France Considers Banning Burqas in Public and I Consider Haidt on Pluralism

France, which has already banned headscarves in schools, purportedly as an effort to separate church and state, is now considering banning the burqa in public since it represents servitude and indignity for women (according to Sarkozy).  Click here for the full story and links to perspectives on the option.

Would the effects of this be to hinder multiculturalism and/or foster Islamophobia?  Is it a violation of fundamental freedoms?  Is it paternalistic?  Is it up to question whether the West’s treatment of women and cultural expectations are more harmful to women than Islam’s?  Is there a way to objectively adjudicate the question without simply imposing one’s own cultural assumptions and values?

You can go to this post, to see the first reply I’ve gotten to this question and my attempt to volley back to my respondent.

For some provocation, here are Jonathan Haidt’s views on why the veil and other traditional constraints on women are in general acceptable moral practices, whereas practices like apartheid and American southern slavery were oppressive constraints:

JH: What I want to say is that there are at least four foundations of our moral sense, but there are many coherent moral systems that can be built on these four foundations. But not just anything can be built on these four foundations. So I believe that an evolutionary approach specifying the foundation of our moral sense can allow us to appreciate Hindu and Muslim cultures where women are veiled and seem to us to lead restricted lives. These are not necessarily oppressive and immoral cultures. Given that most of the world believes that gender role differences are good and right and proper, they are unlikely to be wrong, by which I mean, they are unlikely to be incoherent or ungrammatical moralities. We in America, especially liberals, use only two of these four bases. Liberals use intuitions about suffering (aversion to) and intuitions about reciprocity, fairness, and equality.

But there are two other foundations—there are intuitions about hierarchy, respect, duty… that’s one cluster. And intuitions about purity and pollution, which generate further intuitions about chastity and modesty. Most human cultures use all four of these bases to ground their moral worldviews. We in the West, in modern times especially, have to some extent discarded the last two. We have built our morality entirely on issues about harm (the first pillar), and rights, and justice (the second). Our morality is coherent. We can critique people who do things that violate it within our group. We can’t critique cultures that use all four moralities. But we can critique cultures whose practices are simple exploitation and brutality, such as apartheid South Africa or the American slave South.

BLVR: OK, but why is it that we can critique apartheid South Africa whereas we can’t critique a culture that uses genital mutilation where chastity and fidelity of females is considered a high virtue? What makes us able to do one and not the other?

JH: You have to look at any cultural practice in terms of what goods it is aiming for. Veiling, or keeping women in the home, is usually aimed at goods of chastity and modesty. Not all human practices are aimed at moral goods. Sweatshops, child pornography, child slavery, the slavery of Africans in the American South—none of these is aimed at goods provided by any of the four foundations. These are just people hurting and exploiting others for their personal monetary benefit.

BLVR: Do you ever worry that you’re doing what the subjects in your experiments do—attempting to justify a strong intuition against exploiting people, and then trying to come up with a reason why that’s wrong, whereas maybe your intuition doesn’t flash as powerfully against the veiling of women… I would think in your work that that’s something you might be extremely sensitive to. How would you answer the charge that you’re merely trying to come up with a reason why exploitation of different races is wrong, and veiling of women is not, without providing a sufficient basis for this judgment?

JH: That’s an excellent question. Consistent with my theory, I must say that I never looked at the other side and considered whether I might be wrong in that way. We tend to think that we’re right, and we’re not good at coming up with reasons why we might be wrong. So, that’s a great question to think about. Whether I am motivated to apologize for or justify some practices and not others. That said, I certainly don’t think I’m motivated in that way… my first experiences in Muslim or Hindu cultures were emotionally negative, in seeing the treatment of women and the hierarchy. It took me a while to get over that. And to see that these practices offended my American sensibilities, but that I was being ethnocentric in that respect.

The women that I spoke to in India—while there was a diversity of opinion, most of them do not see it as American feminists see it; they did not see veiling as something imposed upon them, to oppress them, to deny them freedom. In contrast, most black slaves in the American South were not happy about their position. And many slave owners knew that what they were doing was wrong, or at least they were ambivalent about it. Now you might say: well, maybe the women have been brainwashed? So there are two tests you can do. The first is to ask: do the people who appear from the outside to be victims endorse the moral goals of the practice? The second test is: how robust is this endorsement? Even when they learn about alternative ways in other cultures, do they still endorse it? So while you might have found black slaves in the South who were so brainwashed that they accepted their status, I believe that if they heard about other countries where blacks were not enslaved, they would not insist that blacks ought to be enslaved.

