Sarkozy’s comments that burkas are ‘not welcome’ in France touches upon a profound problem within liberalism; when does a choice become ‘unfree’?  It’s an uncomfortable question for liberals, but a necessary one.

Liberals want, above all, to protect the ability of individuals to live the lives they choose. Most liberals tend to be overwhelmingly concerned with protecting individuals from coercion; from the state, and other individuals. From here, there’s a straightforward liberal argument against Sarkozy’s proposed ban.

But then things get complicated; as Sarkozy’s comments suggest, not all choices are equally free. If liberals are concerned with individual choice, then surely we should be concerned with how these choices are influenced, formed, manipulated.

In relation to the burka, there are severe social pressures on some - not all - Muslim women to make this ‘choice’. Preferences to wear the burka may be formed as a result of being under relations of domination or exploitation, and hence we can doubt whether they are ‘free choices’ at all. And if they’re not free, then liberals should worry about them.

Where, then, does this leave Sarkozy’s argument?  There may be a good liberal case for banning the burka, but not a decisive one. Let’s not pretend, as Sarkozy argues, that banning the burka will free women from ‘imprisonment’. Women who feel strongly compelled to wear the burka are unlikely to find their lives any easier, or freer, if doing so is banned.

The argument should, then, shift to the wider consequences of a ban; would it gradually weaken relationships of domination and empower future generations? Perhaps, but perhaps not; it could equally exacerbate feelings of alienation and persecution. It’s unclear which side liberals should support.

What liberals should do, however, is take such theoretical questions seriously. Sarkozy, while illiberal in many ways, has raised issues which cut to the heart of the ‘liberal project’. Taking liberalism beyond a narrow concern with coercion certainly takes us into strange and ambiguous waters. By looking beyond coercion, and at social pressures on choice, we can end up with what seem very illiberal conclusions. One recent example comes from philosopher Clare Chambers’ book Sex, Culture and Justice, which offers a liberal argument for banning cosmetic surgery.

Yet a concern with individual freedom demands that we take up these difficult questions. Liberals can no longer keep their heads in the sand and pretend that freedom from coercion is enough.


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