Rightly or wrongly we can decide when we’re more at our leisure; but in the meantime, John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice can be taken as pretty much the canon on distributive justice, at least in our relatively affluent Western democracies. As to the liberal dividends of civil society – liberties like freedom of expression, of assembly, and so on – we’re to
1) maximize liberty consistent with a like liberty for all.
But when it comes to material dividends – flush toilets and dinners out – he thinks we ought to opt for
2) pareto optimality. That is, one can be made better off provided no one is thereby made worse off, and provided these positions of inequality are open to all.
3) the Liberty Principles, i.e. (1) above, is to take lexical priority over the Difference Principle, i.e. (2).
If any of this be doubted, one need only listen to any argument about distributive justice, and almost invariably it’ll be premised on one or more of (1) through (3).
A case in point would seem to be the current contretemps between Charlie Hebdo and the sensibilities of the Muslim community in France. I say “would seem to be” because a Rawlsian analysis of the issue completely misses what’s going on here. Defenders of Charlie Hebdo can argue that Muslims are equally free to mock Jesus, or for that matter, laicite (secularism) itself. But there’s a palpable asymmetry here. “Well,” scoffs Charlie Hebdo, “there shouldn’t be.” “Be that as it may,” counters the Muslim, “there is!” So it won’t do to say Muslims are free to mock Jesus. Rather the solution has got to be that neither can be allowed to mock the other.
Or so it would be, were it not that it means neither can anyone mock anything. How so? Because there’s always someone who’s offended by his Precious being mocked. So if we subscribed to Rawls’ like-liberty-for-all principle, none of us would have any liberty at all!
In contrast to Rawls, Thomas Hobbes would have argued that we can say what we like provided it doesn’t threaten the peace. So we can mock Jesus, as we often do, but not the Prophet. But this won’t do either, and for the same reason. All it would take is a couple of ‘fatwas’ for dishonouring Jesus and we’d be back to the no-liberty-at-all we get with Rawls.
So the government of France has had no choice but to dig in its heels, and let the chips fall where they may. But one consequence of that intransigence is that the country’s Muslim minority is going to have to abandon a key element of its religion, namely intolerance of the dishonouring of the Prophet. And insofar as this intolerance is an ineliminable constituent of their religion, this amounts to saying that no, Muslims are not free to practice their religion in France.
Well, one might argue, turnabout is fair play. So if Islam can be illegal in a Christian country, why can’t Christianity be illegal in a Muslim one? It’s the same question, I suppose, as: if female excision can be illegal in Canada, why can’t the burqa be mandatory in Afghanistan? And so on.
Much as our progressivism might like it to be, laicite is not irreversible. It was adopted in France after the French Revolution, in Russia after its, in China, and so on. Ataturk insisted on it too in the foundation of the Turkish republic. But Turkey is well on its way to reverting back to an Islamic state.
The difficulty is that the birth rate among its Muslim population, if left unmatched, is threatening France with a Muslim majority by the end of the century. What, other than its Constitution, will ensure that it can’t follow the Turkish lead? Hence to characterize the xenophobia in France as racism is more than a tad unfair. Laicite is as central to French identity as honouring the Prophet is to Muslim identity. If one has the right to defend itself, why doesn’t the other?
So what we’re seeing in France is precisely what we should expect to see when two cultures collide. In the inimitable words of the soon-to-be-ex American President, “There are very fine people on both sides.”