My first response to Haidt’s work emphasizing these “extra modules” besides liberal concerns for justice/fairness/equality and prevention of harm in looking at morality is that he is capturing some of the wider range of values by which Nietzsche would have us judge cultures as well.  Or, at least, like Nietzsche he is recognizing that other values could be justifiable if they lead to a flourishing life.  In his later work, Haidt has expanded the modules to 5 total and not just 4.  He is thinking that moral cognition works from these 5 modules and that American conservatives make moral judgments with all 5 and that American liberals tend to make them with only the Rawlsian concern for equal justice and the Carol Gilligan style concern for care and harm.  The three categories of moral thinking which he says conservatives are more sensitized to are ingroup/loyalty, purity/sanctity, and  authority/respect.

My own general view, which I hope to develop over the days and weeks and months ahead on the blog is that how our moral cognition works tells us little about our objective good.  Our objective good is whatever maximizes our power as both individuals and collectives, and our normal good is whatever encourages us to grow in this power and to have a spirit of willingness to challenge ourselves to growth.  These are the goods according to which particular moralities, built on whichever combination of the 5 modules and filled in with whatever moral particularities should be judged.  Do they enhance (a) our ability to flourish in all the human capacities and (b) our general ability to affirmatively be growth-oriented people willing to embrace challenges without shirking or cursing life.

Any of the 5 “modules” could be culturally instantiated in ways that, individually or in particular combinations, challenged people to grow or provided practical aids to flourishing in specific powers.  But also any of the 5 modules could be instantiated in other ways which individually or in particular combinations stunted development.  When Haidt above cites the veil as an acceptable moral practice and all criticism of it to be ethnocentric, he is letting the “is” of “moral cognition” determine the “ought” of good ethical judgment.  He seems to be slipping into saying that since it comes from a morally concerned part of the brain, rather than a merely monetary and selfishly oriented one, that pluralism demands we accept it as a viable moral system.

But if the moral part of the brain itself interferes with human flourishing unnecessarily, then we should be willing to be “immoralists” as Nietzsche recommends.  If morality itself is rooted in many practices in patterns of cognition which are not justifiable in terms of considerations of our overall goods, then morality—taken to mean a set of cognitive modules and their instantiation—should be reconsidered.  This is not even to privilege “Western” equality or concern for avoidance of harms over the other three modules.  Nietzsche himself has as much or more scorn for artifically imposed orders of equality and for herd ethics that considers nothing worse than that we harm each other.  Nietzsche’s concern is simply that we be as excellent as we can and is willing to accept that “conservative” hierarchical thinking plays a key role in that.

So, indeed we need to recognize that value can come from practices which instantiate any of the modules in ways that conduce to a given people’s overall thriving and the thriving of individuals within that context.  But that kind of pluralism differs from Haidt’s, according to which simply coming from our moral cognition modules and not other sources in the brain is taken a basis for moral acceptability.  On my view, we can still judge that divergent cultures from our own separated from us either chronologically, spatially, or both have comparable or superior value to our own even as their particular practices contrast greatly with our own.

In a way, Haidt knows that the modules themselves are not virtuous.  He argues that it is how they are worked out in a particular culture which determines what the virtues of that culture are.  But, again, his test for evaluating how they are worked out is whether or not they are endorsed by those within the culture.  This seems to me to be too relativistic and dismissive of the possibility of objective harms and benefits—even ones that from within a culture people are content to miss out on or suffer because they simply don’t know any better.  And that’s not to assume that our culture is the one which is not being hoodwinked and that a radically opposed one might be the wiser.  But it is to say that there can be an objective truth about which is which, even if the worst case epistemological scenario is true and there is no way to ever quite know which is which.

The analogy to other cognitive processes is instructive.  Humans are prone to a whole range of errors about probability calculation, recognition of operative causes in natural, economic, or social events, etc.  If we were to judge all cultures equal out of “respect” then we’d completely relativize truth in patently false ways.  I think what makes us healthier and more powerful in our natural capacities of all sorts are objectively measurable things, quite independent of the moral cognition for judgments of good and bad which evolved unguided by rational consideration but by survival of the most-workable.

If the goals that our bodies and spirits aim for can be met better than within the terms of traditional moral cognition, then I see no good reason to tether ourselves to our superstitions about purity or our weak fear of all pain or our latter day Western prejudice against all hierarchies, etc., at the cost of the creation of more powerful human beings and societies, richer in culture, knowledge, technology, community, and other human goods.

