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Environmental Discrimination?
November 3, 2009 7:29 AM   Subscribe

Tim Nicholson, a UK former executive, believes he was fired for his environmental views. He has sued his former employer for discrimination on grounds of the Employment Equality act, which states that employees may not be discriminated against for religious or philosophical beliefs. His former employers argue that his views were political, and thus do not fall under the act.

This would not be the first time religion and global warming were compared, but usually the comparison is unfavorable and used to either discredit the science or to imply religious people cannot be environmentalists, as that leads to distracting from their faith for worldly or heretical concerns.

This raises a lot of interesting questions about discrimination in the workplace, and what should be considered a religion or philosophical view.
posted by mccarty.tim (28 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
Aren't all political beliefs philosophical beliefs?
posted by Balisong at 7:39 AM on November 3, 2009 [6 favorites]


Found a legal summary of the decision:
The tribunal then held that:

- Mr Nicholson's beliefs give rise to a moral order similar to most religions.

- It is difficult to argue that beliefs about the impact of climate change do not fall within this definition. In reaching this view, it rejected an argument that beliefs derived entirely from empirical evidence could not be a 'philosophical belief'.

- In the tribunal's opinion, Mr Nicholson's views went beyond mere opinion as they affect the way he leads his life.

The tribunal did make it clear that this case should not open the floodgates to claims of discrimination based on individuals' beliefs. Any claimant would still have to show that they had been discriminated against on the basis of their belief.
posted by Abiezer at 7:41 AM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


Whoa, whoa whoa -- it's legal in the UK to fire people based on their political views?
posted by fings at 7:54 AM on November 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


So the company is arguing that if a person's beliefs are based on actual evidence that your fellows are working (intentionally or unintentionally) to destroy modern civilization then it's ok to fire them, but if a person merely believe on faith that your coworkers are horrid sinners, and will bring down to armageddon, then oh they have to be protected?

I wonder what would happen if the guy just said, yeah most people take the global warming thing on science and empirical evidence, but for me, well god directly told me that we need to stop burning fossil fuels or he's going to bring the end of the world down on our sinful hides.
posted by Zalzidrax at 7:55 AM on November 3, 2009 [5 favorites]


Aren't all political beliefs philosophical beliefs?

Hmm, science has a philosophical foundation too. I mean, most things we do have some kind of underlying philosophy, some kind of understanding of how the world is meant to work. The thing is, science is (or at least should be) the default, with other beliefs having to explain themselves. I don't know that helps Tim Nicholson, unless he's going to sue on the grounds that he was sacked because he was rational.
posted by Sova at 7:57 AM on November 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


So is it possible they are both wrong? Rather than politics or philosophy, maybe these things should be based on science?
posted by cjorgensen at 7:58 AM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


I mean, most things we do have some kind of underlying philosophy

Sure, and there are so many philosophies to choose from, for example "dog eat dog" and "might makes right" are popular choices. "Universality is a handicap that exchanges political functionality for useless ideal" is another widely enjoyed "philosophy."
posted by nervousfritz at 8:04 AM on November 3, 2009


The category "religion" is amusingly meaningless. When people say spurious stuff like "I'd like to start a Church of Cannabis so I can smoke weed in public," the only "philosophers" who have the power to deem that an illegitimate use of religion are government authorities-- and if you say there's something necessarily illegitimate out of believing in weed as your lord and savior, you're making both a theological and a political statement.

Imagine you're a religious scholar being called to defend the American government's concept of religion from this scourge of "environmentalism as religiously protected". Consider these points:

1) If people should not be allowed to act politically on their religious beliefs, doesn't that mean religious beliefs must be subservient to submission to government?

2) If people should not be allowed to start their own religion based on their favorite activity, doesn't that prevent the formation of nondenominational prayer circles or meditation groups? If you can only coalesce around politically neutral activities, who determines what's politically neutral?

3) What is the legal definition of transcendence?

Before we get to those questions, though-- I'll have to tackle this.

Rather than politics or philosophy, maybe these things should be based on science?

So, what's the scientific consensus? Is the Earth the most important thing to preserve, or should humanity do whatever they like to the planet without a care for what happens tomorrow? Please let me know the scientific moral consensus. Maybe you could start a Church of Scientific Morality.
posted by shii at 8:04 AM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


The important thing about this decision is that it weakens the special protection given, under UK employment law, to certain beliefs solely because they can be shown to be part of the belief system of a particular established religious organization. It's a win for secularism. The issue about science versus unscientific beliefs is a bit of a red herring.

The category "religion" is amusingly meaningless.

