“Human dignity” demands that we must (never) legalize prostitution
st week, a judge in Canada’s largest province struck down the country’s federal laws criminalizing prostitution. Judge Susan Himel of the Ontario Superior Court ruled that prohibitions on prostitution infringed Canadians’ constitutional rights to freedom of expression and to security of the person. If the decision is upheld at the federal level, Canada will join countries such as Germany and the Netherlands and states such as Nevada where prostitution is, to varying degrees, legal.
The legalization of prostitution is not currently a live issue in the United States, but a major policy change from our neighbour and largest trading partner could prompt a re-examination of the issue. Such a debate would likely pit progressive against progressive and conservative against conservative. In the prostitution debate, the camps are separated less by the traditional right versus left dividing lines, and more by a disagreement regarding the meaning of “human dignity.”
Although prevalent in Enlightenment thinking, the idea that states must respect human dignity entered the political and philosophical vernacular following the adaptation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Since then, liberal and constitutional theorists have struggled to define what, exactly, respect for human dignity by the state entails.
Liberal theory encompasses two different conceptions of what constitutes respect for human dignity, which point to two radically different conclusions in the debate over prostitution.
George Soros writes at Project Syndicate that the recent expulsion of the Roma from France is tantamount to collective punishment. His outrage is echoed by a French priest who prays for Sarkozy to have a heart attack.
Although every state obviously has a right to protect public order, critics of the expulsion wonder “what harm can a few hundred people do?”
They wonder too how it’s acceptable for an EU country to forcibly relocate EU citizens without due process, especially when all EU citizens are entitled to freedom of movement.
The Roma are the continent’s largest ethnic minority group. They are not native to Europe and are in fact descended from Indians. Their distinct ethnic identity combined with misperceptions has historically made them outcasts everywhere. The Roma presently being deported from France tried to escape
dire poverty and discrimination in Romania.
Despite being EU citizens, the French government’s recent treatment of them signals that no state may reliably look out for them.
How should we respond to the problem of stateless people? For Theodor Herzl and the Zionists, the answer was obvious – to reclaim an ancestral homeland and establish a new nation. But the present Arab-Israeli conflict highlights the extraordinary difficulty and moral complexity of such a solution. And no reasonable person could suggest that the Roma try to re-conquer Punjab in northern India.
The solution will have to be the least impossible of impossible alternatives. The European countries should probably make a concerted effort to integrate the Roma and make them full members of their societies.
Not only does the “plight of so many millions of Roma… [make] a mockery of European values” as Soros writes, but the alternative is to allow a moral and social problem of enormous proportions to fester and ultimately truly undermine public order.
Image by Flickr user Rivard used under a Creative Commons Attributions License
Equality butts heads with freedom
Jonathan Martin and Ben Smith write at Politico that a new debate about first principles and the role of government has replaced the social issues at stake during the “culture wars” of the last three decades.
This dispute over first principles is deeply entwined with questions of national identity and the appropriate role of the government in the economy.
On one extreme is a minimalist state, in which the government is responsible for little more than upholding the rule of law and providing for a common defense. On the other extreme is a socialist state in which the government manages all facets of economic activity.
Neither extreme applies to any industrialized country today. Rather, the modern world is populated by welfare states of various stripes.
Last Friday, President Obama weighed in publicly on the mosque at ground zero. In doing so, he has joined Mayor Bloomberg as one of few major political figures who have openly voiced support for the project on the basis of freedom of religion.
However, polls indicate that Americans as well as New Yorkers overwhelmingly oppose the mosque’s construction to the tune of 68 percent. The poll reaffirms a truism that the writers of the Bill of Rights were grimly aware of: freedom often runs afoul of democracy. As one opponent of the mosque argues: ‘…[Obama]'s lost sight of the germane issue, which is not about freedom of religion,” she said. “It's about a gross lack of sensitivity to the 9/11 families and to the people who were los
Except the germane issue is exactly the balance between sensitivity and principle, and whether, as Jonathan asked yesterday, something can be “legally harmless but unpleasant enough for us to rightly or morally require legal intervention at the cost of others’ legal rights?” Namely, do people have a right not to be offended? Do they also have a right for their faith, beliefs, or values not to be challenged?
Greg Gutfeld of Fox News clearly believes not. In one of the most creative responses to the Ground Zero Mosque controversy, Gutfeld argues for both supporting the mosque's construction and opening a gay bar next door. Now that might take equal opportunity offending to an extreme. But in a society in which we value both the principles of religious freedom and the “marketplace of ideas,” should we want it any other way?
Image from Flickr user Johnnie Utah used under a Creative Commons Attribution license
Morality vs. legality?
