Thursday, February 08, 2007

Nonsense on stilts: Devout vs Out

Finally it’s happened – an actual debate in the cabinet. Just when I was certain that the British Cabinet had finally joined what Bagehot was pleased to call “the dignified part of the constitution” , they sit down and have a full-scale argument. What was the issue that provoked genuine debate and a short return to the habits of democracy amongst our lords and masters, ladies and mistresses ? Was it perhaps Trident ? Was it the National Health Service ? No, of course not. This unexpected resurgence of rhetoric and reason was reserved for that vital issue of our times: “Should Roman Catholic Adoption Agencies be forced to provide services to gay couples ?”

Sorry, did I say “rhetoric and reason” ? Just rhetoric and at the heart of it, the rigmarole of rights, the rights of gay people not to suffer discrimination and the rights of religious people to have their beliefs respected. Jeremy Bentham held that all talk of rights is nonsense, but that talk of natural rights was nonsense upon stilts. I will not go so far, but I agree with him about natural rights. Rights do not come from nature or God or DNA. Rights are created by man, sitting in assemblies and congresses, conventions and courts. They are legal matters and nothing is less natural than the law. When we add the word “human” to rights, we are only asserting that we think that all human beings should have the legal protection that some of us enjoy.

No declaration or statute that I am aware of gives any human being the right to adopt a child, nor should it. Adopting a child is a privilege, not a right. The child has rights under British law, which parents and anyone acting in loco parentis must respect. To protect those rights, it is sensible to legislate for minimum standards in the conduct of adoption agencies. It is not sensible to regard the activity of adoption agencies as a consumer service like catering or interior decorating, to be regulated in the same way. If we must use the commercial metaphor, the agency’s client is the child not the parent.

On the other side of the argument, why should we treat religious beliefs as in any way superior to other beliefs ? If I as an atheist think that bringing up children to believe in supernatural entities without evidence of their existence (and indeed in the face of the evidence of pain in the world) is wrong and if I decide to set up an adoption agency which will not help religious parents, should I be stopped ? The beliefs of some Christians that lead them to oppose gay parenting are of no greater significance than my non-religious beliefs.

By escalating differences of opinion about parenting and sexual orientation into a conflict of rights, we are only making matters worse. As long as adoption agencies protect children, they should be free to apply their beliefs (religious or not) in selecting parents. So why has the Blair government got its knickers in such a twist ? Money. Money and Law. Apparently the Roman Catholic Agencies receive state funding. The deep-seated authoritarianism that lurks only just below the surface of New Labour has erupted again. The state pays so the state will decide the rules. Not completely unreasonable, but why as always reach for the statute book ? If the government feels the need, as it undoubtedly does, to micro-manage all public expenditure including grants to adoption agencies, they can attach compliance conditions to the grants. Is this different from changing the law ? Yes. It respects the vital difference between public and private, vital to any Liberal that is. Change the law and you change how every agency, private or public, can operate. Change compliance conditions on state grants and you leave private agencies without state funding free to have a different approach.

And wouldn’t it be nice if this oh-so-self-righteous cabal of ministers, who parade their concern for gay would-be fathers and mothers, would do something for actual divorced fathers who get to see their children once a fortnight if they are lucky and sometimes not at all ?

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