You can't have employment law without ultimately having some kind of adjudicatory panel that decides which people get to be compensated for being fired and which don't. It seems fair to me that such a panel should try to adjudicate between deep claims of conscience and random preferences for certain activities. The really important thing is that we stop assuming that a particular belief is less likely to be a deep claim of conscience simply because the believer doesn't identify themselves with Christianity, Islam, etc.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 8:15 AM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


Sova: "The thing is, science is (or at least should be) the default, with other beliefs having to explain themselves."

I'm glad you included the "should be," I sad that you had to. I wish this were the case.
posted by brundlefly at 8:22 AM on November 3, 2009


AND sad that you had to, that is...
posted by brundlefly at 8:23 AM on November 3, 2009


So wait, Metafilter ScienceFans — you're saying that decisions to determine whether an employer's behavior is just or unjust should be based on what science says is just or unjust? How's that work?
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 8:27 AM on November 3, 2009


Science gradually "reveals morality" by exposing all the consequences, thus shrinking the demands upon morality.

Rastafarians are theoretically allowed to grow & smoke their own marijuana for religious services within the U.S. but they may not import it and selling might prove illegal too. American Indians may likewise use Peyote for their religious services, but oddly white converts have been prosecuted.
posted by jeffburdges at 8:32 AM on November 3, 2009


Whoa, whoa whoa -- it's legal in the UK to fire people based on their political views?

I could be mistaken but I don't think it is.

The British National Party keep finding their membership list sprayed all over the internet. As far as I'm aware only those who were in the police have been sacked as a result. But then, being a card carrying racist does cast doubt on your ability to do the job when your job is protecting the whole public.
posted by vbfg at 8:49 AM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


Can I just say that I love the Britishism "made redundant"? It's so wonderfully dystopian.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:00 AM on November 3, 2009 [3 favorites]


So wait, Metafilter ScienceFans — you're saying that decisions to determine whether an employer's behavior is just or unjust should be based on what science says is just or unjust? How's that work?

Did I say that? I only recall saying that science was founded on a philosophy, and it should be the default way of looking at the world. But science doesn't do "just" and "unjust", it's about means rather than ends. You still need to have your own values, your own ultimate conception of good, in order to know what you're aiming at. But it's about getting to those in a rational way, not by praying to the man in the sky.

I think this is a tangent though.

Can I just say that I love the Britishism "made redundant"? It's so wonderfully dystopian.

13-year-old paperboy made redundant.
posted by Sova at 9:06 AM on November 3, 2009


So wait, Metafilter ScienceFans — you're saying that decisions to determine whether an employer's behavior is just or unjust should be based on what science says is just or unjust? How's that work?

Taking things out of a framework of morality, there are actions and their probable consequences. Science allows us to predict the probable consequences of our actions. For example, if I drop a rock, it will accelerate at a rate determined by gravity and air resistance, which can be predicted in advance.

With the global warming issue, we have found that when we burn a substance containing carbon, it will result in more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere--not all of it seems to be absorbed by the natural carbon cycle. Furthermore it tells us that over the long term, more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will increase the average temperature of the planet significantly. What the exact results of increased average temperature are not entirely known, and depend a whole lot on other factors. However they are all very, very bad. The best case studies I've read indicate a several percentage drop in world agricultural output--enough to cause mass starvation. Worst case scenario is probably something like the Permian-Triassic extinction event which wiped out 80% of all species on Earth.

Now all this is, of course, quite morally neutral. It is merely actions and probable consequences. However, if you start adding in moralities which are not that uncommon, for example "starving people is bad" or "destroying civilization and possibly humanity is bad" then it becomes a basis for action. Because of the consequences of relying on fossil fuels, if you believe pretty much any morality that gives you humanity some worth, it logically follows that keeping society running on fossil fuels is bad.
posted by Zalzidrax at 9:06 AM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


Science gradually "reveals morality" by exposing all the consequences, thus shrinking the demands upon morality.

I disagree. Whether or not science reveals all consequences, choosing between those consequences requires a conception of "good," the definition of which remains an individual and philosophical prerogative.
posted by Iridic at 9:11 AM on November 3, 2009


Can I just say that I love the Britishism "made redundant"? It's so wonderfully dystopian.

Not snarking here: what's the American equivalent?

I'd use 'sacked' in the context of 'I got caught stealing or looking at porn, so I was sacked'. 'Made redundant' covers the situation where a company wants to reduce its workforce, or it decides that it doesn't need anyone to do my particular job.

