Playing Sarkozy’s Advocate

Njustus has kindly accepted my gauntlet to readers to offer on the possibility of the French government outlawing women from publicly wearing burqas.  And his reply is a good one:

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.

I think this whole reply is excellent and especially the last paragraph leading up to its final line.  In America there is a hard time separating good and bad from legally encouraged and legally restricted.  The temperament on both the left and right wing is that, “If it is a good, the government should play an active role in promoting it and if it is bad, the government should play an active role in discouraging it.”  And this can be a really intrusive, paternalistic way to govern and one that gives the government more power over our lives than we probably should tolerate.

But, nonetheless, even though my libertarian and 1st Amendment loving instincts significantly override my distaste for religious restrictions and incline me to agree with your judgment—I feel like playing devil’s advocate here.

If we go back to the notion of the social contract, does it not imply that a liberal society depends on fundamentally free people who are only enjoined together by an implicit choice, which they theoretically could rescind if the government was tyrannous?  In other words, does not the very social contract depend on a certain working conception of human nature as autonomous and particular human beings as not inherently bound to any authority unless the relationship is one that fundamentally, in its structure respects and cultivates their primary autonomy?

If this is true, if liberal societies conceive themselves as made up of autonomous individuals, do liberal societies therefore have an obligation to cultivate autonomy in those they rule in order for the citizenry to perpetuate liberal institutions themselves?

For example, liberal societies prohibit people from selling themselves into slavery.  I might personally want nothing more than to surrender the fear and insecurity of freedom and commit myself to utter servitude to a master who will assure all my needs are met in exchange.

Liberal societies judge this free decision to be a practical contradiction to the autonomy of citizens necessary for the social contract.  If we are autonomous, we are not allowed to contradict our own autonomy in this fundamental way.  It’s a crime against your own liberty.  And institutions within a society that encourage citizens to voluntarily make themselves heteronomous people, asymmetrically constrained must be combated.

Imagine that there may have been blacks in the ’50s South who accepted  segregation and their second-class citizenship.  Say they internalized the racist myths about their inferiority to white people.  Would the government have to honor their desire not to integrate?

And if the government allows Islamic culture with its illiberal and hierarchical relationships to take deeper root in French culture, does this pose a long term threat to liberal institutions?  If the culture becomes increasingly anti-egalitarian and increasingly religiously illiberal with the growing population of Muslims, do French identity and the ideals of Western liberalism become existentially threatened?  Might the French government have a vested interest in demand that people habituate themselves at least in the outward forms of egalitarianism, even if in their homes, hearts, and mosques they may retain illiberal ideas?

Another reason to side with the option of banning the burqa may be to give “cover” to the Muslim woman who does not want to wear the burqa but risks consequences from within the Islamic community if she does not.  The French government demanding that all women be unveiled loosens the community’s grip on that woman.  It loosens the influence of a competing culture that is in serious ways at conventional and moral odds with the customs and traditions of the larger culture.

By making it the law that Muslim women liberalize in the practice through the practice of not wearing burqas in public, the French put preservation of their culture’s defining ideals over accommodation of those of a subculture fundamentally at odds with them.  In this way, the French make a play for assimilation that might be crucial to keeping a united country not fractured by cultural differences among subcultures that split the national identity and sense of shared values apart.

So, that’s my devil’s advocate reply even though I am on balance more inclined towards greater freedom, rather than less, and am queasy about paternalistic cultural engineering by governments.

What do you think, Njustus?  How about the rest of you?  I’d love to hear more viewpoints.

Your Thoughts?

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.

  • tashinorbo

    The French government is way out of line here. It is the role of the government to provide services and protect the people NOT make personal decisions for them. This is very different from say, the personal decision to inject heroin, which clearly has larger implications for the society at large, this is a matter of faith in a set of religious edicts. It may well be the case that the problems associated with the burqa that sarkozy rails against are legitimate, but if so a more subtle solution to addressing this needs to be found.

  • Dan Fincke

    Do you mean to say that faith in religious edicts cannot have larger implications for the society at large? Only things like drugs can?

  • tashinorbo

    no, i mean to say that wearing a burqa does not constitute this systemic danger.

  • tashinorbo

    to clarify further, I have no objection to outlawing suicide bombing even if some people do it as a result of faith. The burqa, however, is a deeply personal decision, but one very foreign, I suspect, to the bulk of the French populace. I am sure instances occur in which there are degrading aspects to this practice, but that does not warrant the wholesale banning of this piece of clothing without first proving that, at a minimum, a large majority of the women feel forced into this practice and wish to not where it. Even in this situation I think it would be superior to create an agency/institution/shelter for these women to turn to so they can escape what may be very unhealthy conditions. The burqa, even when part of a degrading relationship (which I do not believe is always the case) is a symptom and not a cause.

  • Dan Fincke

    Well, of course suicide bombing must be forbidden. But, what I wanted to tease out from you was the acknowledgment that sometimes specifically faith-related edicts can have consequences that a liberal society should not accommodate. In other words, faith should not be a free pass out of the standards of a culture.

    You’re right the burqa might be just a symptom and not the cause of the degradation but unless France is going to go “nuclear” and outlaw Islam outright, why not treat the symptoms and accustom Islam to a spirit of compromise when it comes to Western societies?

    Personally, I’d rather less government dictation about these matters, but the question is how Europe can preserve its liberal traditions as their populations start to get swamped with Islamic cultures?

    I’m not sure where exactly the line is that a tolerant society has to become intolerant of intolerance and illiberal about illiberalism. At SOME point, tolerance and liberalism do need to squelch the forces that threaten tolerance and liberalism themselves. There are scenarios where that push comes to that shove.

    I think the burqa case is provocative on this score because it seems not clear enough a case of a need to crack down against a threat to liberal traditions, but it’s a reasonable harbinger of possible coming debates.


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