A Philosopher's Blog

Wedding Cakes & Cartoon of Muhammad

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on May 6, 2015
U.S Postage Stamp, 1957

U.S Postage Stamp, 1957 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On May 3, 2015 the American Freedom Defense Initiative put on a contest in which cartoonists drew images of Muhammad for a cash prize. To most Muslims, such portrayals of Muhammad are deeply offensive—much in the way that many Americans find the burning of the American flag offensive. As such, it is reasonable to infer that the event was intended to be provocative—the event was certainly well protected with armed security forces. As such, it was hardly shocking when two gunmen attacked the event. These armored and heavily armed men were killed by a traffic officer armed only with a pistol. ISIS has claimed credit for the attack, although it is currently unclear if the terrorist group had a direct role.

As I have argued in previous essays, the use of violence in response to offensive artwork or other forms of expression is not warranted. As such, there is no need to re-hash those arguments to support the claim that the attack on the event was morally wrong. Outside of the realm of violent extremists, I doubt there is much dispute over this point. As such, I will proceed to the main matter I wish to focus on.

But a short while ago, Indiana was making headlines with its religious freedom act. There is also the recurring talking point that religious liberty and religion are under attack in America. One example given of the threat to religious liberty was the requirement that employers of a certain size provide insurance coverage that covered birth control for full-time employees. Another example of the threat is the steady march towards legalization in all 50 states by same sex-marriage. A third example is that many states have laws that forbid discrimination against people because of their sexual orientation. This is supposed to violate religious liberty by forbidding, for example, a Christian baker to discriminate against a same-sex couple that wants to buy a wedding cake.

Though I have written extensively about these specific matters, my general view is based on the principle that religious rights do not allow a person a right to violate the legitimate rights of others. To use an easy and obvious example, a faith that claimed human sacrifice as a basic tenet of its faith would justly be denied the right to engage in this practice. After all, the right to life trumps the right to practice one’s faith on others against their will.

In the case of discrimination against same-sex couples, I follow the same principle: the freedom of religion is bounded by the principle of harm. Since same-sex couples are members of the civil society and being able to engage in free commerce is a basic right in capitalism, to deny them the right to goods and services because of their sexual orientation would harm them. While it might be countered that selling a cake to a same-sex couple would harm the Christian baker, it is not clear what harm is being done. After all, she is making a sale and the sale of an item is not an endorsement of the purchaser. If, for example, Nazis are buying my books on Amazon, I am not thereby endorsing Nazism.

In the case of a company being required to provide coverage that covers birth control, the company does not seem to be harmed by this. The company is not required to use birth control, directly hand it to the employees, or endorse birth control. They are merely required to provide employees with the opportunity to have such coverage if they so desire it. It is, in fact, a form of compensation—it certainly does not violate the rights of an employer if employers spend their salaries as they wish—even on birth control.

While the laws that are purported to defend religious freedom do not, for obvious reasons, specify that they are aimed at defending a specific variety of Christianity, it does seem fairly evident that the concern is not about defending religion in general. If it were, the event in which people competed to draw cartoons of Muhammad would have been condemned by all the folks supporting the religious “freedom” laws and those who claim religion is under attack in America. After all, holding an event explicitly aimed at mocking a religion and provoking members of a faith would seem to be an attack on religion. This sort of event would certainly seem more of an attack on religion than forbidding bakers from discriminating against same-sex couples.

While I think people should not engage in such offensive behavior (I also believe that people should not burn American flags or piss on crosses), my consistency requires that I must accept the freedom of people to engage in such offensive behavior. This is, as with the case of the wedding cake, based on the principle of harm: restricting freedom of expression because the expression is offensive creates more harm than it prevents. Part of this is because while there is a right to freedom of expression and it can be wrong to offend people, there is no right to a freedom from being offended. That said, members of civil society do fall under moral expectations of polite behavior. So, while there is no right to forbid people from pissing on crosses, burning American flags or drawing cartoons of Muhammad, a decent human being will consider her actions and act with respect for the views of others. That is what good people do. I admit, I have not always lived up to that myself and that is a failing on my part.

