A Philosopher's Blog

Birkini Ban

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on August 29, 2016

In response to terrorist attacks, some French politicians sprang into action and imposed ordinances aimed at banning the burkini. For those who are not theological fashionistas, a burkini is essentially a more fashionable wet suit intended primarily for Moslem women who want to swim in public while remaining modestly dressed. The burkini is in some ways reminiscent of women’s swimwear of the early 1900s, but far less likely to result in death by drowning. The burkini is also popular with women who want to swim but would prefer to lower their chances of getting skin cancer.

To be a bit more specific about the ban, the ordinances did not name the burkini, but rather forbid bathing attire that is not “appropriate,” that fails to be “respectful of good morals and of secularism,” and does not follow “hygiene and security rules.” There is a certain irony in the fact that being scantily clad on the beach was once considered in the West to be inappropriate and disrespectful of good morals. Now it is claimed that being well covered is not respectful of good morals.

While I am not a legal scholar, the specifications seem rather odd. I would think that appropriate attire that is “respectful of good morals” would be one that covers up the naughty bits—assuming that covering the bits is the right thing to do. While not an expert on hygiene and security, I do not see how a burkini would be any more a threat to hygiene or security than other common swimming attire such as bikinis, speedos, and wet suits. After all, the typically burkini is effectively a wet suit. There is also the fact that Christian nuns who dress conservatively for the beach are not targeted; presumably their attire is in accord with both hygiene and security.

As with France’s 2011 burqa ban, these ordinances seem aimed at creating the impression that a leader is doing something, to distract the masses from real problems and to appeal to religious intolerance and xenophobia. Since women going to swim in a burkini are unlikely to present a threat to public safety, there seems to be no legitimate basis for these ordinances in regards to preventing harm to the public. And this is the only rational moral justification for laws that forbid people from dressing or acting certain ways.

It could be countered that ordinances are actually intended to protect the women from oppression; that it aims to prevent women from being forced to cover up if they do not wish to do so.  While many Westerners probably assume that Moslem women are all forced to cover up, this is not the case. Some women apparently do this by choice and regard the right to do so as protected by the Western notion of freedom. While some might be skeptical about how free the choice is, it is reasonable to think that some women would, in fact, freely decide to cover up in this way. After all, if some women are willing to show lots of skin in public, then it hardly seems unusual that some women would rather show far less. There are certainly women who prefer modest attire and women who willingly embrace religious traditions. For example, some nuns who visit beaches dress very modestly; but they seem to do some from choice. Presumably the same can be true of Moslem women.

Some might argue that women who cover up too much and those that cover up too little are all victims of male oppression and are not really making free choices. While it is reasonable to believe that social and cultural factors impact dressing behavior, it seems unreasonably to claim that all these women are incapable of choice and are mere victims of the patriarchy. In any case, to force someone to dress or not dress a certain way because of some ideology about the patriarchy would also be oppressive.

It might also be argued that just as there are laws against being naked in public, there should also be laws against being improperly over-covered on the beach. After all, a woman would (probably) get in trouble for walking the streets of France with only her face, feet and hands covered, so why should a woman be allowed to go to the beach with only her face, hands and feet exposed? Both, it could be argued, create public distractions and violate the general sense of appropriate dress.

While this might have some appeal, such ordinances would need to applied in a consistent manner. As such, if a Christian woman were spotted walking the beach in jeans and a shirt, she would have to be removed from the beach or forced to strip. The obvious counter is that the ordinances are not used to target anyone but Moslem women in birkinis, although the secular part of the ordinances would allow targeting any attire with a non-secular connection. This would, obviously, ban nuns from the beach if they wore religiously linked attire, such as modest swimsuits.

This sort of ban would be a clear attack on religious freedom, which is problematic. While I am not particularly religious, I do recognize the importance of the freedom of faith and its expression. While there can be legitimate grounds for limiting such expressions (like banning human sacrifices), when a practice does not create harm, then there seems to be no real ground for banning it. As such, the ban in France seems to be completely unjustified and also an infringement of both the freedom of choice and the freedom of religion.

