Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Is It O.K. to Fire a Muslim Driver for Refusing to Carry Wine?

July 23, 2017 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment

Continuing my series of responses to the New York Times’, The Ethicist, without imposing values, here is my take on today’s post, “Is It O.K. to Fire a Muslim Driver for Refusing to Carry Wine?

I hired a limo service to drive me to a dinner party at a friend’s house. On the way, I remembered that I was supposed to bring the wine. I spotted a shop and asked the driver to pull over. When we arrived at my friend’s house, I asked the driver if he would help me carry the wine, because I had another bag to carry. He refused, on the grounds that he was a Muslim and was not allowed to touch alcohol. So of course, I carried the wine myself. The next day, I called the owner of the limo service — a close friend of mine who is also an observant Muslim — to apologize for my insensitivity and any awkwardness my request might have caused. He expressed surprise and then outrage at his driver’s behavior. A few days later, my friend told me that he had fired the driver. ‘‘When you are a driver,’’ my friend said, ‘‘you are not a Muslim, a Christian or a Jew — you are a driver, and your job is to deliver service. You didn’t ask him to drink the wine; you asked him to help you carry it into the house. He’s done.’’ I still feel guilty that this man was fired. Help me think the ethics of this through. Name Withheld

My response: First, I don’t see why you would have to apologize for insensitivity in asking someone to help you carry something. If he doesn’t want to carry it, he can decline. Everyone has his or her rules of what he or she will or won’t do for whatever reasons. How would you know without asking?

As for the interaction between the driver and his boss, who knows what else happened between them? People run businesses different ways. People practice religions different ways, even the same one, as you present in your case. Maybe the driver caused problems independent of this interaction. Maybe their contract stipulates that carrying alcohol is part of the job. Countless reasons could have motivated the firing beyond what you know.

There’s a common phrase, “mind your own business.” I think it’s common for a reason. The alternative is meddling in other people’s business. In general, employees and employers have complex relationships. If you’re concerned about sensitivity and awkwardness, assuming your friend fired the driver for one reason seems oversimplifying and to ask for the full history—asking him to air dirty laundry—sounds more insensitive and likely to create more awkwardness.

I suggest your bigger issue is your feelings of guilt over the behavior of another adult in his relationship with a third adult. Instead of abstract philosophical concepts, I see your bigger issue is developing emotional skills to understand and manage your emotions. How many relationships between adults do you want to meddle in? Even just the ones you directly affect are too many to meddle in—I mean, explore the ethics of.

The New York Times response:

First, let’s establish a few points. Muslims, like everyone else, take their ethical guidance from more than one source. The Quran, it’s true, doesn’t explicitly say you can’t carry wine, but there’s a well-regarded hadith — from the canonical body of traditions surrounding the life of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions — that records Muhammad condemning not just drinking wine but also making it, buying or selling it and carrying it. Many Muslims, accordingly, think it is wrong to carry wine, even if it’s not for their own consumption.

Should it matter that the driver’s objection was religious rather than personal in nature? Well, yes. Liberalism — by which I mean civil liberties, civil rights, tolerance and pluralism: the small-L ‘‘liberalism’’ in ‘‘liberal democracy’’ — emerged from centuries of religious warfare in Europe. Before anything else, it’s a modus vivendi: an arrangement that allows different people to live together in peace. In our multi­religious society, we should make reasonable accommodations for the religious scruples of others. (I’m assuming that the driver’s job description includes providing assistance with packages.) Reasonable accommodation makes cohabitation possible; and, practical considerations aside, it enshrines the value of respect.

Such conflicts arise even in states with official religions; recently, an Israeli court decided that an El Al flight attendant was wrong to move a female passenger to accommodate an ultra-Orthodox man, whose religious beliefs prohibited contact with women. Here a concern for civil equality trumped the concern for religious accommodation. Similar issues are posed by a case now before the U.S. Supreme Court involving a Christian baker from Colorado who declined to make a cake for a same-sex wedding. (He offered to supply a premade cake or other baked goods.) A state commission says he is violating the state’s nondiscrimination statute; the baker says the state is violating the free exercise of religion. When civil liberties conflict with civil rights, reasonable people can disagree about where to draw the line.

Neither your driver nor his boss seems to have gotten the religious situation right, though. The tradition in question explic­itly forbids carrying wine; you might think that your driver already showed disregard for it when he agreed to transport the wine. I’m not claiming the right to say what his obligations as a Muslim are. But religious arguments are arguments, and if someone wants an argument to be taken seriously, the rest of us are entitled to explore whether it’s valid. Treating other people’s religions with respect doesn’t rule out such responses; it requires them.

At the same time, your driver’s boss’s view is difficult to defend. We don’t, as a rule, think people should be required to do things that violate conscientiously held ethical principles. What your friend felt, I suspect, was not that you have to forget you’re a Muslim when you’re a driver, but that it was unreasonable for the driver to refuse to carry your wine because your friend’s own Muslim conscience would have permitted it. (As would many imams’; religions seldom speak with one voice.) But he’s not entitled simply to supplant the driver’s religious judgment with his own.

The real question is whether em­ployees can be exempted from such disputed activities without causing a business hardship. A supermarket can’t be obliged to retain a butcher whose religion forbids him to handle pork. But neither should it require the vegetable guy with the kipa to fill in at the sausage station.

Where to draw the line between accommodations that are reasonable and those that are too demanding? That isn’t a question to be resolved once and for all, ethically or legally. In the Twin Cities a decade ago, the airport commission found that Muslim taxi drivers were regularly refusing service to passengers who were ferrying wine. After exploring various options, including special lights for ‘‘no alcohol’’ cabs, the commission decided to suspend the permits of drivers who refused to pick up such passengers. You didn’t have to transport booze — but if you chose not to, you couldn’t be an airport taxi driver.

In your case, the driver may feel he already compromised when he agreed to let you bring the bag of wine into his car. And your interest in having the wine carried was not, in your view, of comparable weight to your driver’s conscientious belief. So it was right that you didn’t insist, and it was decent of you to try to transmit your apologies to this driver.

The question for his boss is where he thinks the balance lies when it comes to his business. Is it essential that his drivers agree to handle alcohol? Would he really lose clients if he allowed some drivers to explain politely that they don’t handle it for religious reasons, as long as passengers can do so freely? This is the kind of compromise that works, even if some religious authorities reject it. And it was a compromise your driver was willing to live with.

I sometimes encounter stoutly secular types who don’t get why adherence to a religious stricture should be treated as anything other than a personal preference. They forget the long arc of history: Liberalism has been pretty good at allowing religiously plural societies to avoid civil war — and because no faith is without its factions, ultimately all societies are religiously plural. When we’re dealing with religious differences, we don’t have to bend over backward; but we do have to bend.

It’s probably too late to get the driver his job back. But you could try persuading your friend to reconsider.

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