It is, of course, possible to cross from mere offense to actual harm. This boundary is, unfortunately, not always sharp and admits of many gray zones. Fortunately, though, the principle is clear: mere offensiveness does not warrant forbiddance and religious freedom does not warrant unjustly imposing on the rights of others.

 

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  1. TJB said, on May 6, 2015 at 9:12 am

    Mike, do you feel a musician has a right to stop a politician from using a particular song as a theme song for his campaign?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 6, 2015 at 12:05 pm

      Good question.

      If the copyright of the song is still owned by the musician, then s/he has the right to refuse to allow the song to be used. A musician has the same right to refuse to allow her song to be used by a business. Now, the musician has no right to refuse the politician the right to buy the song on Amazon and jam out to it like it was 1999. I have the same right to refuse the inclusion of the writings I own in books, though I have no right to deny someone the right to buy them off Amazon.

      If the song is public domain or under a totally unlimited use Creative Common’s license, then a musician has the right to request it not be used, but would lack the right to prevent usage.

      If the musician sold the song and the owner wants to allow the politician to use it, then the musician can ask, but has lost ownership rights to his song.

      My reasoning is that the use of a song would imply endorsement of the candidate, much like writing an essay for a politician would be an endorsement. So, if Hilary asked me to write a piece about her and dropped a fat stack of cash on my desk, I would have the right to refuse. If she decided to buy my books an Amazon, I have no right to refuse those sales. Similarly, if a baker was asked to bake a gay porn cake for a wedding, he could refuse. If asked to sell a standard cake for a same-sex wedding, then he would not have a free speech basis for refusal. After all, selling a standard cake is not compelled expression.

  2. TJB said, on May 6, 2015 at 9:16 am

    Mike, various religions offend non-believers everyday. They say non-believers deserve eternal punishment, are pigs and apes, and should be thrown from the mountain. Is this not deeply offensive? Why is it ok for them to offend non-believers, but if a non-believer offends them it is regarded as a big problem?

    • ronster12012 said, on May 6, 2015 at 9:42 am

      TJ

      But in all fairness religious say that about each other too. And non religious say things to offend the religious.

      It’s all good…..equal opportunity for the offensives.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 6, 2015 at 12:08 pm

      Yes, some religious folks say offensive things (the folks in God Hates Fags are a prime example).

      Are you asking for a psychological explanation? People, as I am sure you know, clearly see the motes in the eyes of others, but are blind to the log in their own.

      Morally, my view is that we all have the moral right to offend each other, although we really shouldn’t do that sort of thing.

      • wtp said, on May 8, 2015 at 10:29 pm

        the folks in God Hates Fags are a prime example

        Oh, literally for Christ’s Fucking Sake….As much contempt I feel for WBC, are not the Jihadis/ISIS chopping off the heads of Coptic Christians, murdering Jews wherever they can find them, and literally crucifying Christians and Yazidis, stoning gays and throwing them off 5 story buildings, not to mention burying children alive not THE PRIME FUCKING EXAMPLE of religious folk expressing offensive things? Ah….but you’re right, Mike…The jihadis and ISIS aren’t saying things, they’re doing things. I gotta respect that in spite of how revolting I find it.

        Excuse my outrage, but one of us has to get some fucking perspective.

        • wtp said, on May 8, 2015 at 10:51 pm

          Oops, forgot to mention Boko Haram abducting and raping young girls and burning young boys alive. I’m so fucking lame. Please forgive my oversight.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 9, 2015 at 10:25 am

          Yes, WTP, killing people is worse than saying awful things. But, I was using an example of offensive expression, not acts of actual violence. I suppose one could accept a very broad definition of “expression” and include murder as an act of expression, but then we would need some new terms to distinguish mere expression (saying, painting, drawing, etc. things) and murderous actions.

