Diversity and Discrimination

First published at Between The Lines News on February 26, 2009

I’ve been a member of the American Philosophical Association (APA) for about fifteen years. I go to the annual meetings, I get the publications, and I peruse the frightfully scarce listings in “Jobs for Philosophers.”

Last week a colleague sent me a petition addressed to the APA. [https://www.petitiononline.com/cmh3866/petition.html] The petition notes that many universities “require faculty, students, and staff to follow certain ‘ethical’ standards which prohibit engaging in homosexual acts,” and that some of these advertise in “Jobs for Philosophers.”

It goes on to point out that the APA’s anti-discrimination policy “rejects as unethical all forms of discrimination based on race, color, religion, political convictions, national origin, sex, disability, sexual orientation, gender identification or age, whether in graduate admissions, appointments, retention, promotion and tenure, manuscript evaluation, salary determination, [etc.].”

Philosophers hate contradictions, and the petitioners detect one here. Arguing that these anti-gay ethical codes run afoul of the APA anti-discrimination policy, they conclude:

“We, the undersigned, request that the American Philosophical Association either (1) enforce its policy and prohibit institutions that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation from advertising in ‘Jobs for Philosophers’ or (2) clearly mark institutions with these policies as institutions that violate our anti-discrimination policy.”

One would think that as a longtime openly gay philosopher, I would jump at the chance to sign this petition. But I paused.

Part of my hesitation may strike non-philosophers as nitpicky. It seems to me that there’s no contradiction in prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation while allowing it on the basis of sexual conduct. The schools mentioned don’t exclude gay people; they exclude people who engage in homosexual acts. It’s a fine line, perhaps, but philosophers like fine lines.

Generally speaking, these prohibitions are part of a more general effort to preserve the schools’ robust religious character. Schools that prohibit gay sex generally prohibit pre-marital and extramarital sex as well; some even prohibit the drinking of alcohol. (Philosophy without beer? Count me out.)

At the same time, the APA policy recognizes the special commitments of religious institutions and allows them to discriminate on the basis of religious affiliation as long as—and this is key—“the criteria for such religious affiliations do not discriminate against persons according to the other attributes listed.”

I admire the petitioners for recognizing the serious injustices that daily confront gays and lesbians and for seeking to remedy those injustices.

I also agree that, while there’s a difference between orientation and conduct, the two cannot be teased apart as easily as some religious conservatives would like. Who we are is intimately connected with what we do—especially when it comes to deep personal relationships. Those who profess to “love the sinner but hate the sin” often distort that deep connection.

So let’s grant that these schools, even if they don’t contradict the letter of the APA’s policy, violate its spirit. The APA is (or should be) saying “If you’re against gays, we’re against you.” Why not?

Some might worry that the petitioners’ stance violates freedom of association. If you want to organize a school committed to conservative Christian principles—including opposition to homosexuality—a free society ought to allow you to do so.

But no one is suggesting that such schools should be abolished. Rather, they’re suggesting that APA—a private voluntary organization—ought to be allowed to dissociate itself from such schools.

Freedom of association cuts both ways, and if individuals are free to form schools that exclude gays, other individuals should be free to form professional organizations that exclude the excluders from advertising in their publications.

Indeed, the petition even concedes that the schools might be allowed to continue their advertising, provided that they are identified as violating the APA’s policy. Given the schools’ presumed pride in their ethical commitments, they should have little objection to asterisks announcing what they’re doing.

That concession strikes me as a reasonable compromise: you can advertise here, as long as we can alert people to your policies and express our moral objection to them.

But when are asterisks insufficient? Suppose a school had “ethical” standards prohibiting interracial dating (as Bob Jones University did until 2000). If such a school should be completely excluded from our organization, why not schools that prohibit homosexual conduct?

On the merits, I think the cases are similar. But pragmatically speaking, our culture is at very different places on those two issues. Excluding schools that in 2009 prohibit homosexual conduct is not like excluding schools that in 2009 prohibit interracial dating; it’s like excluding schools that in 1950 prohibit interracial dating.

Such absolute bans have a cost, since they remove the offending schools from the kind of critical environments that might hasten a change in their policies.

In the end, I will likely sign the petition. But I will do so hoping for the “asterisk” option. It’s not because the APA needs those schools. It’s because those schools, more than most, need us.