Jeff Lowder pointed out to me that The Friendly Atheist has posted another article today (by Rachel Ford) about the infamous prayer discount. It is titled “The Daily Show Was Wrong to Imply That Addressing a Minor Act of Discrimination Was Petty“. I begin with a key passage from the article:
“discrimination is discrimination. It doesn’t make it okay just because it’s a small act of discrimination. You wouldn’t eat at a restaurant that let just a few mice into the kitchen; you wouldn’t be okay with an accountant who skimmed just a little for himself; you wouldn’t shrug at a dog who only bit you occasionally; you wouldn’t laugh off marginal racism or sexism or homophobia; and on and on it goes. A little of a bad thing is still a bad thing. Many acts of discrimination are minor. That doesn’t make them justifiable.”
And so, according to Ford, Dan Barker was not being (as the Daily Show alleged) a “dick”. Instead, he was recognizing that discrimination is discrimination, period.
Ford is right about one thing. Discrimination is indeed discrimination. Presumably, however, she is not simply meaning to affirm a mere tautology. Instead, I presume that this phrase is intended to convey the idea that discrimination is always morally wrong (or something like that).
However, this claim is false. Discrimination is not always wrong. Sometimes it is neutral. Sometimes it is trivial. And sometimes it may be laudable or wise. To see why, let’s begin with a definition of “discrimination” from dictionary.com:
So discrimination just is the offering of or withholding of favor based on perceived membership in a particular group, class or category irrespective of individual merit.
With that definition in mind it isn’t hard to see that everybody discriminates. Consider some examples. The university that follows a policy of affirmative action discriminates as they make intentional decisions to favor candidates that bring gender or ethnic (or disability) diversity to the faculty. The man who checks “slender to medium build” on the survey for potential dating partners on the dating website he is joining discriminates against women who do not fit his preferred body type. The mother who closely watches the single man in the trench coat standing near the playground discriminates against him as a potential threat distinct from the many other adults in the vicinity. And so it goes: human beings discriminate all the time.
Some of these instances of discrimination are morally neutral, some are relatively trivial, some may be noble (as many believe affirmative action to be) and others are morally unacceptable. But one thing is clear: labelling an act as discriminatory itself does nothing to tell you whether that act is morally permissible or not.
And this brings me back to the restaurant that offers a 15% discount to the patrons who give thanks before the meal. Is this morally impermissible as Ford believes?
To answer that question, we just need to consider that the world is full of eating establishments that discriminate by way of discounts. The coffee shop on the corner offers a 10% discount for young people who produce a student card. The family restaurant down the street offers a 15% seniors discount. The bar by the gas station offers a free beer if you wear green on St. Patrick’s Day. The world is full of establishments that offer discriminatory discounts. Are they all morally impermissible? Clearly not.
So why is it morally impermissible to offer a discount to those who give thanks?
Let’s turn back to the article. Ford seeks to hammer her point home by turning the tables on the “religious” people:
“If you need convincing, consider the opposite: suppose a restaurant offered a discount to people who didn’t pray. Would it be discriminatory to charge praying customers full price, but provide those without gods (or those who didn’t acknowledge them) a discount? Of course.”
Certainly that too would be discriminatory. But is it morally impermissible? Hardly. If I heard of a restaurant that offered a discount to those who didn’t give thanks I might conclude: “Huh, I guess I won’t be eating there.” One thing I wouldn’t do is fire off a silly letter complaining that my civil liberties had been violated. And you know what? I just might go to that restaurant and pay full price. After all, Christians are called to take up our crosses daily, so I figure I can handle an extra 15% on my tab without complaining about it.
Before I conclude, let me turn to the opening of the article. At this point Ford addresses the claim of the restaurant owner, Mary Haglund, that the discount would be given to everyone who offers even (as Ford puts it) a “quiet breath”. Ford is skeptical: “To me, that seems to be a dubious claim for something that was termed a ‘prayer discount’….”
Ford can certainly argue that the term “prayer discount” is misleading, but she seems to be suggesting that Haglund might be lying. However, the story includes an atheist who claims to have received a discount merely for thanking the chef. So it would seem that Haglund’s claim isn’t “dubious”.
A few years ago Daniel Dennett wrote an essay about the time he recovered from a serious medical crisis. As an atheist, his response, as he eloquently explained in the article, was to thank goodness, namely the goodness of the people around him who had helped him through that difficult time. As Haglund makes clear, all you need to do to get the 15% discount is to take a moment to thank goodness. If Ford thinks this is morally wrong then one can only imagine her outrage at the pub that dares hand out a free pint merely for wearing a green tie.