Thursday, March 03, 2005

School uniform and human rights

For a liberal I have a surprising number of doubts about the concept of human rights. Yesterday's case involving Shabina Begum has helped to crystallise them.

I am not so much interested in the details of the case, though it is worth pointing out that this is not a case of a young Muslim woman being forced to wear traditional dress by community elders (as Western liberals tend to assume happens) but rather of her demanding it with great energy and resourcefulness.

What interests and worries me is the idea that an appeal to human rights can be used to settle a case like this.

There are good arguments for school uniform in terms of corporate spirit and the avoidance of bullying over fashionable labels. There are good arguments against in terms of individualism. When I was a primary school governor in the 1980s the school did not have a uniform and I was happy to defend this because I had been to such a primary school myself. Today I might well take the opposite view.

For this is just the sort of question which does not have a single right answer as it involves reconciling two desirable but conflicting ideals. Different people of good will, different families and different communities will strike the balance in a different place. It seems odd to believe that any position can be shown to be irrational or morally wrong.

Part of the problem may be the left's distrust of choice and diversity in education. If you want a monolithic State-run system of schooling then I suppose you do have to have a universal policy on uniform. But it seems far better to have a diverse system and let parents and pupils choose the sort of school that they feel most comfortable with.

I also worry about the status of these rights that are appealed to. Although they are given a quasi-religious aura, when you look into it you find they were drawn up by a committee of the great and good. So the appeal to rights, which at first sounds liberal and radical, can easily become instead the assertion that important people have looked at this question in the past and we have no business questioning their conclusions. It is hard to imagine any argument less radical than that.

Appealing to rights in this way can also undermine our faith in our own moral judgement. I suppose you could say "Fancy that, school uniform has been immoral all along." But it seems to me more compelling to say that if the set of rights we have drawn up rule out a well-accepted practice like requiring pupils to wear a uniform then there is something wrong with that set of rights.

After all, good liberals have read Karl Popper and believe that in politics and science to be rational is to be prepared to amend your theories in the light of experience. Why should ethics be any different? As these rights are human artefacts, we must accept that they may be less than perfect. And what can show they are less than perfect other than their leading to conclusions we find questionable?

Perhaps the last word should go to my old philosophy professor, Ronald Atkinson, at York. After my tutorial partner had read out an essay struggling with the idea of human rights he said something like:
It is tempting to support the idea of human rights if it makes people behave better to one another, but if, as philosophers, we think they are nonsense, it will probably be better in the long run if we say so.
I think he was right, but I am in a tiny minority among my liberal friends.

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