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Social Philosophy

Ethnicity and Group Rights, Individual Liberties and Immoral Obligations

Heta Häyry

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ABSTRACT: Recent developments in biology have made it possible to acquire more and more precise information concerning our genetic makeup. There are four groups of people who may want to know about our genes. First, we ourselves can have an interest in being aware of own health status. Second, there are people who are genetically linked with us, and who can have an interest in the knowledge. Third, individuals with whom we have contracts and economic arrangements may have an interest in knowing about our genetic makeup. Fourth, society as a whole can have an interest in the composition of our genes. As regards the question of motivation, the term 'should' can be interpreted in three ways. Prudentially speaking, to say that individuals should act in a certain manner is to say that the actions in question promote the long-term self-interest of these individuals. From the viewpoint of morality, we should do what is right and avoid doing what is wrong. When it comes to legal thinking, it is held in most liberal societies that grave other-regarding harm should be the primary justification for the use of coercion and constraint. In the paper, all these aspects are examined in more detail.

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In multicultural Western societies more and more frequently members of ethnic minority groups behave and act in ways which the majority find 'different', 'strange' or 'alien', sometimes even 'irrational', 'threatening' or 'immoral'. Differences in action and behaviour range, for instance, from clothing and fashion accessories to the observance of religious holidays and the mutilation of the human body.

The question that I propose to address in this paper is: How should the majority respond to these differences? Should the reaction be tolerant and permissive? Or should it be cautious and restrictive? Should the majority hold that individuals are entitled to act as they wish unless their actions inflict harm on other people? Or should they think that ethnic groups as collectives have rights which ought not to be violated by constraints on the behaviour of their members?

The questions concerning the group rights of minorities have recently been discussed in considerable detail in the frameworks of communitarianism and deontological liberalism. However, the difficulty with these approaches is that they presuppose complicated and sometimes metaphysically and ideologically loaded accounts of liberty, personal identity and interpersonal relationships. I have therefore opted for a simpler and more accessible starting point. The basic tenets of my own normative approach are, first, that needless suffering should be avoided and - if possible without excessive cost - prevented, and second, that unnecessary restrictions of liberty should not be condoned by legislators and public policy-makers. When these two points are combined, the conclusion is that legal bans and invasive social policies are acceptable and fitting if and only if they can be expected to promote individual freedom or to prevent grave, avoidable harm and suffering.

This brief description of my view is, of course, incomplete. What is meant, for example, by 'excessive' costs, 'needless' suffering, 'unnecessary' restrictions and 'grave' harm? And how can losses of freedom be compared to instances of suffering, especially if one person's freedom is curtailed to prevent another person's suffering? Since there are no obvious solutions to these difficulties, and since no overall calculus of goods and evils can therefore be devised, each class of cases must be assessed separately, taking into account all the things which may have an impact on the acceptability of harm and constraint in different social and cultural environments. Although the principles stating that freedom ought to be cherished and suffering ought to be prevented are clear and sound in simple cases, the complexities of real-life moral problems call for careful analysis and reflection in situations where disagreement can be anticipated.

Two normative theses follow from my position in the context of behaviour which differs from the habits and customs of the majority. The first is that ethnic minorities do have a collective right of some sort to defend the civil liberties of their members. The second is that they do not have any right to impose immoral obligations upon their membership. Let us have a closer look at these points to find out what they mean and how far they can be extended.

The first thesis can be expressed in the following form: Ethnic minorities have a group right to defend their members who want to exercise their individual right to behave and to act in ways which differ from the behaviour and actions of the majority. A few specifications must be added to this formulation.

First, the collective right stipulated by the thesis is held primarily by all the members of the group, and secondarily by their chosen or accepted representatives. It is not necessary, nor desirable, to postulate collective metaphysical entities which can bear rights independently of their human components. Second, the right in question is most often a negative claim-right. By this I mean two things - that the members of minority groups are not forbidden to defend each others' civil liberties and that society as a whole has a duty not to interfere with this defence. Situations can occur where the majority has the additional positive duty to assist members of the minority with respect to their liberties, but this is only true when the non-observance of an ethnic habit would bring about grave suffering which cannot be prevented by other means within the prevailing rules and regulations. In such cases the members of the minority group have a positive claim-right to defend the rights of those who share their ethnic background or beliefs. Third, the members of the minority must observe the habits of their group voluntarily and autonomously. The voluntariness of choices will be discussed further in relation to my second thesis. The autonomy of decisions is necessary, because it would not be possible to defend, from the point of view I have assumed, habits which are not freely chosen by those who observe them. Fourth, the civil liberties of the individuals who belong to the ethnic minority are normally universal human rights, either negative claim-rights, which imply the corresponding duty of others not to interfere with their exercise, or positive claim-rights, which imply that at least the leaders of the ethnic group have a positive duty to assist the membership if their liberties are curtailed by the majority. Fifth, all the rights defined by the thesis - the civil liberties of the individuals and the group's right to defend them - are prima facie rights. Individuals and groups are entitled to their ethnic habits only if the exercise of the entitlement does not inflict grave suffering or serious restrictions of liberty on other human beings.

