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.

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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.


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