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Minority Languages redux

Following up on my previous post (How engaged should the government be in preserving minority languages?) I should note that Charles Taylor in his essay Multiculturalism spent a good deal of time on the question of minority languages from an ethical point of view. His primary example involved the implications of a law mandating French in Québec. Taylor identified a conflict between two principles, on the one hand principles founded in the view of fundamental human rights in the tradition of Kant, and another that focused on distinctiveness as derived from the work of Rousseau. In the individual rights tradition, a "standard schedule of rights" (52) is taken to be fundamental and primary, and universal across all cultures and subcultures. This then comes in conflict with "collective goals" such as preserving the French language and culture. The conflict arises in practice if not in theory, because preserving French requires restricting the rights of individuals to use English if that is their preference. This can be taken as a restriction on a fundamental right to freedom of speech or more broadly freedom of expression if the mode of expression of choice happens to be English.

My own sympathies lie with the individualist argument. Following a long tradition in Western ethics, I take the individual to be the primary moral unit and all collective traits to be secondary. This means I subscribed to what Appiah termed a position of "ethical individualism" (72) which he explains as "we should defend rights by showing what they do for individuals – social individuals, to be sure, living in families and communities, usually, but still individuals.” It is a position I first encountered in the moral philosophy of Rudolf Steiner, who wrote in the 1890s and called his philosophy one of ethical individualism.

I find the idea of the individual as a type of moral monad to be axiomatic, something that can be known with certainty. Group affiliations on the other hand are quite fuzzy and flexible. Individuals possess identities, alter them, discard them, and as join and leave numerous groups and thereby exist simultaneously in multiple categories, in ways that are virtually impossible to pin down. But an individual is one thing they always remain. Privileging groups thereby becomes problematic because the question of who is in and who is not in the group is not easily decided, and always subject to change. Further, privileging groups seems to necessarily disadvantage at least some individuals – usually those not in the group – in every instance. Privileging individuals, on the other hand, can only disadvantage people to the degree that their group affiliation causes them to feel disadvantaged. But that group affiliation is itself a secondary trait. So if the choice is a philosophy or policy that disadvantages individuals – a primary moral unit –on the one hand, or one that disadvantages some groups – a secondary characteristic – on the other hand, I would choose to disadvantage the secondary characteristics rather than the primary moral units. That is I would choose policies that disadvantaged groups over those that disadvantaged individuals.

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