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2013 Fall Issue 3 (October 11, 2013)

Renowned Professor of Law and Ethics Examines Ban of Burka with Philosophy

October 11, 2013
By Ben Strauss

How can we view social injustice issues through Socrates’ principles? Renowned scholar an University of Chicago professor Martha Nussbaum investigated this question through an examination of society’s efforts to ban the burka. Namely, she praised the liberal arts’ approach to social injustices, because the liberal arts are a “cultivation of the sympathetic imagination.”

According to Nussbaum, the liberal arts education instills “an awareness of some important philosophical principles that have shaped our legal tradition through a Socratic commitment to searching self-examination and the fair treatment of similar cases.”

Nussbaum began her philosophical examination of the burka ban with the generally accepted assumption that “all humans are of equal dignity and governments must treat that dignity with equal respect.” The ability to believe and outwardly express religious practice represents an integral part of that human dignity.

Some have argued for banning the burka, because security requires people to show their face.  However, those people do not also argue that people who cover themselves for warmth in a cold winter represent a security threat, violating Locke’s logic of equal standards

“(The burka ban is) over inclusive, burdening lots of peaceful and harmless people, and under inclusive failing to ban lots of clothes that criminals might wear,” Nussbaum said.

Others have argued that the burka removes the transparency necessary for interactions between citizens. However, the eyes or even the voice can provide enough contact between individuals to establish their individuality.

“People often have difficulty talking to people who look different and there is an unfortunate human tendency to blame that on the person who looks different rather than on oneself,” said Nussbaum.

Many people also have argued that women only wear the burka, because their parents coerced them.

“There’s nothing more common in the modern American family than various pressures to get into a top college, to date people of the right religion or ethnicity, to wear appropriate clothes and so on,” Nussbaum said. The burka just represents another one of these pressures.

More than just Socratic examination, people must cultivate the imagination, because a sympathetic imagination leads people to consistent and informed beliefs.

Her words spread over a chapel packed with students and faculty who are all committed to cultivating such Socratic reflection and imagination.

“Her convocation address demonstrated the difference between toleration, acceptance, and the imposition of one’s ideals on others, a distinction that everyone should understand,” said Marika O’Connor Grant ‘14.

“The way that Prof. Nussbaum engaged with this topic beautifully illustrated the importance, both for our own lives and for the health of our polity, of cultivating the skills of critical reflection and rational analysis that are the hallmark of a liberal arts education in general and a humanities education in particular (and a philosophy education in particular!),” said Professor Daniel Groll.

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