While some might point out that some Muslim countries do not allow such freedoms, my easy and obvious reply is that these countries are in the wrong and we should certainly not want to be like them. Two wrongs do not, obviously, make a right.

Lastly, it could be argued that the bikini is a very serious matter—the bikini is rejection of French culture and an explicit statement in support of Islam against France. The challenge is, of course, to provide evidence that this is the intention behind wearing the bikini. While attire can be used to make a statement, thinking that wearing a birkini must be an attack on France is on par with thinking that a person who eats a Big Mac or hummus in public in France is also attacking France. Even if a person is wearing the birkini as a statement, then it would seem to fall under freedom of expression. While it might offend some, offense is not grounds for imposing on this freedom.

While there is some appeal to the idea that people should assimilate into the culture, there is the obvious question of why one view of the culture should be granted hegemony over everything. That is, why the burkini cannot be as accepted as the bikini, why Islam cannot be as accepted as Methodism. Going back to the food analogy, it would be unreasonable to require French citizens to only eat food that is regarded as properly French and to see people who eat other food as a threat.

In closing, the birkini bans are unwarranted and morally unacceptable.

 

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What is the Worst Thing You Should (Be Allowed to) Say?

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 26, 2015
Members of Westboro Baptist Church have been s...

Members of Westboro Baptist Church have been specifically banned from entering Canada for hate speech. Church members enter Canada, aiming to picket bus victim’s funeral (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The murders at Charlie Hedbo and their aftermath raised the issue of freedom of expression in a dramatic and terrible manner. In response to these deaths, there was an outpouring of support for this basic freedom and, somewhat ironically, a crackdown on some people expressing their views.

This situation raises two rather important issues. The first is the matter of determining the worst thing that a person should express. The second is the matter of determining the worst thing that a person should be allowed to express. While these might seem to be the same issue, they are not. The reason for this is that there is a distinction between what a person should do and what is morally permissible to prevent a person from doing. The main focus will be on using the coercive power of the state in this role.

As an illustration of the distinction, consider the example of a person lying to his girlfriend about running strikes all day in the video game Destiny when he was supposed to be doing yard work. It seems reasonable to think that he should not lie to her (although exceptions are easy to imagine). However, it also seems reasonable to think that the police should not be sent to coerce him into telling her the truth. So, he should not lie to her about playing the game but he should be allowed to do so by the state (that is, it should not use its police powers to stop him).

This view can be disputed and there are those who argue in favor of complete freedom from the state (anarchists) and those who argue that the state should control every aspect of life (totalitarians). However, the idea that that there are some matters that are not the business of the state seems to be an intuitively plausible position—at least in democratic states such as the United States. What follows will rest on this assumption and the challenge will be to sort out these two issues.

One rather plausible and appealing approach is to take a utilitarian stance on the matter and accept the principle of harm as the foundation for determining the worst thing that a person should express and also the worst thing that a person should be allowed to express. The basic idea behind this is that the right of free expression is bounded by the stock liberal right of others not to be harmed in their life, liberty and property without due justification.

In the case of the worst thing that a person should express, I am speaking in the context of morality. There are, of course, non-moral meanings of “should.” To use the most obvious example, there is the “pragmatic should”: what a person should or should not do in regards to advancing his practical self-interest. For example, a person should not tell her boss what she really thinks of him if doing so would cost her the job she desperately needs. To use another example, there is also the “should of etiquette”: what a person should do or not do in order to follow the social norms. For example, a person should not go without pants at a formal wedding, even to express his opposition to the tyranny of pants.

Returning to the matter of morality, it seems reasonable to go with the stock approach of weighing the harm the expression generates against the right of free expression (assuming there is such a right). Obviously enough, there is not an exact formula for calculating the worst thing a person should express and this will vary according to the circumstances. For example, the worst thing one should express to a young child would presumably be different from the worst thing one should express to adult. In terms of the harms, these would include the obvious things such as offending the person, scaring her, insulting her, and so on for the various harms that can be inflicted by mere expression.