          • WTP said, on May 9, 2015 at 10:54 am

            Before any of these killings and such occurred, the parties committing the atrocities warned that they would do so. Do you consider “God hates fags” to be less of more offensive than “convert to Islam or we will nail you to a cross where you will die a slow miserable death, just like what we did in the neighboring village…oh, and we will rape your little girls, too”? Or, to keep this completely in the previous context, as in TJ’s more watered down example above of “non-believers should be thrown from mountain tops”, etc. You consistently play the Moral Equivalency game. It’s like a knee jerk reaction.

            I would submit that were you to see it to your argumentative advantage to broaden the meaning of “expression” to make your point, you would have no problem in doing so. Hell, you play these little word games all the time. Oh, oh, I meant the narrow definition…no, no I meant the broader one. Much like your argument re Hobby Lobby “imposing” it’s moral values on others by deciding what to spend their own damn money on. Gimme a break.

  3. ronster12012 said, on May 6, 2015 at 11:19 am

    Michael
    .
    ……………………………………………………………
    “Since same-sex couples are members of the civil society and being able to engage in free commerce is a basic right in capitalism, to deny them the right to goods and services because of their sexual orientation would harm them. ”
    ……………………………………………………………

    Is it an unqualified basic right to be enforced unilaterally or is it a basic right only when both parties agree to the transaction? If it is the former then isn’t that putting an unequal obligation on the seller? The buyer is under no obligation to shop there but the seller is under an obligation to serve the buyer.

    Leaving aside the sexual orientation qualifier as that is trivial and we are left with anyone has the right to buy anything they demand from anyone in that type of business.

    So should I be able to demand that a jewish baker bake me a nice red, white and black swastika shaped cake with Happy Birthday Adolf written on it?

    Should I be able to demand that am served a pork kebab by the local moslem kebab shop? Never mind the fact that I have never heard of a pork kebab, I want one and by not giving me one they are discriminating against my (admittedly newly fashioned religious beliefs) that say I must eat pork with every meal. I want it and he must give it to me or else I am being discriminated against. Can I get my multi million dollar compensation payout now please?

    Remember that ‘artwork’ a few years ago called Piss Christ? A bit of a controversy but nothing life threatening.

    How would Piss Koran go? Or Piss Menorah? In many countries, alleged art or not, anyone making either of them would be arrested and charged with some thoughtcrime. No one was arrested for Piss Christ and in fact the USG through the National Endowment for the Arts paid the ‘artist’. How much could I scam out of Uncle Sam for my new Piss Koran artwork?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 6, 2015 at 12:13 pm

      My view is this:

      Compelled speech is forbidden by freedom of expression, so a baker cannot be compelled to make a Nazi cake or a gay porn cake. Or endorse a politician in song, verse or prose. However, the selling of non-expressive (“stock”) items is not compelled expression. So, as I have argued before, to refuse to sell a Nazi, a same-sex couple, a Christian or a left-handed person a cake because of who the person is would be discrimination and wrong. To refuse to create a specific work that is a work of clear expression is a person’s right. My stock example is my writing: I have every right to refuse to write an essay praising Hilary or Jeb, but I have no right to refuse them the right to buy my books on Amazon.

      • ronster12012 said, on May 7, 2015 at 8:17 am

        Michael

        Nazi cake????It’s for my old mate Adolf MacKenzie, a kiltwearing(the only one in fact) born again Hindu…
        The red white and black are his football team colours and the swastika is just an old Aryan sun symbol.

        As for gay wedding cakes, presumably it is a stock item tarted up in some way with a statuette and writing that personalizes it. Is that personalization forced speech?

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 7, 2015 at 10:26 am

          Good question. There are clear areas of expression (such as writing an essay on an issue) and clear areas of mere stock items (like a book being sold on Amazon or a generic cake at Publix). But, as you note, there are areas of gray. If a same-sex couple wanted a stock cake of the same sort sold to any couple, then to refuse would seem to be discrimination. If the couple wanted an explicit sodomy cake, then the baker could certainly refuse. But, as you asked, what if they ask for two male or two female statues on the cake? On the one hand, it could be argued that selling the couple the stock items is not a form of expression. On the other hand, if the baker is supposed to put the figures on the cake, then perhaps that could be seen as endorsement.

