A tradition of moral reflection from Shaftesbury in the eighteenth century to Meinong, Scheler, and Scotsman W. D. Ross in the twentieth, defends a realist theory of values claiming that humans have ready access to discrete, extra-mental value-tones: e.g. if I say `peach’ you now have the taste and smell of a peach clear to your mind, and not that of a lemon. We can replicate this value tone in lip balm, soda, and even gin, once we have distilled it into a chemical formula. Morals have a similar value standing: if I tell you a story about how I met a benefactor or about a civil chat I had with a man on a train whose conversation suddenly flashed with malice, you have clear to mind a range of value tones that make these encounters comprehensible.
This theory can claim heritage in heritage in Plato and Aquinas but the Earl of Shaftesbury speaks for them all, writing: “there is a power in numbers, harmony, proportion and beauty of every kind, which naturally captivates the heart and raises the imagination to an opinion or conceit of something majestic and divine.” These thinkers believe that civilisations exist to ensure the refinement of human persons and refinement requires deference to the range of moral, aesthetic, and technical values acknowledged to stand above us. Burke is perhaps the most eloquent proponent of the theory and, as I have shown, Merleau-Ponty concedes the point in his account of flash as “lace-works.”
A contemporary of Merleau-Ponty (d. 1961), Albert Camus often spoke of his love of swimming in the Mediterranean Sea. Hyper aware of France’s complicated relationship with the Arab world, it would be fascinating to know how Camus (d. 1960) would have reacted to the recent burkini ban on the French Riviera. What of Merleau-Ponty? Can we draw a link between the “close-woven fabric of the true world” (VI, 6) and France’s new sumptuary law?
The burkini is an example of “modest wear.” To many Muslims, the bikini is immodest. Can a metaphysics of morals help adjudicate? If we grant that Merleau-Ponty provides a careful phenomenology of the body, then flesh seems immodest. Here are a few examples of his descriptions: flesh is “a perpetual pregnancy,” “a common nervure” which “by a promiscuity” piles up objects of experience encroaching upon one another: this occurs “because a sort of dehiscence opens my body in two” (VI, 115, 118, 123) making my body “be spread out on display” (VI, 119).
This language in a philosophical treatise in the `60’s must have made for startling reading but now the matter is a serious moral dispute with real consequences for the functioning of French society. I do not want to focus on the jarring images of police ham-fistedly trying to impose the ban literally on the beaches or the patently false claim from the Muslim head of the UN Commission on Human Rights that the burkini has nothing to do with matters of “public order.” No one can accept that clothes and how you style yourself has no meaning or is a matter of cultural indifference.
The beach scenes coming from France are an example of biopolitics. I want to assess the justice of the sumptuary law and whether M&S is right to sell the burkini. Stated more broadly, is there such a thing as a national brand and, in consequence, is such a business morally obliged to support its particular civilization? Believing the answer “yes,” the socialist government of France has criticized M&S. My contention in this book is that a metaphysics of morals can help with our contemporary moral problems. Thus, to inquire whether gravid flesh is immodest is to inquire into the moral standing of the burkini and a business plan that makes it possible.
“In her view what she wears is her own business – and no one else’s, a right she thinks that should be enjoyed by all women everywhere.” This quote ends a recent NYT article on the burkini and expresses the view of a Muslim woman wanting to wear a burkini.
Putting religion to the side, let’s just assess the truth of this statement. It is clearly false. Were I to walk into a new class wearing a Star Trek bodysuit and in all seriousness start to teach, that would be an issue. I’d look awful, but even if I did look like Jim Kirk, it would still be an issue. Students would rightly think I was not serious-minded and likely would even feel that I was imposing upon their generosity far too much. Quite apart from food and safety regulations, the costumes for the games we play, the professions that require dress-ups, and modesty laws, there is a large array of social norms requiring dress compliance: funerals, Black Tie, Girls’ Night Out, First Communion, meeting the in-laws for the first time, etc.
There is a hideous song by Miley Cyrus “We Can’t Stop” containing the line “it’s my mouth I’ll say what I want to.” Again, this is simply false. It is as much false if you are on university grounds as it is at the local car parts shop.
What about business: “we’ll sell what we want to?” Does that ring any more true? Marks & Spencer’s has recently been criticized by the women’s rights minister of the ruling French socialist government for investing in the “Islamic garment market.”
Pierre Bergé, long time partner of legend Yves Saint Laurent, has this to say:
“Creators should have nothing to do with Islamic fashion. Designers are there to make women more beautiful, to give them their freedom, not to collaborate with this dictatorship which imposes this abominable thing by which we hide women and make them live a hidden life.”
Bergé is the very definition of the Establishment and his dense statement makes reference to a number of values and disvalues. A full unpacking of these values would take some time but Western fashion defers to beauty, liberty, visibility, and mobility. Let’s take this from Bergé’s statement: the burkini is no part of the trajectory of Western fashion. As a piece of clothing, there is nothing playful about the Burkini, it is not ornamental, nor does it have panache. Designed to obscure flesh, it is a decapitation. The vitalism of skin occluded by angelism: the body taken up unreservedly into divine law (univocity). Bergé thinks the burkini and dictatorship go hand-in-hand and, as we saw in the Introduction, Przywara does show how decapitation serves tyranny.
Let’s take it as uncontroversial that there are national brands: James Bond, Aston Martin, Burberry, Mulberry, Ferrari, Hermès, Cucinelli, and, amongst so many others, that staple of the British high street, M&S. Is a national brand obliged to affirm the values sustaining its own civilization?
Amongst political options, it’s likely libertarians and conservatives who struggle most with this question. The liberal humanitarian will surely think M&S must sell the burkini as part of its CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) obligation to globalism, and specifically British multiculturalism. For the liberal humanitarian, national obligations makes no sense.
