Stoicism Now Considered A Philosophical Belief
Shah Qureshi reviews the recent employment tribunal decision which determined that Stoicism qualifies for protection under the Equality Act 2010.
In the preliminary hearing decision in Jackson v Lidl Great Britain Ltd , published on 3 September, Judge Cheetham QC confirmed that Stoicism is a philosophical belief capable of protection under the UK’s discrimination laws.
The Equality Act 2010 gives individuals the right not to be discriminated against, which extends to an individual’s ‘belief’. Under s10 of the Act:
(2) Belief means any religious or philosophical belief and a reference to belief includes a reference to a lack of belief.
(3) In relation to the protected characteristic of religion or belief
(a) a reference to a person who has a particular protected characteristic is a reference to a person of a particular religion or belief;
(b) a reference to persons who share a protected characteristic is a reference to persons who are of the same religion or belief.
In addition, the concept of protecting a person’s freedom to hold religious or other philosophical beliefs without suffering detriments or discrimination is a fundamental right under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
To qualify as a ‘philosophical belief’ under the Equality Act, the belief must satisfy the five criteria set out at para 24 in Grainger plc v Nicholson  and mirrored in the Equality and Human Rights Commission Code of Practice 2011. These are that:
- The belief must be genuinely held
- The belief must not simply be an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available
- The belief must concern a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour
- The belief must attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance
- The belief must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, not be incompatible with human dignity and not be in conflict with the fundamental rights of others.
In that case, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) confirmed that a belief in climate change can be a philosophical belief. Mr Nicholson stated that his belief was:
… not merely an opinion but a philosophical belief which affects how I live my life.
This particular belief was that:
… mankind is heading towards catastrophic climate change and therefore we are all under a moral duty to lead our lives in a manner which mitigates or avoids this catastrophe for the benefit of future generations, and to persuade others to do the same.
The EAT agreed that this amounted to a philosophical belief.
Stoicism and the facts
Stoicism is an ancient philosophy that became popular under the Greek and Roman civilisations. Stoics are prepared to endure pain or hardship without the display of feelings and without complaint. According to the claimant in this case, Mr Jackson, the philosophy’s key ethical values which he had to adhere to are wisdom, courage, moderation and justice.
Mr Jackson was a communications worker at Lidl. The supermarket dismissed him after he allegedly said 'Asians are greasy' and then refused to apologise, or apologise sufficiently. He claimed that he had a core belief in Stoicism and, in effect, this made it important for him to say what he believed to be true, even if this offended people. He also claimed that his failure to apologise was due to his dyslexia, which caused him to mix up his words. He brought various claims of discrimination on the basis of his belief in stoicism and his disability.
Mr Jackson, who was a litigant in person, explained to the tribunal that he was not a ‘consequentialist’. By this, he meant that the likely outcome of saying or doing something would not prevent him saying or doing that thing. As he told the judge:
The realisation that the consequence of what I say would cause offence would not stop me from saying it.
To decide whether Mr Jackson’s philosophical belief discrimination claim could proceed, the tribunal first had to consider whether Stoicism qualifies as a philosophical belief within s10 of the Equality Act 2010. This required it to apply the Grainger test to the evidence before it.
In applying the five-stage Grainger criteria step by step, Judge Cheetham QC identified that:
… there can be no dispute that Stoicism as a philosophical belief system has been with us for about 2,300 years.
He found ‘there was no question’ that Mr Jackson had a philosophical belief in Stoicism and deemed that this was protected under the Equality Act.
A genuinely held belief
The judge accepted that:
… the evidence demonstrated Stoicism was the only moral belief system Mr Jackson practised.
A belief and not a viewpoint
It was clear to the judge that Mr Jackson had a strong interest in and adherence to Stoicism for a number of years, which ‘transcends merely holding an opinion’.
A weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour
The judge found that Stoicism aims ‘to answer the most profound questions that we ask’ and is one of many philosophical beliefs which are parallel to religious beliefs.
A certain level of cogency, cohesion and importance
The tribunal found that Mr Jackson’s belief was a core and consistent part of his life, as he was:
… striving to achieve a state of equanimity, because that suggests a guiding purpose, which gives cohesion to his beliefs as it is an important aspect of his life.
