Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Private and Public Morals in the EU: A Third Post on Buttiglione

I wanted to add something to the two previous posts by Srdjan and Lorenzo by considering a little more closely Buttiglione's "Kantian" defence - his claim that, in a nutshell, although he viewed homosexuality as a sin, he would put his private morals to one side in the exercise of his public function. I must confess to finding Buttiglione's recourse to this defence a little confusing on a number of counts; I do not, however, agree with Lorenzo's point that he used it in a disingenuous manner, or that his previous conduct in the public sphere somehow meant that it could no longer apply to him.

The defence is summed up by Kant in his minor but signifcant essay "What is Enlightenment" in 1784 (see here for one of the numerous translations available on the web). In it, he inverts what we would now look upon as the normal definitions of public and private use of reason (or morality), but the general sense of what he is saying, and why Buttiglione felt it was relevant to him, seem clear. Allow me to quote, at some length, the most relevant section of the essay:

The public use of one's reason must always be free, and it alone can bring about enlightenment among mankind; the private use of reason may, however, often be very narrowly restricted, without otherwise hindering the progress of enlightenment. By the public use of one's own reason I understand the use that anyone as a scholar makes of reason before the entire literate world. I call the private use of reason that which a person may make in a civic post or office that has been entrusted to him. Now in many affairs conducted in the interests of a community, a certain mechanism is required by means of which some of its members must conduct themselves in an entirely passive manner so that through an artificial unanimity the government may guide them toward public ends, or at least prevent them from destroying such ends. Here one certainly must not argue, instead one must obey. However, insofar as this part of the machine also regards himself as a member of the community as a whole, or even of the world community, and as a consequence addresses the public in the role of a scholar, in the proper sense of that term, he can most certainly argue, without thereby harming the affairs for which as a passive member he is partly responsible. Thus it would be disastrous if an officer on duty who was given a command by his superior were to question the appropriateness or utility of the order. He must obey. But as a scholar he cannot be justly constrained from making comments about errors in military service, or from placing them before the public for its judgment. The citizen cannot refuse to pay the taxes imposed on him; indeed, impertinent criticism of such levies, when they should be paid by him, can be punished as a scandal (since it can lead to widespread insubordination). But the same person does not act contrary to civic duty when, as a scholar, he publicly expresses his thoughts regarding the impropriety or even injustice of such taxes. Likewise a pastor is bound to instruct his catecumens and congregation in accordance with the symbol of the church he serves, for he was appointed on that condition. But as a scholar he has complete freedom, indeed even the calling, to impart to the public all of his carefully considered and well-intentioned thoughts concerning mistaken aspects of that symbol, as well as his suggestions for the better arrangement of religious and church matters. Nothing in this can weigh on his conscience. What he teaches in consequence of his office as a servant of the church he sets out as something with regard to which he has no discretion to teach in accord with his own lights; rather, he offers it under the direction and in the name of another. He will say, "Our church teaches this or that and these are the demonstrations it uses." He thereby extracts for his congregation all practical uses from precepts to which he would not himself subscribe with complete conviction, but whose presentation he can nonetheless undertake, since it is not entirely impossible that truth lies hidden in them, and, in any case, nothing contrary to the very nature of religion is to be found in them. If he believed he could find anything of the latter sort in them, he could not in good conscience serve in his position; he would have to resign.

The reason, then why I don't see Buttiglione's use of this argument as disingenuous, at least in the sense used by Lorenzo, is that, according to Kant, his actions as a scholar should be unfettered (to the extent, at least, that they are carefully considered and well-intentioned). It therefore does not matter what he has done in the past in general, only his actions when performing some civic function assigned to him. Likewise, I am unconvinced by the suggestion that the Papal magisterium is "public" in the relevant sense; the fact that it is widespread and in the publci domain does not mean that it cannot, does not form part of the private majority of a great many people.