While I do not believe that people have a right not to be offended, people do seem to have a right not to be unjustly harmed by other people expressing themselves. To use an obvious example, men should not catcall women who do not want to be subject to this verbal harassment. This sort of behavior certainly offends, upsets and even scares many women and the men’s right to free expression does not give them a moral pass that exempts them from what they should or should not do.

To use another example, people should not intentionally and willfully insult another person’s deeply held beliefs simply for the sake of insulting or provoking the person. While the person does have the right to mock the belief of another, his right of expression is not a moral free pass to be abusive.

As a final example, people should not engage in trolling. While a person does have the right to express his views so as to troll others, this is clearly wrong. Trolling is, by definition, done with malice and contributes nothing of value to the conversation. As such, it should not be done.

It is rather important to note that while I have claimed that people should not unjustly harm others by expressing themselves, I have not made any claims about whether or not people should or should not be allowed to express themselves in these ways. It is to this that I now turn.

If the principle of harm is a reasonable principle (which can be debated), then a plausible approach would be to use it to sketch out some boundaries. The first rough boundary was just discussed: this is the boundary between what people should express and what people should (morally) not. The second rough boundary begins at the point where other people should be allowed to prevent a person from expressing himself and ends just before the point at which the state has the moral right to use its coercive power to prevent expression.

This area is the domain of interactions between people that does not fall under the authority of the state, yet still permits people to be prevented from expressing their views. To use an obvious example, the workplace is such a domain in which people can be justly prevented from expressing their views without the state being involved. To use a specific example, the administrators of my university have the right to prevent me from expressing certain things—even if doing so would not fall under the domain of the state. To use another example, a group of friends would have the right, among themselves, to ban someone from their group for saying racist, mean and spiteful things to one of their number. As a final example, a blog administrator would have the right to ban a troll from her site, even though the troll should not be subject to the coercive power of the state.

The third boundary is the point at which the state can justly use its coercive power to prevent a person from engaging in expression. As with the other boundaries, this would be set (roughly) by the degree of harm that the expression would cause others. There are many easy and obvious example where the state would act rightly in imposing on a person: threats of murder, damaging slander, incitements to violence against the innocent, and similar such unquestionably harmful expressions.

Matters do, of course, get complicated rather quickly. Consider, for example, a person who does not call for the murder of cartoonists who mock Muhammad but tweets his approval when they are killed. While this would certainly seem to be something a person should not do (though this could be debated), it is not clear that it crosses the boundary that would allow the state to justly prevent the person from expressing this view. If the approval does not create sufficient harm, then it would seem to not warrant coercive action against the person by the state.

As another example, consider the expression of racist views via social media. While people should not say such things (and would be justly subject to the consequences), as long as they do not engage in actual threats, then it would seem that the state does not have the right to silence the person. This is because the expression of racist views (without threats) would not seem to generate enough harm to warrant state coercion. Naturally, it could justify action on the part of the person’s employer, friends and associates: he might be fired and shunned.

As a third example, consider a person who mocks the dominant or even official religion of the state. While the rulers of such states usually think they have the right to silence such an infidel, it is not clear that this would create enough unjust harm to warrant silencing the person. Being an American, I think that it would not—but I believe in both freedom of religion and the freedom to mock religion.  There is, of course, the matter of the concern that such mockery would provoke others to harm the mocker, thus warranting the state to stop the person—for her own protection. However, the fact that people will act wrongly in response to expressions would not seem to warrant coercing the person into silence.

In general, I favor erring on the side of freedom: unless the state can show that silencing expression is needed to prevent a real and unjust harm, the state does not have the moral right to silence expression.

I have merely sketched out a general outline of this matter and have presented three rough boundaries in regards to what people should say and what they should be allowed to say. Much more work would be needed to develop a full and proper account.

 

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Group Responsibility

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on January 16, 2015

After the murders in France, people were once again discussing the matter of group responsibility. In the case of these murders, some contend that all Muslims are responsible for the actions of the few who committed murder. In most cases people do not claim that all Muslims support the killings, but there is a tendency to still put a special burden of responsibility upon Muslims as a group.