          Getting the balance between competing rights can be tough-but it certainly helps to approach the matter considering the legitimate concerns of all those involved and trying to sort it out fairly.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 6, 2015 at 12:19 pm

      If you can scam for Piss Koran, go for it. After all, a scam artist is still an artist. You’ll want to put in a line item for security, though-some crazies might make a go at you.

      • WTP said, on May 6, 2015 at 12:54 pm

        What, something like this:

        but this is ok, yes?

        • ronster12012 said, on May 7, 2015 at 8:38 am

          WTP

          That will cost you a fatwa. How the hell did we end up being threatened in our own countries for our own freedom of expression……and have our governments side with the invaders?? I know that you don’t accept ‘conspiracy theories’ but was this situation planned or accidental? And if accidental, which insane malevolent moron is responsible for it? If he hasn’t been garrotted already and is enjoying his life then it was planned…

          • WTP said, on May 7, 2015 at 9:01 am

            How the hell did we end up being threatened in our own countries for our own freedom of expression
            By trading our rights for peace. The “we mustn’t upset them” attitude. It’s all right here presented daily by our host. And he and his fellow travelers each teach such “thinking” to hundreds of students each year. Do the math. Over time it results in a society weakened from within.

            I know that you don’t accept ‘conspiracy theories’ but was this situation planned or accidental
            I’m almost ready to accept CT in this case, but really it’s nothing more than collective stupidity. No man ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the average schmuck (“American” in the original Mencken, but thinking more broadly of Western Civ. here). Our society/societies became wealthy enough to support more and more stupid ideas. Originally as entertainment but then as those espousing the stupid ideas (mostly the clown-quarter of academia) came to realize that they could eek out a living (and bang a good number of nubile co-eds in the process) by threatening productive society with disturbances and sometimes even outright violence, the “smart” politicos who were “responsible” for society took the “pragmatic” approach of paying these clown-quarter academics (to be referred to henceforth as CQA) off. This wasn’t much of a leap as the politicos were rather sympatico with the CQA as neither one produces much nor does either one have much direct understanding of what is involved in creating and maintaining wealth. There are exceptions in the political class, but they are rare and their influence even less.

            And if accidental, which insane malevolent moron is responsible for it?
            Not one moron. No one moron is capable of such a level of organization, any more than one Ebola virus can organize the death of its host. The virus is CQA. Your host and his fellow travelers, mostly. The media some, but they got their orientation from CQA.

            • WTP said, on May 7, 2015 at 9:04 am

              Oh…and meant to add…Sometimes I suspect that most CT is created in CQA, if not with the intent at least with the effect of undermining our society from within by introducing/amplifying paranoia. It’s almost as if the numerous CT’s are an element of the master CT to keep people from seeing what the master CT is up to.

            • ronster12012 said, on May 7, 2015 at 11:02 am

              WTP

              I should have said ‘group’ rather than one person as these things are, I agree, never the work of one just person. OK..Then if they aren’t garrotted and are enjoying their lives it was planned lol Better?

              The problem with the current usage of the term ‘conspiracy theories’ IMO is that any non standard explanation is labelled as such just before being summarily dismissed….and I’m not talking ‘aliens raped my cat’ stuff either.

              Trading rights for peace…..yes, it happens. But as to your contention that the sole cause is stupidity…….hmmm, not so sure. In the case of islam the pertinant question though is what the hell are they doing in our countries in the first place. As they didn’t invite themselves in, at least in numbers, the question is who did so and for what reason. Blind Freddy( as we say here) could see that it is a bad idea, and bound to cause more problems than any potential benefit. So in another sense it is trading rights(yours) for war, or at least conflict, as your and my rights in our respective countries will be curtailed simply ‘for security reasons’.
              More power to those who deserve it least….

            • WTP said, on May 7, 2015 at 11:08 am

              But as to your contention that the sole cause is stupidity…….hmmm, not so sure.

              You underestimate the power of stupidity. Two quotes I’ve found to be rather reliable:

              “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.”
              ― Albert Einstein

              “Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups.”
              ― George Carlin

            • ronster12012 said, on May 7, 2015 at 11:28 am

              WPT

              Yeah, I know that there’s a lot of it around and if we could somehow extract energy from it we could give up this fusion nonsense and have infinite free energy.