In terms of the obligations of the majority, the first thesis states that the members of the dominant group have a duty not to restrict the freedom of the minority when they wish to observe harmless ethnic habits. Furthermore, if constraints do exist and they inflict grave suffering on the minority, members of the majority have an obligation to oppose the restrictions.

My second thesis can be put as follows: Ethnic minorities do not have a group right to force or coerce their members into observing duties which are not required by the principles of liberty and the avoidance of suffering. According to my position, individuals can have three kinds of duties, namely, the duty not to inflict suffering on others, the duty not to restrict unnecessarily the freedom of others, and the duty not to breach voluntary, harmless contracts. This view has two implications.

The first is that individuals who have, of their own free will, joined a group which requires that its members observe harmless duties, can have a contractual obligation to act in ways specified by the group. This means, at least arguably, that the group has a collective right to enforce the duties their members have chosen for themselves. But ethnic groups are not voluntarily chosen by individuals, and this argument cannot therefore be employed to justify their claim for the enforcement of traditional habits and customs. Persuasion which does not amount to coercion is, of course, acceptable, since it cannot be condemned by my normative principles. But it would be wrong to force or to coerce people to act in ways which they themselves have not freely assumed.

The second implication of my view concerning duties is that nobody can have an obligation to violate the principles of liberty and the avoidance of suffering. Membership in a minority group does not alter this norm, and it is, therefore, not possible that ethnic groups could have a right to enforce such immoral obligations. On the contrary, it is everybody's duty to condemn habits which can be expected to bring about suffering and unwarranted restrictions of freedom.

With regard to the second thesis, the majority is permitted and even required to suppress harmful ethnic folkways. The license and the obligation to do so is limited only by the demands of equality and fairness. The majority should not consider the habits of minority groups intrinsically more harmful than their own behaviour patterns.

A conservative member of the majority is likely to argue, at this point, that my first thesis is false - ethnic minorities are not entitled to defend their members who want to behave in ways which the majority find different from their own. The reasoning behind the view could be that a homogeneous society provides the best foundation for human flourishing, even in terms of individual liberties and the avoidance of suffering. Although coercion can be too blunt an instrument for the pursuit of social conformity, all other methods that are available should be employed to eradicate cultural diversity.

Three normative conclusions seem to follow from the conservative view. First, members of the majority cannot have a duty to protect the habits of the minority, since conformity is, in the end, the best alternative for everybody. Second, members of the majority cannot even have an obligation not to interfere with behaviour that they consider strange, since they can have no duty to allow harm. And third, even if individuals who belong to ethnic minorities are probably licensed to advocate their own views, society as a whole may still attempt to root them out by education and by the pressure of public opinion.

The classical defence of the view that I have assumed against conservatism was presented by John Stuart Mill in his essay On Liberty. Although Mill trusted the opinions of the majority in questions of social morality, he believed that the personal conduct of individuals should not be lightly interfered with, and he pointed out that no genuine harm can be inflicted on others by the observance of habits which are not accepted by the majority. As he put the matter: 'There are many who consider as an injury to themselves any conduct which they have a distaste for, and resent it as an outrage to their feelings; as a religious bigot, when charged with disregarding the religious feelings of others, has been known to retort that they disregard his feelings, by persisting in their abominable worship or creed. But there is no parity between the feeling of a person for his own opinion, and the feeling of another who is offended at his holding it; no more than between the desire of a thief to take a purse, and the desire of the right owner to keep it. And a person's taste is as much his own peculiar concern as his opinion or his purse.' Applied to the present context, Mill's argument states that the only detectable injury inflicted by the observance of ethnic habits is on the feelings of righteous conservatives. But since people who are annoyed by the behaviour of others do not have the right to have their feelings taken into account in moral or legal calculations, the habits in question cannot be regarded as truly harmful to the members of the majority.

What, then, about the harm that can be inflicted on the minority by seemingly harmless folkways? Is conformity, as some conservatives would maintain, conducive to the greatest happiness overall, and therefore the best option to minorities and majorities alike? This question cannot be adequately answered in terms of utility, because it is impossible to predict with any accuracy the consequences of wide-ranging political decisions. It is possible, however, to defend my view by other considerations.

