violate their own taboos. Of course this does not directly imply that it is necessarily desirable all things considered to satisfy this preference of theirs. That is going to depend on what the satisfaction of this preference is weighed against. I could also argue that it is unfair, but that is beyond the scope of this post. My aim is to show that there is a real and significant burden on the Knapps if you were to force them to rent out the wedding hall to gay couples. Also, there is a liberty issue as well. The purity business is not so much a competing value necessarily (after all certainly gay couples may want to have a ceremony to commemorate something that they regard as sacred and good too) but it establishes the context with which we can assess the stakes in the matter. What sort of liberty interests are at risk? How important is the outcome to each party etc etc.
A restaurant cannot make the same claim (except perhaps in very very rare circumstances that I have not thought of). Restaurants are typically constructed with a secular aim in mind i.e. to provide food, which is for most people a task that is not defiled by the mere fact that a gay person happened to sit at the table previously. There may nevertheless be some people for whom the fact that someone from another caste or of no caste sat at a table or entered the kitchen or touched the food would be sufficient to render the whole operation ritually unclean. Thankfully such people are sufficiently rare nowadays that setting up a restaurant that could cater to them is not a workable business proposition and are often unwilling to eat anything but home or temple cooked food.
One objection is that since they already rent their hall out for civil marriages or for marriages from other denominations, they must not care too much about profaning their hall. However, this too is mistaken. Just as churches can and do use their facilities to run kindergartens on their premises (and charge fees on a for profit basis) and still retain its religious/sacred nature, the owners of a wedding hall may rent out their facilities for purely secular functions without compromising its sacredness.
The reason for this is simple:
There are two meanings to the word profane. The first use refers to anything that is not sacred. This covers the merely secular as well as things covered by the second narrower meaning of profane. The narrower meaning of profane refers to things which are sacrilegious, degrading etc. That is while the first covers items with connotations ranging from neutral to negative, the second notion only covers items with negative connotations, and severely and strongly negative connotations at that. It is the second notion of profane which is operative here. For the Knapps it is not inconsistent to suppose that non-religious weddings between heterosexual people does not desecrate the hall but gay marriages do. This is because while civil wedding ceremonies differ in some ways with protestant ones, the particular ways in which they differ are not so serious that a person who opts for the civil ceremony commits some mortal sin. It is merely customary that a bride wears white***, or is given away by her father. It is not a religious requirement the way it is a requirement that two men don’t boink.**** A traditional Hindu wedding ceremony, with its sacrificial fire may very well be just as desecrating/profane to the Knapps as a homosexual wedding ceremony, and the burden on the Knapps if they were forced to accommodate someone like me would be just as heavy, if not worse (because the clean-up after a Hindu ceremony is hell).
*It may be that the Knapps do not view the conduct of a gay marriage in quite that light, but doing so is a typical way in which purity taboos are extended. For many religions with dietary taboos, utensils and crockery used to cook or serve the tabooed item may not be used to cook or serve food that is to be eaten by members of the group. If you are particularly strict, you may not even eat at the same table, or eat food cooked by anyone who does not themselves observe the same taboo. Yet, it is still their facilities which are being used to conduct the gay marriage. At the very least, they have facilitated something which they have a presumptively sincere religious objection to.
**Reasonable is a Rawlsian term of art here. It does not necessarily imply (at least any defensible version of it cannot do so) any particular epistemic virtues. To be reasonable, according to Rawls, is to be committed to living according to social rules acceptable to all. A view the subject of reasonable pluralism so long as it is compatible with such social rules that are themselves compatible with the widest range of comprehensive doctrines. It is basic fact that the society we find ourselves in is characterised by a wide and deep pluralism about fundamental values. It is also the case that any serious effort to change this fact is going to be horrifyingly oppressive according to our own lights (this is not quite right, but if you want a more thorough discussion of this, I’ll do it, but it is long, involved and fairly technical). This places heavy constraints on what sorts of coercive social rules we can have.
***Only since the time of Queen Victoria.
****You know that the bible is written by a straight man because only sex between men is forbidden. Between two women…