In Gray v Mulberry Company (Design) Ltd , Choudhury P stated that the bar should not be set too high for protection of belief. However, he noted the importance of measuring cogency and coherence when assessing someone’s belief, which Judge Cheetham QC acknowledged when applying the test.
Worthy of respect in a democratic society and compatible with human dignity
The judge considered this aspect of the test carefully as he acknowledged that it could be a bone of contention. Many people would consider that saying something which will probably cause offence is not acceptable in a modern democratic society.
The judge took the view that there is no fundamental right not to be offended: the law on harassment set out in the Equality Act merely ‘creates a remedy if that offence occurs’.
In this instance, the judge recognised that Stoicism may cause offence, but this did not necessarily make Mr Jackson’s views unworthy in a democratic society. Nevertheless, he did make it clear that beliefs based on racial superiority would not be something that would satisfy this element of the Grainger test.
Implications of the ruling
This decision provides further clarity on the scope of ‘religion or belief’ under s10 of the Equality Act.
Employers and their advisers need to be aware of judgments such as this one, so they can continue to promote equality in the workplace and balance the competing rights of employees. Rightly or wrongly, employers are more likely to take a cautious approach when hiring new employees to mitigate against situations such as these arising, as they could be costly. However, they should avoid actually asking applicants about their beliefs, as failing to hire them could amount to religion or belief discrimination.
Advisers should be reviewing their policies and handbooks to help protect both the employer and employees. These should state that managers will not treat any employee unfairly because of their beliefs and that employees must respect other people’s beliefs. They should also make clear that promoting one’s beliefs in the workplace in a way that upsets or offends colleagues can amount to harassment and may lead to disciplinary action. This will hopefully deter all but the most fervent employees from forcing their views on their colleagues.
This decision is certainly going to divide opinion on whether Mr Jackson’s particular brand of Stoicism should be considered as a belief that is worthy of respect in a democratic society. It will be interesting to see how the tribunals interpret Stoicism over time, as well as other philosophical beliefs which are less prominent in today’s society.
Judge Cheetham QC concluded that Mr Jackson had a genuine belief in Stoicism but he struck out aspects of Mr Jackson’s claims of direct belief discrimination and his direct disability discrimination on the basis that they had no reasonable prospect of success. The case will now go to a final hearing to determine whether Lidl in fact discriminated against Mr Jackson on the basis of his belief of Stoicism.
As the cases in the box below show, the extent of individuals’ beliefs can vary and each case depends on its own facts. Despite this, the Grainger test is still robust enough to help determine whether a particular belief should be deemed protected under the Equality Act 2010.
Case law on philosophical belief
These are six key cases on what amounts to a philosophical belief:
1. Belief in man-made climate change
In Grainger plc v Nicholson , Mr Nicholson successfully argued that his strongly held belief that he has a duty to live his life in a way that limits his impact on the environment is a protected belief.
An employment tribunal held in Hashman v Milton Park (Dorset) Ltd t/a Orchard Park  that a fervent belief that fox hunting is wrong has Equality Act protection. It stressed that not all opponents of fox hunting would be protected but accepted that the employee’s animal rights beliefs affected every aspect of his daily life.
In McEleny v Ministry of Defence , an employment tribunal held that a belief that Scotland has a right to govern itself is sufficiently cogent and important to amount to a philosophical belief.
Vegetarianism is not a protected philosophical belief according to the employment tribunal in Conisbee v Crossley Farms Ltd . The judge held that being a vegetarian is merely a ‘lifestyle choice’ and not ‘a substantial aspect of human life and behaviour’.
In Casamitjana v the League Against Cruel Sports , a tribunal found that ethical veganism is a philosophical belief capable of protection under the Equality Act.
In Forstater v CGD , a tribunal found that Ms Forstater’s belief that trans women are not women was not worthy of respect in a democratic society, was incompatible with human dignity and conflicted with the fundamental rights of others.
This article was first published in Employment Law Journal (November 2020) and is also available on lawjournals.co.uk.