The Red Hen situation in which Sarah Huckabee Sanders was politely asked to leave the Red Hen restaurant and politely left, raises ethical concerns about such behavior. The response by Sander’s supporters also raises moral concerns. There was a surge of rage against other restaurants that happened to have the same name. As is typical of outrage, people who were apparently angry at the way Sanders was treated responded in awful ways, including phoned in threats. There is considerable irony in that this response to a perceived injustice is so disproportionate and that in many cases no effort is even made to determine which Red Hen is the correct restaurant. And, of course, there is the matter of the ethics of Maxine Waters’ call to the public to harass members of the Trump administration. These will be addressed in upcoming essays, but for now I will focus on the matter of ethics and business.
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Since the Red Hen is a business, one ethical question is whether a business has the moral right to refuse to serve someone on political grounds. This can be widened into the more general issue of refusing service based on values. Because of debates over businesses refusing to provide products and services to same-sex couples for their marriages, this matter has been extensively addressed, but it worth discussing more in this context.
A private business owner enjoys numerous rights and protections that are provided by society (that is, they are not in the state of nature). Since these defend business from people doing whatever they want to them, businesses cannot claim a right to do whatever they want regarding refusing services to customers. This is because society has the right to impose on businesses on the same grounds that it has the right to impose on those who would harm businesses. To illustrate, just as society has the right to compel me to not violate a business’ trademarks, society has the right to compel businesses to provide services to the public. The question is, as with all impositions, the extent to which the impositions are warranted.
On the one hand, it is tempting to side with the business owner: they should have the right to not engage in compelled labor and this entails that they should have the right to refuse service to anyone for any reason. As such, the Red Hen was acting in a morally acceptable way when Sanders was asked to leave. Retaliation against Red Hen would thus be unjustified—Red Hen did nothing wrong. Those who think that businesses should be allowed to refuse to provide goods and services to same-sex couples who are should agree with this position. After all, someone who wants to refuse service to Sanders could appeal to deeply held religious convictions regarding lying. The injunction against bearing false witness is, after all, in the Ten Commandments.
On the other hand, it is also tempting to argue that a business is under an obligation to provide its services to customers unless there is a legitimate reason to refuse service. For example, a business would obviously have the right to refuse service to someone who does not pay or to ask customers engaged in disruptive behavior to leave. That is, the refusal of service should be based on some harm the business would suffer. This would allow a business to refuse to provide goods and services to people because of their values in some cases. For example, if providing services to a terrible person would damage the reputation of the business, then they could make a solid moral case for refusing service. In the case at hand, if Sanders’ presence would have damaged Red Hen, then they would be justified in asking her to leave.
Those who think that businesses do not have the right to refuse to provide goods and services to same-sex couples would also need to accept that business cannot refuse to provide goods and services to people based on their values or behavior (if they do not harm the business). On this view (that business cannot discriminate based on values), Sanders should have been permitted to finish her meal at the Red Hen.
In the next essay, I’ll turn to the remaining moral issues.