Libertarians are allergic to CSR. They deny that social justice obligations are implied by property holding, preferring the claim that holding property in business is for the sake of making money and it is entirely at the discretion of property owners how they then spend that money. However, many libertarians will also recognize that this view of property is a legacy of long philosophical and legal meditation and will get nervous when a staple of the British high street like M&S departs so significantly from Western fashion. Libertarians are not insensitive to the idea that a culture broadly committed to riches, vanity, fashion, and autonomy helps sustain a robust account of property rights.
Conservatives, meanwhile, are faced with a very sticky wicket. They don’t much care for CSR as typically expressed but do have their own variants, linked perhaps to virtue theory (MacIntyre), distributism (Scheler), or CST (Catholic Social Thought), and so unlike libertarians do strongly believe that businesses have all manner of ethical obligations. Unlike the humanitarian liberal, however, they will think M&S has an obligation to support those values that have long sustained the company. Moreover, the appeal of the burkini to the value of modesty will not be lost on the conservative. The puzzle is whether a modesty claim quite outside the trajectory of Western fashion is acceptable. We must also examine whether the bikini is immodest.
Burke argues that the institutional life of a nation must follow the “method of nature” if it is to be happy and successful. Burke did not think that the arc of history bends towards justice and instead worried about the fragility of civilization. He preferred thinking of the polity as “the original plant.” This gardening motif makes politics a careful cultivation of an inheritance. Retaining their identity, plants nonetheless change to suit the season and so must politics: stewardship is not the same as embalming rigidity but nor does it experiment with fundamental, sweeping change, for this would be to treat “the original plant” as no better than a weed. Politics must operate with deference to the contours of the plants and how they shape the garden (the theological warrant for this idea can be found in Dante’s Eternal Gardener).
Politics functions in “the spirit of philosophic analogy” and along the lines of the garden motif is politics as “family settlement.” Institutions change, they have a history, but they also have stable coordinates in space and time. Like a family, an institution will have a past (history), present (place), and future (trajectory). In the natural world, creatures thrive by balancing inheritance, territory, and reproduction. Families and institutions are the same. Note that Burke uses analogy in the sense Przywara does: politics is suspended across past, present, and future. Note, too, how this meets Merleau-Ponty’s goal of embodiment as neither univocal nor equivocal: the “natal pact” (PP, 6) of world and mind. A political act modeled on flesh is never an adequation to itself for it is always deference to an inheritance it did not make and is in service to a future it cannot manage.
The very idea of a brand, especially a national brand, expresses an inheritance. In “business-speak,” that is a company’s DNA and sometimes it coincidences quite literally with family DNA (this is true of Ford and Toyota, and Fendi and Cucinelli, to name just a few businesses with abiding family connections). This inheritance is also a place: a brand has a geography. Companies need to think about logistics, risk, environment, materials, personnel, capital, and design precisely because they have geographical identities. For these reasons, M&S is Western, and as Pierre Bergé points out, being Western means to defer to a particular cluster of values – aesthetic, political, moral, and technical; these being the inner bearings of a brand’s trajectory.
Brands have become unstuck before, precisely by losing sight of their value geography. The burkini is a decapitation and unsurprisingly M&S’s desire to profit from the “modest wear” market is a decapitation. Appetite for profit without deference to Establishment is no longer a posture of distance. The burkini is divine law without reserve (idea and univocity) and M&S is unrestrained appetite for profit (vitalism and equivocity). The burkini is a modesty claim, but not a moral one.
Perhaps it is not a moral claim because a bikini is not, in fact, immodest? Is flesh itself immodest? The bikini meets the definition of “lace works,” its glamour playing quite literally with the visible and invisible. The bikini not only makes flesh visible but it toys with the invisible, a fabric of gravid suspension; it gestures to fertility, to family. Playing on the Biblical sense of know, Merleau-Ponty speaks of the spousal look: “The look, we said, envelops, palpates, espouses the visible things. As though it were in a relation of pre-established harmony with them, as though it knew them before knowing them” (VI, 133). The hand that touches “espouses” (VI, 141; PP, 4 and 18) the world with family the undertow of marriage and body: “If it touches them and sees them, this is only because, being of their family, itself visible and tangible, it uses its own being as a means to participate in theirs, because each of the two beings is an archetype for the other” (VI, 137).
Merleau-Ponty has recourse to marriage and family to explain concrete experience – mind filled with discrete object-contents. It is to these institutions that Mearleau-Ponty turns to explain the pre-established harmony of world and mind, to explain how it is that I experience and act upon the world at all. Experience and action bows to pregnancy, my sovereignty is invaginated because marriage and family is the Establishment writ into flesh. Speech puts its seal on pregnancy (mind and world) but in speech (action) the subject “also sets himself up as delocutary, speech of which one speaks: he offers himself and offers every word to a universal Word” (VI, 154). Pregnancy is always seminal, compelling: the gardener deferential to “the living plant.” The rituals of gardening obey,
…that λοϒος that pronounces itself silently in each sensible thing, inasmuch as it varies around a certain type of message, which we can have an idea of only through our carnal participation in its sense, only by espousing by our body its manner of “signifying” – or of that λοϒος uttered whose internal structure sublimates our carnal relation with the world” (VI, p. 208).
As Kolnai points out, philosophical positions ultimately come down to where emphasis is placed and this chapter closes with Merleau-Ponty a moderate realist, putting emphasis upon a meaningful world (value tones) to which we and establishment witness and give testimony. Indeed, we and establishment are flesh, a doubling: whether in Black Tie at the opera or playing on the beach in a bikini our lives are a posture of distance, liturgical.
 A. A. Cooper, Third Earl of Shaftesbury, Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, p. 351-52; cf. 172-73.