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?

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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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