I want to think more about these questions myself—both the specific issues raised by France’s mulling over restrictions on burqas and the general issues of pluralism of good value systems to which Nietzsche and Haidt are so well alert.  In the meantime, please use the comments section to give me and everyone else Your Thoughts!  OR, click here to read Njustus’s reply to my call for viewpoints on the Burqa and my attempt to play devil’s advocate in favor of Sarkozy against him and then reply yourself to that discussion.

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • njustus

    From a Lockean ‘social contract’ perspective, I believe the state should have the power to regulate the wearing of burqas if it can offer a legitimate reasonable rationale for the regulation and its fostering of diverse groups cohabiting the same governmental entity, Specifically, if the law was tailored to address security issues (and not religious symbolism or expression), that interest might have to be balanced against any ‘right to privacy’ that may be endorsed by women who wish to wear burqas. but i can see a fair, good rule being passed after addressing those considerations.

    if a law restricting the wearing of burqas is not tied to security, it would need to be based on another reasonable rationale supporting the functioning of the social contract and giving the full measure of ‘rights’ to its citizens.

    In application, then, Sarkozy’s rationale for the non-wearing of burqas does not cut it; it is a violation of the freedom of expression of religion, and the government’s passing this rule is presumptuous in its assertion of moral superiority of Islamic teaching, and degrading toward Muslim women and disrespectful of their ability to judge their own faith and follow it if they wish. If Sarkozy wants to have a moral voice about what Islamic women should wear in public, he should study the Koran, become a cleric, then start his own sect of Islam that encourages women not to wear burqas.

    The crucial point is that there should not be a French law on wearing burqas unless it relates to security; if the Church and State are to be separated, no law on burqa wearing is good law; no policy is good policy. I think this can be hard for both liberals and conservatives to understand anymore.

  • http://www.reluctantchauffeur.com/ Tyler Samien

    Just from reading this article, with little prior knowledge, I like Haidt’s approach. Questioning traditional moral cognition can lead to a fuller life experience by developing and sharpening the apparatus through which the world is perceived. But this desire only creates a sixth moral foundation (if it doesn’t fall under Ingroup/Loyalty already).

    It seems moral systems are most often deemed “good” based on accepted moral practice (circular) or “good” as in “serving a desired end”, and ends, even in the case of Nietzsche and “maximizing our power as individuals”, require a moral judgment of what is best. Perhaps the only objective evaluation of moral systems requires they not be labeled “good” by either definition but “good” from their stand-alone power as systems; as in their ability to propagate, and defend against other systems. Haidt’s questioning of those living beneath these systems is a way of measuring control, devotion and the ability to combat the pull towards personal gain (why forced burqa should be evaluated differently from slavery).

    I’m with the author in thinking moral systems dedicated to improvement, personal power, progress, and separate from the traditional moral foundation are best, but I’d hardly claim judging a society’s moral system based on its success at fulfilling these goals is objective. Regardless, I’m interested in the follow-up posts Fincke has promised. Specifically, the judgment of moral systems.

    • Dan Fincke

      Thanks Tyler, first for stopping by and secondly for the provocative remarks. I’m going to hold off for the moment in replying so that I can use these remarks as the basis for a separate post.

      Two quick points that I’ll develop later: (1) I think we can escape the moral circle by referencing a non-moral standard of evaluation, say of human excellence as construed in categories that go beyond merely the moral ones.

      (2) I am puzzled by what you mean by judging the moral systems by their abilities to “propagate and defend against other systems,” because these remarks sound like you are conceiving of the moral systems as entities unto themselves. There may be something to this in Dawkins’s “Selfish Gene”/Meme terms and it’s a provocative suggestion. But while moral systems may be in a de facto competition with each other for domination, our assessment of which ones we want to promote and which ones we want to discourage (or, more usually, which possible moral alternatives we are interested in) has everything to do with their use to us and not their own propagation. Or as William Frankena put it much more simply, “Morality was made for man, not man for morality.”

  • http://www.reluctantchauffeur.com/ Tyler Samien

    I’ll have to wait for your post to fully understand your proposed “non-moral standard of evaluation”. By definition, morality involves the judgment of human character; aka: what is human excellence. It seems that even when nontraditional, any standard of evaluation remains circular unless stripped of its assumptions of what is beneficial.

    In other words, I suggest that if a truly non-moral standard of evaluation can exist, it must be based on the scientific method and the semi-measurable qualities of devotion, longevity, propagation, and so on. All of which are things Haidt appears to evaluate in his research.


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