              But the problem is that one person’s stupidity is another’s great and cunning plan….it all depends if it works or not. It fails, it was stupid, it works.genius!!!

              One factor often overlooked is just how prone to imitation people are in the views they hold. Society is hierarchical no matter what the democratic rhetoric is, and people look up to their perceived social superiors for cues as to what is good and right. That is the basis for advertising, PR and all social engineering. And we are all susceptible to it.

              Another factor is momentum. Once an idea, no matter how silly, has taken hold it can go a long way.

            • wtp said, on May 8, 2015 at 10:59 pm

              it all depends if it works or not. It fails, it was stupid, it works.genius!!!

              Exactly. This right here is much of the problem with how the media presents such. I really don’t want to get into the whole CT thing with you again but please consider this perspective in the context of such. Would be way TL;DR to explain and maybe you don’t get my point right now because I’m to lazy to explain it without getting into TL;DR territory. But do yourself a favor and let it stew a while.

      • ronster12012 said, on May 7, 2015 at 8:23 am

        Unfortunately there’s no prizes for seconds.

  4. ajmacdonaldjr said, on May 6, 2015 at 12:19 pm

    And if, for example, Nazis demand you write books in support of Nazism? You will be making money from the publication and sale of these books, of course. There’s no harm being done to you, as a writer. As for companies being forced to provide something to their employees that are contrary to company policies…. what if Starbucks were forced to provide KKK literature to all their employees? You see, when the shoe is on the other foot, so to speak, you disagree. You support forcing people and companies to act contrary to their beliefs and policies so long as their beliefs and policies are not politically correct. Your a PC fascist. What is we draw cartoon mocking Jews, Judaism, and the Holocaust? OMG! THAT is NOT allowed!

    • WTP said, on May 6, 2015 at 12:50 pm

      What if we draw cartoon mocking Jews, Judaism, and the Holocaust? OMG! THAT is NOT allowed!

      It is in this country, AFAIK. In Europe a different story for different reasons, but do you know of such a problem in this country? Has the JDL shot up Klan meetings? Nazis marched in Skokie, IL. Yes there was opposition but it was overruled by the courts and the march went on. Very provocative as many Holocaust survivors lived in Skokie as it had (and still has, I presume) a large Jewish population.

      Christianity, as you well know, is mocked frequently and openly. No problems there either.

      • ronster12012 said, on May 7, 2015 at 11:14 am

        WPT

        Actually the march through Skokie didn’t go ahead even after the court decision giving them the right to do so, if wikipedia is to be believed.

        And interestingly, the leader of said Nazis, Frank Collin had a jewish father, Max Cohen. Funny old world, eh?

        • WTP said, on May 7, 2015 at 11:33 am

          You are correct in regard to Skokie. I misremembered because I do recall seeing the march on TV, but it took place in Chicago, not Skokie. Either way, the Nazi’s freedom of expression was upheld. Wiki not the best source for these things, but simply stated (until someone edits it):

          Ultimately the NSPA failed to carry through its march in Skokie. (Gaining permission in Chicago, they marched there instead).

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Socialist_Party_of_America_v._Village_of_Skokie

          Imagine if the Mohammed Cartoon exhibit took place in Dearbornistan, Michigan. Now that would be provocative. Yet it took place, about as far from Muslim eyes as possible, in Garland, Texas.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 6, 2015 at 2:29 pm

      You’d need to show that birth control coverage is morally comparable to supporting the KKK. Birth control has medical reasons behind it, plus there seem to be no good moral arguments against it (when freely chosen). There seem to be no good moral arguments for the KKK though.

      But, interesting analogy.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 6, 2015 at 2:32 pm

      You are free to mock Jews and the holocaust all you wish. People are free to draw cartoons of children being murdered and mock that. These things are horrific, but freedom of expression requires that we put up with horrific expressions. Putting up with horrific behavior is another thing. There are things we should not do, but these are often different from things that we should force people not to do.