The liberal approach first advocated by Mill is unique in one important respect. It is the only public morality which explicitly rejects the possibility of forcing its way into citizens' private lives by legal sanctions. All other moralities are totalitarian in the sense that they demand all people to behave uniformly even in matters which concern only or mainly themselves. The attraction of these other moralities is that many of us would like to see our own beliefs elevated to the status of universal laws. But the situation is different when it comes to other people's views.

This is where the Millian model demonstrates its strength. Although there are few persons who would consider the respect for other people's habits the best policy, most individuals have to agree that it is the second best alternative, preferable to the supremacy of any other ideology except their own. And as the second best option for everybody, non-interventionist policies rank higher than conformist attempts to suppress the habits of the minorities.

Another objection against my view is communitarian, and it states that my second thesis is false. Moral duties, so the argument goes, are defined by the beliefs and values which prevail in the community. Individuals, who are members of an ethnic minority group, have an obligation to observe the habits recognized by the group. The group in its turn has the right and sometimes a duty to enforce its morality among the membership. Since many moral requirements made by traditional communities are distinctly not liberal, my second thesis, so the argument continues, is false, and ethnic minorities do, after all, have a group right to coerce or to force their members into observing duties which are not devised to enhance liberty or to prevent suffering.

The alleged communitarian right to enforce traditional moralities rests on the assumption that the members of ethnic groups are duty-bound to act in ways defined by the beliefs and customs of their group. But this assumption is not necessarily valid.

Some of the duties dictated by ethnic traditions can restrict the freedom of choice of individuals and inflict severe suffering on them. The strictest proponents of the communitarian view should maintain that even these duties can be justifiably enforced by ethnic minorities. But what would this mean in real life?

One thing that it could mean is this. Imagine that one morning a man you have never seen in your life knocks on your door, and when you let him in informs you that he wants to pull out all your teeth without anaesthesia. The reason he gives for this extraordinary wish is that, unbeknownst to you, you belong to the ethnic group called Gumsuckers, and it is their - that is, your - time-honoured habit to liberate their members from their dental equipment when they reach a certain age. If you refuse, the man tells you, your teeth will be removed anyway and, in addition, your house will be burned down.

I believe that, even leaving on one side the tenets of my view, most reasonable people would think that the man at your door is criminally insane, and should be locked up, the sooner the better. But according to the strictest version of the communitarian view he has every right to coerce you into complying, which, I believe, is wrong.

More moderate readings of the communitarian objection have their difficulties, too. If people are coerced into doing what they do not want to do, constraint and suffering are always involved. It is therefore conceptually untenable to argue that ethnic minorities have a collective right to enforce harmless duties. Besides, why should individuals have an obligation to observe traditional customs only because they have been born as members of an ethnic group? Apart from the religious idea that we should obey those who have created us - God or our parents - no good reasons can be given to back the doctrine.

When my view is applied to cases where suffering is inflicted on non-consenting individuals for the sake of ethnic traditions, the normative conclusions are quite clear. Take, for instance, the mutilation of children's sexual organs for religious or cultural reasons - male or female circumcision. In these procedures pain and anguish are inflicted on innocent human beings for no therapeutic or other legitimate reason, and this should obviously be condemned. Furthermore, in many forms of female circumcision the harmful consequences of the operation follow the individual throughout her life, which makes the tradition doubly censurable.

If, on the other hand, reasonably informed adult human beings freely engage in activities which may involve constraint and suffering but only for themselves, their actions should not normally be interfered with. There are exceptions to this permissive policy, most notably in cases where the individuals in question are under the undue influence of others. But when the degree of external influence is assessed, it is important to make impartial judgements. If members of the dominant group accept cosmetic surgery in the context of rejuvenation, they are hardly in a position to criticize body piercing or other forms of minor self-mutilation for cultural reasons.

Even more complicated judgements are called for when it comes to ethnic habits which do not directly harm either the individuals who observe them or others, but which can, indirectly, inflict considerable suffering on many human beings in the future. The Islamic rule which demands that Muslim women wear a veil is a case in point. The veil in itself does not physically hurt those who wear them, and the outraged feelings of outsiders are irrelevant to the issue. There are, however, more subtle considerations which demonstrate that the practice should be banned on account of indirectly inflicted harm.

Traditions which are not directly harmful can, nonetheless, produce future suffering by promoting inequality, oppression and violence within limited communities or within society at large. The separation of women and men by rigid dress codes does exactly this by excluding women from the sphere of public decision-making and by enabling their fathers, brothers and husbands to control their lives regardless of their own autonomous choices. There are, to be sure, women who lead happy lives behind the veil. But as long as the dress code is obligatory, there are also women who suffer from the inequalities supported, if not created, by the tradition. For their sake, and for the sake of greater liberty and justice, all ancient religious habits which are indirectly harmful, ought to be condemned and eradicated.

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