Devout annexation

Quarreling with Martha Nussbaum.

I think that in all religions there are people who want to live a traditional life and people who want to be part of modernity, and we ought to make room for both and show both equal respect.

That depends on what you mean by ‘live a traditional life’ and what you mean by ‘show both equal respect.’ Or to put it another way, that sounds nice, if you don’t pay too much attention; it sounds very kind and caring and generous; but what if ‘live a traditional life’ means ‘raise their children to believe that women are inferior to men’ or ‘coerce their daughters into marrying strangers’ or ‘forbid their wives and daughters to leave the house’? Those are among the things ‘live a traditional life’ can mean, and I have no intention of showing equal respect to any of them, and furthermore, I think we ought not to show them equal respect.

What is Nussbaum doing talking in such sweeping vague terms? She knows better than that, so what’s she doing?

What we see in some nations, then, is not Islam itself, but a politicized version of Islam that is not a necessary interpretation of those religious texts. That point has been made repeatedly by dissidents in the societies in which this politicized version of Islam is influential, such as Shiran Ebadi and Akbar Ganji in Iran. Both are devout Muslims, and both insist, with convincing argument, that there is nothing in their sex-equal democratic proposals that is incompatible with Islam.

That’s good, and I hope they win the argument. I really do – but does it need to be pointed out that they’re not winning it at the moment, and that there are a lot of other ‘devout Muslims’ around who insist very much the opposite?

Perhaps a good democracy is one where people express themselves in their own way, and still live with one another on terms of equal respect. I’m just finishing a book on the USA tradition on the topic of religious liberty, and I think for once that there is something to be said in favour of the traditions of my own nation. Namely, people who are different from the norm not only get scrupulous fairness under law, which even John Locke advocated, they also get what is called rights of “accommodation”, namely, they do not have to observe certain laws that burden their conscience, unless there is a “compelling state interest”. In other words, if you are a Jew and you receive a subpoena to testify in court on a Saturday, you may refuse without legal penalty…I believe that this tradition of “accommodation” expresses a spirit of equal respect for minorities living in a majority world. Writing to the Quakers about why he was not going to require them to perform military service, our first president George Washington says, “The conscientious scruples of all men should be treated with the greatest delicacy and tenderness”. I wish I saw more of this delicacy and tenderness in Europe today.

I think that’s disgusting stuff, because of the implicit endorsement of the idea that conscience is religious, or that ‘conscience’ deserves special, extra (‘tender’) accomodation when it is religious that it does not deserve when it is not religious. Well, why? Notice that she never says why. (If she does, the editor dropped it.) Notice also that she chooses the easier cases (the elided ones are comparatively easy too). Notice that she chooses a Jew refusing to go to court on a Saturday; how often do courts sit on Saturdays? What about people who refuse to go to court on a Friday or a Wednesday, when courts do sit? Why doesn’t she use that as an example? But much more important, why on earth does she choose to perpetuate the idea that ‘conscientious scruples’ are a monopoly of religious people and hence that atheists don’t have them? And where does she get off dressing up that nasty bigoted coercive prejudice in the glow of self-righteous disapproval? Why is she so pleased with herself for wanting to give special privileges to religion and religious believers that atheists don’t get? Why is she so smugly boastful about identifying conscience with religion?

I’ve questioned this talk about delicacy and respect from Nussbaum before. There was this, in Hiding from Humanity:

But to claim that freedom of speech promotes truth in metaphysics and morals would be to show disrespect for the idea of reasonable pluralism, and to venture onto a terrain where one is at high risk of showing disrespect to one’s fellow citizens. Mill is totally oblivious to all such considerations. He has none of the delicate regard for other people’s religious doctrines that characterizes the political liberal…One may sympathize…without feeling that he understands the type of mutual respect that is required in a pluralistic society. I agree with Rawls: such respect requires (in the public sphere at least) not showing up the claims of religion as damaging, and not adopting a public conception of truth and objectivity according to which such claims are false.

Well there’s some classic respect creep (to quote Simon Blackburn again) for you. Here’s an earlier and more carefully argued example from Sex and Social Justice (page 110):

US constitutional law has standardly granted special latitude to religion, by contrast with other forms of commitment and affiliation. Religious reasons for exemption from military service, or for refusing to work on a particular day, are granted a latitude that is not granted to other forms of conscientious commitment, such as the familial or the artistic or even the ethical. This remains controversial for the way it appears to privilege religion over nonreligion…[T]his is not the place to make a normative argument on such a complex and vexed matter. Suffice it to say that such privileges given to religion, though highly contestable, can be strongly supported by pointing to the special importance of the liberty of conscience as a fundamental right and the consequent need to give religious freedom special protection from the incursions that, throughout history, have threatened it.

I couldn’t agree less. That works only if you take ‘conscience’ to mean ‘religious conscience,’ and why would anyone take it to mean that? It doesn’t mean that. I looked it up in the Concise Oxford: the definition doesn’t mention religion. Religion does not get to help itself to the word ‘conscience’ and pretend it has the thing while non-religious people don’t; ‘conscience’ is about morality, not religion, and religion has no, repeat no monopoly on either one. Both conscience and morality are secular terms, secular ideas, secular principles, and religion has no business trying to annex them, and Nussbaum has no business helping them do it.

I used to admire Nussbaum, but I’ve gone right off her now. I’m really allergic to this annexation thing.

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