  5. WTP said, on May 6, 2015 at 5:13 pm

    “The New Era”

    To our brothers and sisters fighting for the Sake of Allah, we make dua for you and ask Allah to guide your bullets, terrify your enemies, and establish you in the Land. As our noble brother in the Phillipines said in his bayah, “This is the Golden Era, everyone who believes… is running for Shaheed.”

    The attack by the Islamic State in America is only the beginning of our efforts to establish a wiliyah in the heart of our enemy. Our aim was the khanzeer Pamela Geller and to show her that we don’t care what land she hides in or what sky shields her; we will send all our Lions to achieve her slaughter. This will heal the hearts of our brothers and disperse the ones behind her. To those who protect her: this will be your only warning of housing this woman and her circus show. Everyone who houses her events, gives her a platform to spill her filth are legitimate targets. We have been watching closely who was present at this event and the shooter of our brothers. We knew that the target was protected. Our intention was to show how easy we give our lives for the Sake of Allah.

    We have 71 trained soldiers in 15 different states ready at our word to attack any target we desire. Out of the 71 trained soldiers 23 have signed up for missions like Sunday, We are increasing in number bithnillah. Of the 15 states, 5 we will name.. Virginia, Maryland, Illinois, California, and Michigan. The disbelievers who shot our brothers think that you killed someone untrained, nay, they gave you their bodies in plain view because we were watching.

    The next six months will be interesting, To our Amir Al Mu’mineen make dua for us and continue your reign, May Allah enoble your face.

    May Allah send His peace and blessings upon our Prophet Muhummad and all those who follow until the last Day.

    – Abu Ibrahim Al Ameriki

  6. TJB said, on May 8, 2015 at 12:36 am

    Mike, your fellow travelers (Democrats) are trying to limit freedom of speech, claiming “hate speech” should not be protected.

    I know you believe in free speech. The only question is how far do the Dems need to go before you abandon them?

    • Anonymous said, on May 8, 2015 at 4:56 am

      From my experiences, many people don’t like freedom nearly as much as advertised.

      Magus

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 8, 2015 at 11:46 am

      Unfortunately, I like to vote in the primaries and Florida is a closed primary state. So, I’m stuck with the Democrats as some people are stuck with the Republicans.

      There are, I suppose, some advantages to a two-party system. For example, we don’t have to duct tape together a coalition government. On the downside, having just two sets of ideology is rather limiting. Well, one, if “money talks” is an ideology.

      Hate speech falls under freedom of expression. One of the great things about free expression, is that you often get to hear who ain’t right. Because they will say what is on their mind.

  7. WTP said, on May 8, 2015 at 10:11 am

    Why aren’t liberals offering Pamela Geller a federal subsidy? Geller is the blogger-activist who organized the “Draw Muhammad” exhibition in Garland, Texas, which inspired some DIY jihadists to attack the event. The would-be terrorists chose poorly: They were cut down by Texas lawmen shortly after wounding a security guard.

    Let’s hop in the WayBack Machine for a moment. In 1986, the National Endowment of Arts paid about $20,000 for Andreas Serrano’s “Piss Christ.” Serrano peed in a glass, plunked a plastic icon of Jesus on the cross into it, and then snapped a picture. I will say the lighting was lovely. But, as strange as it seemed to the “arts community,” some people were offended.

    In 1989, the Corcoran Gallery of Art agreed to host a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit. Mapplethorpe’s work was edgy, particularly going by the attitudes at the time. There were the obligatory sexual bondage scenes, urine-drinking (artistic urine: is there anything it can’t do?), and, of course, his most famous work: a self-portrait showing a bullwhip going someplace the sun reportedly does not shine. Many social conservatives flipped out. They asked: “Why the hell are we paying for this?!” Now, personally, I think this is a reasonable question even if you are a huge fan of Mapplethorpe’s hide-the-bullwhip oeuvre or enjoy seeing the Christian God incarnate lose in the urine dunk tank.

    Read more at: http://www.nationalreview.com/article/418083/progressives-love-anti-religious-art-long-its-anti-christian-jonah-goldberg


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