Buttiglione was, then, for me, was not in some way "barred" from invoking this distinction. Despite the fact that it was drawn first by Kant, however, this cannot be the end of the matter. Buttiglione's reference to Kant does seem strange if we consider it in the broader context of what he is trying to defend: the non-negotiable categorisation of a widespread way of life as fundamentally wrong, on the basis of what someone else (the Pope) has said. This strikes me as the very antithesis of Kantian enlightenment/maturity, the project upon which the distinction is founded, and thus introduces an ironic note, at the very least, to Buttiglione's pleadings.

Secondly, although the public/private (or private/public) distinction is indeed central to many of the freedoms that we hold dear, I would suggest that no-one could seriously argue that it must be absolute. There is, as always, a question of where to draw the line. Would we allow an openly racist politician to become Commisioner for Justice and Home Affairs (an important brief)? I strongly suspect not; and yet I have difficult in seeing any morally significant difference between those who think blacks are inferior and those who think that homosexuals are an abomination. Certainly, within the ethical framework as developed in the EU, in which discrimination on the grounds of race or sexual orientation are both banned, there is none. It is thus, to my mind, quite correct that the democratically elected European Parliament chooses where to draw that particular line.

Thirdly, and relatedly, Kant's argument makes no reference to the fact that these official duties are not somehow self-executing. Within the field of human rights and discrimination in particular, political leaders are constantly called upon to make judgements that entail often a very wide degree of discretion. To this end, it seems right and proper that Buttiglione made clear his opinions on these sensitive issues; I for one am keen to know the directions in which those in positions of power (and whom, theoretically at least, are accountable to me) are going to exercise their discretion. It is also, however, as i have just argued, perfectly right and proper that the Parliament decided that this was unacceptable. In this sense at least, both are to be applauded.

Lastly, Kant himself made it clear that this public/private distinction was not applicable in all situations: consider the last few lines of the passage quoted above. It strikes me as incredible that someone with beliefs as strong and deeply-rooted as Buttiglione on the issue of homosexuality would feel that his duties as Commissioner for Justice, in which he would be responsible for the facilitation and even encouragement of a practice that he viewed as morally reprehensible,"could in good conscience serve in his position". In which case, the Kantian response is clear. He must resign. Buttiglione, however, anticipated this objection; he noted in a letter to Barroso that he didn't expect any conflict to arise, but, if it were to, then he would ask to be exonerated from making the judgement in question, and to be substituted by one of his colleagues. This, however, strikes me as unacceptable for a number of reasons. Firstly, as inaccurate: how could conflicts not arise, not just regularly, but constantly? Not that we expect him to be dealing with a different particular case of homophobic discrimination every day, but rather that, in executing his functions, he will be responsible for the creation of law and the development of an ethos that will undoubtedly impact upon issues of sexual orientation discrimination. Secondly, if the first is rejected, it must be so on the grounds that he will have a wide range of discretion to apply European legal standards in a manner that does not conflict with his conscience; in which case, I refer back to my argument of the previous paragraph. Thirdly, as impractical: who should decide? Buttiglione? Barroso? Those affected by the decision? Any such arrangement would risk leaving the commissioner as something of a lame duck - a fact not lost on MEPs in rejecting Barroso's proposal to take certain sensitive decisions away from Buttiglione's remit.

My take on the whole affair, then, is as follows: I'm glad that Buttiglione made his views on these matters clear, and I'm glad that the European Parliament rejected him and them. It is not difficult, nor dishonest, to characterise this as a victory for democracy, at least in part; although it would be superficial to trumpet that to the exclusion of all other important factors. Perhaps most significantly, it strikes me as a timely reminder of just how misleading the discourse of tolerance is - and how often it can slip into hypocrisy on both sides: Buttiglione is accused of being intolerant of homosexuals, and then complains in return that others are intolerant of him. Best, I think, to recall that when we say "I accept you because I am tolerant", what we mean is "I accept you because you are tolerable". The important aim of increasing the range of the tolerable must always, if it is to be honest, be accompanied by the difficult task of delimiting the boundaries of the intolerable.

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