My stimulus is a supreme court case in which Jack Phillips, a cake baker living in Colorado, denied the request of a homosexual couple to bake their wedding cake. His defense was that his religion; Christianity, labeled the couple’s lifestyle a sin. Although the court ruled that the state's public accommodation law did not authorize him to refuse the gay couple's request, the case brings up questions surrounding the issue of at what point religious tolerance should be limited in a community. In the case of Jack Phillips, we should ask if he had a right to refuse service based on his religious values, or if the Supreme Court appropriately ruled that he must accommodate all patrons, even if the action risks disobeying religious regulations that he may choose to follow.
There are a plethora of viewpoints surrounding the idea that tolerance can be limited. A nineteenth century philosopher named John Stuart Mill contributes his point of view to the issue, stating that there should be no limit to the tolerance of religious practices, unless said practices cause harm to oneself or to others. This follows the utilitarian way of thinking, weighing the levels of pain and pleasure that would come from a situation, and deciding what to do based on whichever option produces the least pain and the most pleasure. Mill states in his essay “Mill, On Liberty” that “If anyone does something harmful to others, there is a prima facie case for punishing him—either by law or, where legal penalties are not safely applicable, by general disapproval.”(Mill, 7) In the context of religious tolerance, Mill believes that people should be able to practice whatever they wish without fear that the law will intervene on their traditions, unless they are in any way harming other humans.
An example of a religious custom that Mill would be opposed to is the practice of scarification, a tradition in many African cultures and religions that involves cutting wounds into a person’s flesh in order to cause indelible markings. Anyone with a utilitarian viewpoint would contend this practice, because it causes harm and pain to the person being scarred. Any pleasure that comes with the spiritual side of the tradition may not outweigh the physical pain of the scarring process.
The other side of this argument, however is that without living these traditions, we cannot tell if the pain truly outweighs the pleasure. If entire populations of people willingly allow themselves to be put through painful rituals in hope of religious benefit, there must be a part of the practices that we, as outsiders, do not understand, that is giving those who participate some form of spiritual pleasure. If we do not believe in the traditions, than we also cannot believe in the benefit that comes from the practices. This mentality prevents us from seeing advantages that may be very real to those who affiliate with said religions.
Another issue with the utilitarian argument is that “harm” can be interpreted in many different ways. One could be referring to only physical pain, or only mental pain, or both. Most religious practices are for the purpose of empowering and enlightening people, so, as we mentioned above, even if they do cause physical harm, it may be outweighed by the spiritual gain. Sometimes, however, religion can cause psychological harm and pain. With many religions comes guilt for sins and fear of punishment for even minor mistakes. This may cause people holding certain beliefs to restrict themselves from living life to its fullest, forcing their mental health to plummet, in other words inflicting psychological pain upon them. If the fear and guilt grows to strong, it could end up outweighing the pleasure side of the practice, losing utilitarian support. Then again, if the religion’s participants are willingly accepting the negative components of their faith, and those negative parts are not infringing on other people, there would be no reason to limit tolerance on said religion.
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