The first link above is a bit confusing because it uses both terms interchangeably; in the second it's clearer that (a) he was told he was being made redundant because they didn't need anyone to do the job; and (b) he argued that he was really being sacked because of his beliefs.
posted by Infinite Jest at 9:31 AM on November 3, 2009


Aren't all political beliefs philosophical beliefs?

You might very well think that; I couldn't possibly comment.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:58 AM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


Infinite Jest, I think the typical euphemism is "laid off," although "downsized" is sometimes used as well. The phrases tend to shift every few years, as after a while, even if the term does mean "the company is shrinking its workforce," it starts to feel like plain old "fired."
posted by mccarty.tim at 9:59 AM on November 3, 2009


Did I say that? I only recall saying that science was founded on a philosophy, and it should be the default way of looking at the world. But science doesn't do "just" and "unjust", it's about means rather than ends.

I guess I was just wondering how this would apply to the story that this post is about, which is a debate about whether a decision to terminate the guy's employment was just or unjust. I don't see how the scientific truth (or, hypothetically, falsity) of global warming affects that one way or the other.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 10:04 AM on November 3, 2009


You still need to have your own values, your own ultimate conception of good, in order to know what you're aiming at. But it's about getting to those in a rational way, not by praying to the man in the sky.

And of course the other main problem with this, as ever, is that most religious people do not conceive of their religiosity as consisting primarily of a set of factual claims amenable to scientific investigation, so basing the matter on science isn't going to work. (You can prove that there isn't a man with a beard sitting on a cloud, eight miles above a given spot on the earth, but you cannot prove or disprove the statement that "god is love" — it's not unscientific, it is "a-scientific".)
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 10:07 AM on November 3, 2009


Infinite Jest: Not snarking here: what's the American equivalent?

"Fired" (more informally, "canned") for sacked, and "laid off" for made redundant.

In America, you would perhaps hear "made redundant" back in the days when factory workers were literally being made redundant by robots. The British use, however, seems to be a euphemism for "deemed unnecessary": The worker isn't in fact being replaced, nor the job restaffed, so there is no actual redundancy; the job has simply been cut.

The phrase has an implication of streamlining for efficiency rather than what is actually going on, i.e. Scrooginess.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:15 AM on November 3, 2009


The truth of global warming applies to the story. In fact, I believe that is the heart of the philosophical differences that got him fired.

Someone who both values truth and humanity must, given the evidence for the dangers of climate change, view the goal of eliminating humanity's reliance on fossil fuels as a good. Either that or be examining the evidence rigorously, so as to come to a conclusion.

I would not go so far as to say this man's employers place no value on humanity, therefore they must not value truth.
posted by Zalzidrax at 10:16 AM on November 3, 2009


Guys, you say that science shows that global warming can starve people, which most people think is bad, but we also need to remember that caring about the environment can hurt the economy, which is also bad by many people's morality. Think of what Ayn Rand and other great philosophers would have thought! HAMBURGER
posted by mccarty.tim at 1:33 PM on November 3, 2009


Ayn Rand would have thought that global warming was a serious problem...if she wanted to be self-consistent, which I'm not sure if she would do that. Frankly, there are hoards of pseudo-Randists running around, spouting crap that I don't think Rand would have approved. Rand argued her philosophy from the view that human life was a positive value, whatever else you may wish to say of her notions.

But Rand has been made redundant herself, when Alan Greenspan accepted the failure of "rational self interest" for governing financial institutions. Greenspan was, for want of a better term, "sainted" by Rand herself, one of very few. As far as I'm concerned, anyone that continues to spout off about Rand's ideas is a religious looney, non-rational by definition, and therefore, a complete failure as regards the philosophy of Ayn Rand.
posted by Goofyy at 8:12 AM on November 4, 2009


"Made redundant" is a legal term in the UK. It's quite hard to fire someone in the UK - you have to have good reason. Just not liking them is not good enough, and will quickly lead to an industrial tribunal and a hefty fine. If an employee has misbehaved and deserves to be fired, then the employer needs to be able to prove that, usually with a paper trail of "warning letters" and so forth.

It's much easier to eliminate the *job* that a person is employed to do. For example, a factory worker may be replaced by a robot, or the company may stop making certain products. In such a case, the employee has been "made redundant". The company is obliged to try to find them another position if possible, but if no other position can be found then the employee receives a "redundancy payment" (with a legally set minimum) and employment ceases.

Obviously, it's quite usual for firms to pay lip service to this legal framework, and happen to choose the jobs of underperforming staff to eliminate. They can't play the process too brazenly though, otherwise they'll face heavy fines.
posted by mr. strange at 11:59 AM on November 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


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