UK Courts Rule on What Counts as Philosophy

Rupert Dickinson was, he says, sacked for his Green beliefs. Today’s Guardian reports that

In today’s ruling, Mr Justice Michael Burton decided that: “A belief in man-made climate change, and the alleged resulting moral imperatives, is capable if genuinely held, of being a philosophical belief for the purpose of the 2003 Religion and Belief Regulations.” Under those regulations it is unlawful to discriminate against a person on the grounds of their religious or philosophical beliefs.

The written ruling, which looked at whether philosophy could be underpinned by a scientific belief, quoted from Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy and ultimately concluded that a belief in climate change, while a political view about science, can also be a philosophical one.

It’s excellent and ridiculous all at once! On the one hand, I agree with this:

Camilla Palmer, of Leigh Day and Co, said it opened doors for an even wider category of deeply held beliefs, such as feminism, vegetarianism or humanism. “It’s a great decision. Why should it only be religions which are protected?”

But on the other hand, a lollypop and a pony ride for anyone who can explain to me what the hell any of these mean:

In his written judgment, Mr Justice Burton outlined five tests to determine whether a philosophical belief could come under employment regulations on religious discrimination

• The belief must be genuinely held.

• It must be a belief and not an opinion or view based on the present state of information available.

• It must be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life.

• It must attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance.

• It must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, not incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.

8 thoughts on “UK Courts Rule on What Counts as Philosophy

  1. Four of the five tests seem pretty clear to me:
    1) Genuinely held, as opposed to a claim you assert but do not actually believe.
    3) My belief that Irish Breakfast tea blends are superior to English Breakfast blends isn’t doesn’t deal with a weighty and substantial aspect of human life.
    4) It has to be consistent with your other beliefs.
    5) It has to be consistent with the basic ethical and political values of a modern liberal society.

    Admittedly, there’s a great deal of vagueness here, eg, exactly which topics are weight and substantial aspects of human life, etc. Here I’d suggest applying Martha Nussbaum’s list of capabilities: a belief about the content of one or more items on the list of capabilities is a belief about a weighty and substantial aspect of human life, etc.

    However, I have no idea what 2 is supposed to mean. Maybe it’s some sort of fact/value distinction? `Beliefs’ would be value judgments, `opinions’ would be factual judgments.

  2. #5 seems to me to have been written with the BNP very much in line, since this is exactly the kind of law they like to hide behind. I agree with Noumena that #2 is the mysterious one, and think s/he’s probably right about its meaning; the belief in question should involve some abstract element (viz. “man-made climate change and the alleged resulting moral imperatives“) elevating it to a belief rather than a matter of empirical fact.

  3. When I was completing the required education about anti-discrimination policy for employees at my university I read that a belief counts as religious either if it’s because of one’s membership in a traditional religion, or if it’s a moral or ethical belief held with the same degree of conviction that traditional religious beliefs tend to be held with. As I read it, that means it counts as a religious belief if you’re willing to hold it irrationally in the face of countervailing evidence (say, if you hold onto Kantian ethics with the fervor of a climate-change denialist) but it doesn’t have the protections of religious belief if you’re willing to consider objections.

    And I was a bit befuddled on reading that second criterion as well. I would have used the second half of that sentence as a definition of what a belief is! But I suppose the word “belief” in ordinary language has become synonymous with some sort of religious view, and not the notion that philosophers work with.

  4. I thought #2 was referring to the difference between something believed “on faith” and something accepted on the basis of evidence. So the idea is that the belief must be a matter of faith (no evidential base available or even wanted), not a “view” formed on the basis of available information.

  5. I’m concerned about “a belief in climate change, while a political view about science, can also be a philosophical one,” and I’m hoping it means “a belief about climate chat that is, like this one, a political belief ….”. Otherwise, we should sic Dawkins onto them.

    Clearly his belief has some basis in evidence and so they can’t mean to suggest that scientific religious beliefs have no basis in evidence. Still, the distinction they have in mind might be impossible to define. Lots of important notions are like that, as Wittgensteined argued. Maybe they should have said something like “similar to or are recognizable by the rational person as being in the same family as.”

    Yea for Wittgenstein!!

  6. 2 is the one that confuses me, too; but Kenny’s reading makes sense. An evidence-insensitive belief is one you just can’t help having. In some sense, even if it’s mistaken, it’s not your fault: it’s not just that you haven’t looked at all the evidence, because you’d still hold your belief even if you had. That seems like the sort of thing these kinds of laws might want to protect.

    Similarly, I can’t persuade my grandmother to have an easier time walking up stairs; and I can’t persuade myself to have different ancestry than I do. I probably also can’t persuade my grandmother to become an atheist, or that invading Iraq was a good idea. But holding a mistaken belief in an evidence-sensitive way is something I can avoid (in principle), so it’s more my fault.

  7. I’m extremely uncomfortable with the idea that ethical value judgments and religious beliefs are characterized by being held irrationally and with complete disregard to evidence. But perhaps that’s a fairly widespread view in our somewhat emotivist times.

    To suggest an alternative: perhaps they’re meant to be beliefs that go beyond the presently available evidence. We don’t have conclusive evidence one way or the other on the existence of God, so belief in God goes beyond the available evidence. This version doesn’t preclude the possibility of revising the belief later on, after more evidence becomes available.

    Of course, it turns out that large parts of natural science go beyond the presently available evidence — that’s what Hume called the problem of induction, and the fashionable version in twentieth-century philosophy of science is called the underdetermination of theory by evidence. But perhaps, like the possibly-widespread view that value judgments aren’t tied to evidence, there’s a widespread view that science is based strictly on evidence.

    In short, 2 causes all kinds of problems.

  8. I think this is a perfect example of courts tying themselves in knots (and boy, have they ever) because the law approaches something the wrong way.

    See, the purpose of the law in question (the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003) isn’t to define religion or belief, but to protect people from discrimination. The problem it’s trying to solve isn’t about the identity of the victims, it’s about the reasons for the discriminatory action, and that’s what the law should focus on.

    The same debate also comes up in relation to disability: people spend absurd and painful amounts of time and money proving that they qualify for protection before the courts even look at whether they’ve been discriminated against.

    It’s totally upside-down. The focus should be on what the reasons for an action were and whether those reasons were relevant to the action taken.

    (In the Grainger case, I gather that the employee was objecting to a return flight to Paris just because a chief exec had forgotten his BlackBerry. And the employee was… head of sustainable development for the firm. His JOB was to think about climate change. Isn’t that objection just the kind of thing he was being paid to do? Unless, of course, the firm weren’t serious in their commitment…)

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