Not all choices are free
A reply to John
John wrote an interesting post on why the proposed burqa ban infringes people’s liberty. He argues that French women who wear the burqa choose to do so. He argues that they can freely choose not to wear the burqa, though the cost of making that decision is very high: ostracization from their community. And the French state ought to respect that choice.
Even though one is presented with multiple options does not neccesarily mean that their selection of one of them is an entirely free choice. ”Your money or your life!” situations are in one sense free choice situations. You can choose one of two options. But in another sense, they are merely cases of coercion. When one is presented with a number of options and one of those options has terrible, frightening costs involved if it is not chosen–costs that one did not bring upon himself–it is possible to say that the choice was not a free one. And furthermore, by banning that choice, one might become freer, because he has the ability to explore all the other options that he rationally had to ignore before.
The question is whether the burqa is anything like this. Let’s assume that French Muslim women are coerced into wearing the burqa insofar as they are not given any real choice in the matter–they are told to wear it and their will be dire consequences if they don’t. If that assumption holds, then maybe Sarkozy is on firmer liberal ground than John contends. By making the burqa illegal, by denying that choice, Sarkozy might be opening up many other choices for these women.
The flip side, of course, is that many women want to wear the burqa on their own accord and would be unable to do so if Sarkozy’s proposal passes. It is really a question of what is the thought process of these women before they don the burqa. In Europe, for what it’s worth, many of the younger generation of Muslims are much more religious than their parents. It is unfair to assume that these women are being coerced into wearing the burqa without knowing the reality on the ground. Most French Muslim women, for isntance, don’t wear it. Of course, it’s possible that these women who do live in fundamentalist encalves.
How easy it for these women to choose not to wear the burqa? There is a theoretical point above which it might make sense, on liberal grounds, to deny that choice, insofar as it represents coercion of some sort. And there is a point below which, on liberal grounds, we ought to allow that choice. Here is another case, I believe, where practical reality affects political morality.