Enlightenment and the burka ban

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 22 July 2016

Ikantf you are German, it is a little tricky to talk about one of Germany’s greatest philosophers. At least if you’re talking about him in English.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), whose surname really should be pronounced like a similarly sounding English swearword, is not one of the easiest philosophers to read. His sentences are long, his thoughts complicated. Fortunately, he lived before the invention of Twitter.

Why do I mention Kant? Well, because I thought of his most famous legacy in the context of one of our upcoming events, the Next Generation Debates 2016.

On Monday 15 August, two student debating teams will face each other on the moot ‘This house would ban religious symbols in public’. The event will be hosted at Auckland University’s Business School, and expert commentary will be provided by Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy and former TV journalist Lindsay Perigo.

So what is the link to Kant? Well, even if you know next to nothing about his philosophy, you may have heard about Kant’s categorical imperative. In its simplest form, it states “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”

When it comes to religious symbols in public, it is not hard to guess what Kant would have said. Kant would not object to people choosing to display religious symbols in public as long they allowed others the same right to display their own symbols if they wish to.

But is it really that simple? What about religious subcultures that prescribe clothing rules which members of their community may find impossible to ignore for fear of being socially shunned otherwise? What about members of society who feel confronted by the sight of, say, a burka and regard it as a symbol of oppression?

Banning religious symbols may be incompatible with the values of a free society. But does that mean that all religious symbols are automatically compatible with it?

For our student debaters, this will be a tricky topic to handle. We look forward to an enlightening debate.

By the way, according to Kant enlightenment is “man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity.”

Which probably means there will be much to talk about. Please join us for this event.

‘This house would ban religious symbols in public’ will be the moot of this year’s Auckland semi-final of the Initiative’s Next Generation Debates 2016. The event will be held on 15 August at the Auckland Business School. To hear our student debating teams and expert commentators Dame Susan Devoy and Lindsay Perigo, please register here.

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