Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Light Switches and Religion

One of the things I'm teaching today is multiculturalism, which raises the issue of exemptions from laws for certain groups. A classic example is the fact that Sikhs don't need to wear motorcycle helmets. It's not obvious that this exemption is justified. If the law is purely paternalistic then we might say 'on their head be it', but then it's not clear that the law's justified at all. If there are good other-directed reasons for the law, then we could simply conclude that a religious code requiring one to wear a turban effectively forbids one to ride a motorbike.

I was struck by this recently reported example, however. Apparently an orthodox Jewish couple object to light sensors outside their home because their religion forbids them switching lights on on religious holidays.

Firstly, it seems to me that a religious code that "bans lights and other electrical equipment being switched on" can't be that old, and thus I wonder at its provenance. I don't recall anything about electrical goods in the Old Testament (though lights or lamps could of course be there). Secondly, it's not really clear to me what the objection is. It seems that they don't object to lights being on - apparently what they want is the lights to be on the whole time - only to them being switched on.

Presumably, what matters is whether they switch the lights on. I assume their religious code isn't forbidding anyone to switch lights on or they'd have to go around interfering with others. In this case, it's not clear why motion sensors count as them doing it. After all, they could easily cause others to switch lights on - e.g. if I was to see them enter a dark room and turn the light on for them, I don't see why this should be against their religion. Motion sensors should therefore be interpreted as the action of someone else.

It's quite common for people to circumvent religious requirements in this way. I understand that in Israel Jewish doctors feel it's wrong to turn off life support. Apparently what happens is that machines are built that will turn off unless reset - then the doctor simply fails to reset and life support is withdrawn by omission rather than act. Whether this is morally significant is highly doubtful, but since when was religion about morality anyway?

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