“Religious freedom” laws are, broadly speaking, efforts to circumvent the broad drift of a society toward varieties of sexual and reproductive autonomy and freedom that social conservatives dislike. Recognizing that they are increasingly in a moral minority, they seek to provide an opt-out mechanism through which they can decline to participate in whatever unspeakably licentious —generally speaking, same-sex attractions of all types—activity they perceive in the culture writ large. Leaving aside, if we must, the pejorative penumbra of the word “discrimination”, discrimination is precisely what these laws are designed to permit. As something of a cultural relativist, I’m not entirely unsympathetic with these desires, even if I find them personally reprehensible, immoral, and based on religious hocus-pocus whose historicity and divinity I find questionable at best. The truth is that I am not sure how a society as large as ours can be properly morally regulated; perhaps it can’t. Even as a gay man who has very greatly benefited from a great flowering of (God, how I hate this word) tolerance, I am not convinced of the Progressive case, which is really a mirror of the most conservative cultural argument, which presumes a singular and universal morality at the Kingdom end of a teleology of human, well, progress. At the possible expense of my own self-benefit, I have my doubts about a moral monoculture.
I mention this, because you now have hugely influential corporate governors like Apple’s Tim Cook taking to the pages of major newspapers to denounce Indiana’s rather stupid new religious freedom law on the rather tendentious ground that “Men and women have fought and died fighting to protect our country’s founding principles of freedom and equality,” which is a fairly silly reading of our invasion of the Phillipines or the theft of California or the war in Vietnam, but I suppose we did help the Ruskies lick Hitler, and that’s a pretty decent trump card. The idea that the martial history of America is testimony for the value of inclusivity is patently bogus, but cheers to Cook for saying forthrightly that “Regardless of what the law might allow in Indiana or Arkansas, we will never tolerate discrimination.”
But isn’t this sort of interstate, interest-specific legal arbitrage precisely the sort of thing that, expanded to the international forum, has permitted companies like Apple to become almost immeasurably profitable and valuable and men like Tim Cook to become ungodly rich? Isn’t it precisely the differing legal standards of the largely Asian nations where Apple manufactures most of its gadgets that permits it to violate, directly or through its contractors, all sorts of standards of labor decency and occupational safety—practices that we would consider not only illegal if they were to be deployed here in the US, but deeply immoral and unjust? Isn’t this effectively a vast, global, legal opt-out. And what if we expand our inquiry to include the people who labor even farther downstream extracting the raw materials necessary for the production of products like Apple’s, who work in even sorrier conditions hardly a step removed, if removed at all, from slavery?
So you see, people like Tim Cook are selective in their moral universalism; morality, it turns out, is universal only insofar as extends to the particular desires of a Western bourgeoisie; deny a gay couple a wedding bouquet that they could get at the florist down the street anyway, and that is a cause for outrage and concern; extract minerals using indentured Congolese servants, well, look, we’ve got marginal cost to consider! The moral argument, it turns out, curdles when exposed to the profit motive, and the universality of justice actually does end at certain borders, one way or another.