With apologies for the badly rhyming title, the current debate spurned by Chick-Fil-A CEO Dan Cathy’s comments about the proper structure of marriage has led to a serious backlash from both gay-marriage supporters and defenders of either Cathy’s comments, or his right to make them. Clearly, this is a good place for some philosophical analysis, as the debate has quickly become a maelstrom of distractions and unrelated counter-points.
The first thing we should do is separate two kinds of questions:
1. Questions about Cathy’s comments themselves
2. Questions about Chick-Fil-A’s donation history to anti-gay groups.
Let’s start with the first kind of question. Again, we must disambiguate to avoid confusion. We should differentiate between:
1. Whether Cathy’s comments were morally problematic, and
2. Whether he had a right to make them.
To the question of whether Cathy’s comments were morally problematic, we should note that it was less his actual words than their implication that have gotten him into trouble. His actual statement was that he and his company are believers in the Biblical definition of marriage, and that they regard those who think we are allowed to deviate from that definition as arrogant and misguided. While this is a bit insulting to those who disagree with his rather rigid position on this issue, to call someone arrogant or their view misguided is hardly a great moral offense.
The implication of Cathy’s comments are a bit more problematic, since they imply that God disapproves of same-sex marriages. How Cathy knows this is a bit of a mystery. For those who disagree with Cathy, and especially those with a vested interest in the legalization of same-sex marriage, this was probably somewhat hurtful. But again, Cathy is primarily stating his beliefs, rather than acting against the gay community, and any harm one incurs from hearing such statements is easily avoidable–stop listening.
Further, it should be noted that even if one disagrees with Cathy’s statements, it’s hard to deny that he ought to be allowed to make them. It is well-established that even controversial claims that some might regard as hate speech are protected by the First Amendment. However, this does not protect Cathy from consumer backlash, or public denunciation, but only from criminal prosecution by the state. So while we should note that Cathy’s words are First Amendment protected, this does not mean he is safe from the scorn of his fellow citizens.
The second kind of question is potentially more problematic for Chick-Fil-A, though again we should disambiguate two distinct questions:
1. Whether Chick-Fil-A is permitted to donate to anti-gay groups, and
2. Whether Chick-Fil-A ought to be up front about their donation habits.
Clearly, Chick-Fil-A is permitted to donate to any group they wish. And had Chick-Fil-A gone to any great lengths to conceal their donation histories, we might fault them for this as well. But they haven’t. Chick-Fil-A’s history of donating to anti-gay organizations is well-documented. It has been featured in national news stories, and the company headquarters have been protested for it. So it can hardly be claimed that Chick-Fil-A hid their true feelings. In effect, Cathy’s statements were more or less an expression of business as usual at Chick-Fil-A.
While I’m not a huge fan of Chick-Fil-A’s stance on same-sex marriage and homosexuality, for reasons that I’ve given elsewhere, it’s tough to see how this new set of statements and behaviors is particularly egregious. Chick-Fil-A is who they have always claimed to be, a company that disapproves of homosexual relationships. We can hardly fault them because we haven’t been paying attention.
About the Author
Elijah Weber is a graduate student at Bowling Green State University. He holds a Master's degree in philosophy from Colorado State University, and Bachelor’s degrees in sociology and philosophy from Chapman University. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife Laura, his son Brandon, and two cats.