Some people do take the killings and other terrible events as evidence that Islam itself is radical and violent. This sort of “reasoning” is, obviously enough, the same sort used when certain critics of the Tea Party drew the conclusion that the movement was racist because some individuals in the Tea Party engaged in racist behavior. It is also the same “reasoning” used to condemn all Christians or Republicans based on the actions of a very few.

To infer that an entire group has a certain characteristic (such as being violent or prone to terrorism) based on the actions of a few would generally involve committing the fallacy of hasty generalization. It can also be seen as the fallacy of suppressed evidence in that evidence contrary to the claim is simply ignored. For example, to condemn Islam as violent based on the actions of terrorists would be to ignore the fact that the vast majority of Muslims are as peaceful as people of other faiths, such as Christians and Jews.

It might be objected that a group can be held accountable for the misdeeds of its members even when those misdeeds are committed by a few and even when these misdeeds are supposed to not be in accord with the real beliefs of the group. For example, if I were to engage in sexual harassment while on the job, Florida A&M University can be held accountable for my actions. Thus, it could be argued, all Muslims are accountable for the killings in France and these killings provide just more evidence that Islam itself is a violent and murderous religion.

In reply, Islam (like Christianity) is not a monolithic faith with a single hierarchy over all Muslims. After all, there are various sects of Islam and a multitude of diverse Muslim hierarchies. For example, the Moslems of Saudi Arabia do not fall under the hierarchy of the Moslems of Iran.

As such, treating all of Islam as an organization with a chain of command and a chain of responsibility that extends throughout the entire faith would be rather problematic. To use an analogy, sports fans sometimes go on violent rampages after events. While the actions of the violent fans should be condemned, the peaceful fans are not accountable for those actions. After all, while the fans are connected by their being fans of a specific team this is not enough to form a basis for accountability. So, if some fans of a team set fire to cars, this does not make all the fans of that team responsible. Also, if people unassociated with the fans decide to jump into action and destroy things, it would be even more absurd to claim that the peaceful fans are accountable for their actions. As such, to condemn all of Islam based on what happened in France would be both unfair and unreasonable. As such, the people who murdered in France are accountable but Islam cannot have these incidents laid at its collective doorstep.

This, of course, raises the question of the extent to which even an organized group is accountable for its members. One intuitive guide is that the accountability of the group is proportional to the authority the group has over the individuals. For example, while I am a philosopher and belong to the American Philosophical Association, other philosophers have no authority over me. As such, they have no accountability for my actions. In contrast, my university has considerable authority over my work life as a professional philosopher and hence can be held accountable should I, for example, sexually harass a student or co-worker.

The same principle should be applied to Islam (and any faith). Being a Moslem is analogous to being a philosopher in that there is a recognizable group. As with being a philosopher, merely being a Moslem does not make a person accountable for all other Moslems.

But, just as I belong to an organization with a hierarchy, a Moslem can belong to an analogous organization, such as a mosque or ISIS. To the degree that the group has authority over the individual, the group is accountable. So, if the killers in France were acting as members of ISIS or Al-Qaeda, then the group would be accountable. However, while groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda might delude themselves into thinking they have legitimate authority over all Moslems, they obviously do not. After all, they are opposed by most Moslems.

So, with a religion as vast and varied as Islam, it cannot be reasonably be claimed that there is a central earthly authority over its members and this would serve to limit the collective responsibility of the faith. Naturally, the same would apply to other groups with a similar lack of overall authority, such as Christians, conservatives, liberals, Buddhists, Jews, philosophers, runners, and satirists.

 

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Democrats at Work Part Deux

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 14, 2013
The "Kicking Donkey" party logo is s...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since the original Democrats at Work post has so many comments, I thought I’d add another for fresh commentary on the wickedness of the Democrats. And fellow travelers. Remember, you can’t spell “Democrat” without “rat.”

 

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