Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Citizenship and Religion

The recent referendum in Switzerland concerning the construction of minarets has provoked widespread debate and not a little condemnation of the Swiss electorate. Certainly the decision was part of a general campaign there that did not involve an inclusive view of citizenship. However, the debate and decision should not be viewed as isolated. There is also the ban on head-scarfs in France and periodic debate generally concerning the nature and point of religious symbols and their place in public life (particularly in the US).

The nub of the questions that arise here are, however, rarely unpicked from the general questions motivating particular discussions and decisions. What I mean here is that the nature of citizenship should be being discussed, not particular religions and certainly not religions that happen to be minorities in a given place. Citizenship of a country with a broadly republican (in the Kantian sense) notion of itself should not be being defined in terms of whether people are adherents of a particular religion or whether, as members of this religion, they decide to adopt particular types of clothes or worship in certain structures. It should rather concern living in a way that does not conflict with the normative structure of republican governance.

However, putting the point this way can, and often clearly does, cause confusion. In France, in particular, it appears that the notion of the republic is bound up with the celebration of distinct values (particularly, since the beginning of the 20th century, secular ones) that are thought to be violated by the adoption of certain styles of clothing in public or the wearing of certain religious symbols. This conception of republicanism is far removed from the Kantian one. Kant comprehends the style of life that a republic requires as living in accord with the supreme (or universal) principle of right, even without requiring that this principle be explicitly endorsed by anyone as part of their structure of maxims. Given that right is comprehended in relation to universal laws (and subsequently with an authorization of coercion) the basic structure of this republic has a formal and not a material pattern. Lack of recourse to a justification of this kind of republicanism can only lead to the pattern of thinking about republican citizenship in such a way that it leads to a "clash of cultures". In order to promote stepping back from this in such a way that we can consider again the point of republics I suggest thinking anew about the relationship between the principle of right and publicity. Expect more in further postings.


Timothy said...

Not that minarets would fall even under this, but in thinking about how Kant talks about a republic and the importance of right, I have always been struck by the anamoly of this passage:

"On this supreme properietorship also rests the state's economy, finances, and police. Police provide for security, convenience, and decency; for the government's business of guiding the people by laws is made easier when the feeling for decency (sensus decori), as negative taste, is not deadened by what offends the moral sense, such as begging, uproar on the streets, stenches, and public prostitution (venus volgivaga)" (Metaphysics of Morals, 6:325)

I suppose this is based on right in some sense (it makes it easier for government to administer laws), but what if promoting some sense of (French-style) citizenship also did that? Could that be an argument from right in Kant's sense? Why or why not?

(separately, there is the question of whether Kant limits state action to considerations of right, or if he allows but not discuss further policy actions that are based on other considerations... e.g. welfare (that go beyond right-based considerations)).

Gary Banham said...

Thanks for these points Tim, both very useful and worth pursuing. The citation you give concerning begging and prostitution and relating them to decency does raise some intriguing questions. It occurs in the context of Kant's discussion of sovereignty and appears to have something to do with the general consideration of "public order" in something like Waldron's extended account of it. The relationship of that sense to, on the one hand, right and, on the other, publicity, would be something I would like to explore elsewhere.
The question as to whether welfare is something distinct from right in terms of Kant's justification for welfare is also interesting. It is, I think, fairly clear that Kant's specific scope for welfare is considerably narrower than would tend to be acceptable now but the fact that there is scope at all for it is, I suppose, the point. Again, I'll have to return to this in due course.
More generally, as you say, your comments don't specifically relate to the points I was making about religion and citizenship and don't, I think, affect the direct argument I have given.

Timothy said...

I like the public order thought. That seems to make sense.

However, I remember that Waldron brought up the burka is his lecture. He says he was not in favor of banning it. However, he seemed to allow for some space to argue for such a ban, perhaps, since its message seems to be that women, when they appear in public should not be at all public (it is the carrying of the private sphere around with them-- implying where women should be relegated to).

Afterall, (so the argument might go) if public prostitution could offend people's decency, why not oppressive clothing?

Now, I don't know that that argument is convincing at all, or even plausible, but it does seem to perhaps have the right form.

Going further, I can imagine someone saying that if (if) the government finds it easier to administer the law if the public sphere looks a certain way (no prostitutions or burkas, they might say) so as not to deaden people's sensibilities.

Now it is not clear to me that Kant would authorize anything to promote citizenship. (Note that I am not saying that the government will use coercion to promote the virtue of citizens -- just the possibility that the government will regulate appearances in the public sphere so as not to undermine adherence to the law).

Now I think a weak link in this is how burkas could be said to deaden the morals. I suppose a tale might need to be told about undermining the independence of citizens (and thus not everyone making the law is independent, and I am subject to such laws, which is bad...)

I don't know, what do you think?

Gary Banham said...

Hmm: some interesting problems here Tim and now I can see more clearly why you think the posting I have given is less of a response to the question than I might have been hoping it was.
As you say, it is not at all clear that Kant would have thought that some things were needed to advance citizenship and in fact it would seem the reverse is true (though there is the complicated problem of "independence" which I might get to in a future posting).
You are right that Waldron points to the problem with the burka being that it forces the private into the public. It wouldn't take much from there to suggest that this violates something integral to republicanism and then move to legislate around it.
So what kind of solution to this question is appropriate?
Well: leaving for now the notion of "decency" aside as its point and limit would need to be specifically considered, I think I would go the following way.
The adoption of specific clothing or given practices by members of a religion is evidently not entirely neutral (which is why forced marriages and the hideously mis-named "female circumcision" could be banned). But the practices that can be legislated about are ones that offend in any case against the guide-lines of right. Going beyond this would produce consequentialist reasonings and create difficulties.
But thanks for raising these points as I can see from them why this would be a topic that would be worth a lot more exploration (possibly in article form).