The soft liberalism of Charles Taylor and its limits

Publisher: Laterza
Pages: 136
Price: €14,00

Charles Taylor’s latest book available in Italian is entitled “La scommessa del laico”, co-authored with Jocelyn Maclure and published by Laterza (2013). In this book he distinguishes between laicity and secularisation. The State must pursue laicity without promoting secularisation (pg. 13). Unable to do so, in his mind, is the “republican” model followed in France, while the liberal-democratic model applied in Quebec, where Taylor lives, succeeds in respecting this distinction. The republican model succumbs to the temptation to turn laicity into the secular equivalent of religion (pg. 10), replacing it with a lay moral philosophy (pgs. 11-12), a sort of civic religion. Conversely, the liberal-democratic model maintains neutrality towards all religions and all philosophies. Nonetheless, it does not consider itself neutral with respect to the duty to guarantee the equality of all citizens and their freedom of conscience (pgs. 14-15) in order to ensure peaceful civic coexistence.

The difference between these two models becomes even clearer when Taylor sets the principles of laicity, distinguishing them from the means. The principles are equal respect for all and freedom of conscience, while the means are the separation between church and State and the neutrality of the State (pg. 18). The republican system risks emphasizing the means over the principles, and often does so either to insist on emancipation or to foster integration (pg. 28). In this manner it ends up prohibiting the wearing of a veil in classrooms in order to guarantee the neutrality of the State (which, however, is a means), thereby going against freedom of conscience (which would be the end).

Conversely, the liberal-democratic model abides strictly by the principles but is flexible regarding the means. If a certain country has a calendar of annual holidays descending from a religious culture such as the Christian one, it is absurd to want to cancel it by just wiping out everything: that would be an example of Jacobin fetishism of means (pg. 28). It is much wiser to foresee the possibility of reasonable accommodations, reasonable exceptions: for example, grant time off from work for those of other religions so they may attend to their religious obligations. In this case, attenuated is a means (the neutrality of the Sate)to the advantage of the end (freedom of conscience).

This same concept may be explained – argues Taylor – by distinguishing the two senses of the word “public” (pgs. 36-39). One concerns the State and the institutions qualified as ‘public’; for example public offices, public schools. The other sense concerns the ambit of public opinion and the free manifestation of one’s ideas. Understood when the wearing of the veil is prohibited in classrooms is the first sense, thinking that ‘the public’ must remain neutral, but such a provision is in open conflict with ‘public’ in the second sense, that being the space of the free expression of personal life projects.

The way proposed by this book consists in equitable and reasonable accommodations: permission for those who embrace other religions to work on Sunday and abstain from work on other days, or things like that. Naturally enough, accommodations of this nature should also be granted not only on religious grounds, but also to permit people to pursue their own orientations of secular life. A vegetarian going to school or serving time in prison has a right to eat vegetables, just as a Jew has the right to eat kosher food. Arising here, however, is the problem of distinguishing preferences, tastes or desires from life projects or reference frameworks. Is being a “vegan” nothing more a preference or desire, or is it a reference framework as well? The book cannot fail to acknowledge the extreme vagueness of these confines, and hence the possibility of an endless proliferation of requests for compensatory measures by the State. This could well increase the number of those who think just the opposite; that is to say, what has been democratically decided can leave no room for exceptions.

Coming to the surface in such elements is the weakness of Taylor’s proposal. In fact, it contemplates no grounds for granting – as reasonable accommodation – abortion or homosexual marriage. And therefore, why not paedophilia or polygamy as well? These as well could but not just desires but also expressions of life reference frameworks, which, as such, deserve compensatory measures on the part of the State.