Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Lancer de Nains II

On the Volokh Conspiracy, guest-blogger Neomi Rao has a series of posts about different concepts of dignity. In today's post, she discusses the Conseil d'√Čtat's dwarf tossing case:

In a much-discussed French case, Mr. Wackenheim, a dwarf, made his living by allowing himself to be thrown for sport. The mayors of several cities banned dwarf tossing events. Mr. Wackenheim challenged the orders on the grounds that they interfered with his economic liberty and right to earn a living. The case went to the Conseil d’Etat (the supreme administrative court), which upheld the bans on the grounds that dwarf throwing affronted human dignity, which was part of the “public order” controlled by the municipal police. The Wackenheim case demonstrates how a substantive understanding of dignity can be used to coerce individuals by forcing upon them a particular understanding of dignity irrespective of their individual choices.

European politicians have presented similar justifications for banning the burqa or full veil. French President Sarkozy has supported the ban because the burqa “runs counter to women’s dignity.” In Spain a legislator called the burqa a “degrading prison.” The debate focuses little on what Muslim women think about the full veil or why some of them wear it in public. Instead of associating dignity with religious choice, those who would ban the veil treat dignity as a different social ideal—one that measures up to majority standards of individual self-expression.
The issue is not whether laws prohibiting dwarf throwing, burqa wearing, prostitution, or pornography may be desirable social policy. Rather these examples demonstrate that the conception of dignity used to defend such policies is not that of human agency and freedom of choice, but rather represents a particular moral view of what dignity requires. These laws do not purport to maximize individual freedom, but instead regulate how individuals must behave in order to maintain dignity (and in the case of criminal prohibitions, stay out of jail).

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