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10.05.2006

No Wine Allowed in This Taxicab

It's all well and good to talk about religious pluralism. Freedom of speech. Multicultural society. As cocktail talk, or late night philosophical and sociological arguments, these are principles that many, including myself, believe form the foundation of a modern, tolerant, and democratic society.

But in the real world, it's not always so easy to figure out where to draw the lines.

Take this little wine-related ethical dilemma, for example. In Minneapolis, Minnesota there are Muslim cab drivers from Somalia who, due to their religious beliefs, will not admit passengers to their cabs who are carrying any alcohol whatsoever. Their interpretation of their faith is that they are not allowed to carry any alcohol, and that includes in the baggage of one of their fares.

No problem, right? Just an occasional cab driver who can't take a passenger.

Or maybe not.

Of the 900 cabdrivers that serve the Minneapolis airport, through some fascinating phenomenon of immigration and job choice, fully 75% are Somali Muslims, which turns this from an occasional annoyance to a royal problem prompting the question what on earth is the right ethical approach to this situation? There must be a line somewhere that gets crossed and we go from respecting religious differences to civic chaos. At the same time, I like to think of myself as very much not one of those Americans who goes through life feeling entitled to do whatever I want whenever I want, no matter what the impact is on other people.

I'm not saying that a line has been crossed in the particular situation under discussion, as honestly I'm not sure how I would solve the problem. The airport is looking at a solution requiring the cabbies to have different colored lights on the tops of their cabs to indicate whether they will or won't carry a fare with alcohol, and those without lights who end up refusing fares go back to the end of the taxi line to wait for the chance at another, non-booze-toting passenger. Certainly a solution, but not an ideal one, especially when you've got thirty, duty-free-whisky-toting passengers in a line of fifty people, and a taxi line of fifty cabs of which only 12 will work.

But it is an interesting conundrum to me. What do you think the right thing to do is? Certainly you can't tell 700 cab drivers they are no longer welcome to work at the airport just because of their religion, but at the same time, there's no way an airport can justify losing a significant percentage of its efficiency in getting people where they want to go because of some coincidence of local immigration and job selection.

What do you think? Any ethical philosophers out there? Read the full story.

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