Friday, September 19, 2008

Character counts, not cowardly casuistry

The Library of Congress shamefully discriminated against hiring a highly qualified (and as it turns out transgendered) candidate (whom they had wanted to hire) after that candidate expressed the intention just before starting work to transition from male to female. Quoting from here:

The ACLU filed the lawsuit against the Library of Congress on June 2, 2005. After retiring from the military, Schroer, who had been hand-picked to head up a classified national security operation while serving as a Special Forces officer, applied for a position with the Library of Congress as the senior terrorism research analyst. Soon thereafter she was offered the job, which she accepted immediately. Prior to starting work, Schroer took her future boss to lunch to explain that she was in the process of transitioning and thought it would be easier for everyone if she simply started work presenting as female. The following day, Schroer received a call from her future boss rescinding the offer, telling her that she wasn't a "good fit" for the Library of Congress.

Happily, a federal judge has just ruled against Library of Congress, which, in a shocking bit of casuistry, had moved to dismiss the case several times, claiming that transgender people are not covered under Title VII of 1964. Leaving aside the legal validity of this assertion (the judge found it specious), this is a very disturbing example of the metaethics of our modern culture, where what is ethical is reduced to what is legal. Morality is replaced by prejudice, ethics by not getting caught.

Good character demands more than avoiding censure. There being in any case certainly no federal law requiring the firing of transgendered persons, how was it that the applicant's boss justified this action? Did the position, like a Hooter's waitress, require extra-professional qualifications? Perhaps, the unspoken requirement was to contribute to a "positive and comfortable work environment" (i.e. pander to others' basest prejudices)?

There is a philosophical question about the source of ethics, dating back at least to Attic Greece. Does ethics proceed from morality (do what you think is right) or from casuistry (rule-based, satisfing the minimal common-law framework that society requires)? I believe the better course of action of an ethical person is to take the more restrictive result of these two: do your duty to yourself and to others, where both can be accommodated.

The above judgment redeems the plaintiff, but for the defendant there is little chance of redemption. What does not flow from within cannot be sucked from without. That judgment must be left to a higher power.

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