The debate over the Muslim mosque and community center near Ground Zero has resulted in a number of different, passionate reactions. Once the media took up the subject, politicians and leaders from all over the US weighed in rather quickly.
On Friday, even President Obama shared his view in favor of the mosque, stating “This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are.”
Not surprisingly, critics of the mosque pounced. And their response was strong enough to push the President and his staff to “recalibrate” his comments from Friday evening more than once. Although his remarks were initially received as a deliberate endorsement of the mosque construction, President Obama apparently meant only to speak in favor of the project’s legality—not in favor of “the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque [near Ground Zero].”
Regardless of how you interpret the President’s statements this weekend, his clarification here suggests a crucial distinction underlying this Ground Zero mosque debate: even in a society that emphasizes personal liberty and freedom of religion, there may be a difference between what is legally permissible and what is morally permissible. Read more
The gay marriage debate in California and beyond
In a 136-page decision, Federal Judge Vaughn Walker has overturned California’s Proposition 8, which provided that “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid.” A (temporary) triumph for supporters of gay marriage, the case will likely be appealed and eventually find its way to the Supreme Court.
The gay marriage debate is but one battle in a larger “culture war” between two diametrically opposed worldviews, with differing beliefs about human flourishing and the societal consequences of social liberation. Read more
Clean water as a fundamental human right: theoretical justifications and consequences
Last week the United Nations declared clean water a “fundamental human right.” This is not a large departure from the rights to food, education, and employment that have already been embraced by the UN, yet such “welfare” rights are still controversial. Critics have argued that access to things such as food and water are not rights, that governments are obligated to prioritize and deliver immediately, but rather important policy goals.
The UN “declares the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of the right to life.” It is easy to see how a right to life would entail a right to clean water, as well as rights to food and medicine. In fact, some might even argue that rights to employment, education – indeed, all the welfare rights, including the rights to a certain standard of living – stem from the right to life. To many American ears, however, this would be going too far. Read more
The ethics of counseling and freedom of religion
Last week CNN reported on a Georgia graduate student who is suing her university for forcing her to undergo remedial classes or face expulsion from its counseling program.
Jennifer Keeton claims the university violated her right to free speech and practice of religion by forcing her to undergo this extra program of classes, which was largely targeted at improving her tolerance of LGBTQ individuals. Keeton objected to completing this remediation program because she claimed that it would have forced her to alter her religious beliefs. Are Keeton’s objections to the remedial program valid?
Going through a remedial program designed to increase her exposure to individuals who might not share her religious beliefs is not in itself a way of forcing her to change those beliefs. Such a program might bring her to question those beliefs, but equally, Keeton could emerge from this sensitivity training with her religious convictions intact. This is a weak objection to completing the program.
Isaac Chotiner at TNR.com remarks on the controvery over the mosque construction near Ground Zero:
The New York Times front page story today on opposition to the mosque near Ground Zero has the following comments:
–The mosque would be an “unnecessary provocation.” (Sarah Palin)
–”It’s not about religion, and is clearly an aggressive act that is offensive.” (Newt Gingrich)
–Abe Foxman said in an interview on Friday that the organization came to the conclusion that the location was offensive to families of victims of Sept. 11.
Are these not the exact same sentiments that were voiced by people who thought that Salman Rushdie should not have published The Satanic Verses, and that Danish newspapers should not have run cartoons featuring The Prophet Muhammad? The idea that people have some sort of right not to be offended is one the many silly and pernicious things about these arguments
Photo by Flickr user pnoeric used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.
For his role in 16,000 deaths during the Khmer Rouge, Kaing Guek Eav, alias “Duch,” was recently sentenced to 35 years in prison. That he may walk free in 19 years at the age of 86 due to time served has baffled and infuriated Cambodians. The worst tyrants of the last century mostly escaped formal justice (Hitler, Stalin, Mao); others did die in ignominious circumstances and were effectively the victims of mob violence (Mussolini, Ceausescu, arguably Saddam). Duch’s case and surprisingly light sentence brings to mind the perennial question of justice for politically-motivated atrocities.
We seem to know what crimes against humanity are when we see them. But the story is often more complicated in places like the most impoverished parts of the Third World, where politics is a life-or-death affair. Interest groups are divided along ethnic, class, or religious fault lines and power is a means to extract resources for the favored group at the expense of all others. An old Kenyan aphorism holds that to seize the machinery of the state means that “it is our turn to eat.” In these cases murder, rape and torture may become routine tools of political intimidation.
How do we evaluate crimes against humanity and the justice that should follow when the only clear distinction between victim and victimizer is that the latter is stronger than the other, and when it seems likely that the other side would behave just as monstrously if the circumstances permitted?
Photo by Flickr user Sebr used under a Creative Commons Attribution license