Thursday, June 23, 2005

Tautological Tolerance

There's an interesting debate at True Grit, kicked off by Kevin Keith's thoughts on morals of left and right. Kevin, blog host of the left-leaning Sufficient Scruples, in turn, was reacting to a sermon by then-Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, on April 18, 2005:
How many winds of doctrine have we known in recent decades, how many ideological currents, how many ways of thinking. The small boat of the thought of many Christians has often been tossed about by these waves - flung from one extreme to another: from Marxism to liberalism, even to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism and so forth. Every day new sects spring up, and what St Paul says about human deception and the trickery that strives to entice people into error (cf. Eph 4:14) comes true.

Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be "tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine", seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires.
I've bemoaned the relativism epidemic before. Kevin starts by reviewing the various meanings suggested for "good," "just" or "moral" in different streams of political thought (utilitarianism, consequentialism, Kantian). Then, he laments:
Why, then, are liberals so much cooler than conservatives? If both hold absolutist moral positions, and both regard it as morally obligatory to adopt and follow the principles of the right moral theory, and both hold it as equally morally significant when correct moral actions are or are not taken, why are liberals so much more welcoming, and make fewer oppressive rules and fewer personal judgments of others? The answer, again, is the emphasis in liberalism – largely inherited from consequentialist moral thinkers – on room for personal expressions of value and self-interest. . .

Thus, “relativism” has no role in moral discourse. Complaints by conservatives about “relativism” are invariably complaints about tolerance. The only “relativist” aspect of consequentialism, or modern liberalism, is that it regards matters of personal preference as matters of complete personal authority. But in respect of its action-guiding moral principles, liberalism is as absolutist as any other moral perspective (i.e., the morally right thing absolutely must be done).
Plainly, Kevin should meet some cool conservatives; there's plenty. And, encouragingly, Kevin acknowledges the current disputes of left and right are clashes of moral systems not, as some lefties insist, between morality and liberty. Further, Kevin's correct that liberalism employs morality to about the same extent as any other political viewpoint; albeit with different sets of morals. Still, Kevin's blinkered concept of "personal" (and his related narrowing of "harm") stacks the deck, turning tolerance into tautology and thus erroneously compelling his pro-liberal outcome.

For Kevin, the advantage of liberalism is its abstention from the "personal." He defines personal, as does Bentham, by distinguishing what he implies is its opposite: "action-guiding moral principles." Kevin favors, and imagines liberalism protects, a cone of silence around activities confined to the self without effect on (or "harm" to) others. (Kevin nods toward broader definitions of morality, especially by John Stuart Mill, that included societal values, but concludes such "consequentialism" is impractical.)

Trading the terms of philosophy for the language of faith, Kevin's approach simplifies "sin" -- a concept not necessarily tied to faith (as I use it here, at least) -- to the "golden rule" and nothing more. This doctrine, common to Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and most other beliefs, says it's immoral to cause harm to others. Fine as it goes, but incomplete.

Kevin's approach necessarily excludes four related concepts central to the morality of many. First, he equates harm with objection. Action not provoking "stop" or "ouch" is ok, thus erasing "embryos or vegetative patients" (and most animals) from moral consideration. Second, even were there objections, Kevin validates only certain sorts of harm. Because (I assume) he sees homosexuality as strictly "personal," Kevin would not credit, say, parents concerned that gay teachers might harm their child.

Third, and related to the first point, Kevin's morality authorizes actions without identifiable individual victims, barring contemplation of broader or longer-term deterioration of civilization. Finally, he ignores any self-directed harm.

To be sure, the above factors are difficult and disputed, but should not be so easily discarded. Judaism, Christianity and Islam each condemn self-damaging acts that diminish an individual's ability to worship God. Even excluding religion from the moral calculus, "victimless" crimes may undermine society and/or the rule of law. All other things being equal, two-parent households benefit all citizens; similarly, children bearing children is anything but ideal. That doesn't mean Kevin's opposites would outlaw divorce or jail teenagers -- conservatives favor limits on state power -- but it doesn't follow that such consequences can or should be ignored. It's easy to say "legalize drugs!;" far harder to deal with junkies.

Indeed, impermissibly narrowing "personal" and "harm" classes Kevin with the dogmatic secularists previously considered. Kevin no doubt knows that many suffer from what he considers private, and that privacy doesn't confer immunity.1 I suspect he, like many on the left, dismiss and belittle views and conclusions of the faithful:
The left demonizes religion and assumes political views informed by faith are ignorant. Just the phrase "right-wing" or "Christian conservative" are enough to inspire dozens of hillbilly jokes. Elites believe liberal philosophy is more "evolved" than conservatism--[and] is contemptuous of people and ideas tied to religious values, implicitly denying that conservative values are rational.
Tolerance is a lighter yoke when one excludes adversaries from the start--and tolerate only those with whom one already agrees.

Moreover, despite their claims, leftists wouldn't end intolerance--they'd merely swap one prohibition for another, as libertarian Jesse Walker observed:
The dominant species of liberal doesn't just want to maintain the old taboos; it wants to introduce some new ones. For many Americans, the Democrats are the party that hates their guns, cigarettes, and fatty foods (which is worse: to rename a french fry or to take it away?); that wants to impose speed limits on near-abandoned highways; that wants to tell local schools what they can or can't teach.
What neutral principle "tolerates" a public school approving homosexuality in sex-ed but prohibits another eight states away teaching abstinence?

In fact, Kevin repeats the error of liberalism's pet philosopher John Rawls:
But for the pious Muslim, orthodox Jew, or traditional Christian, as well as for the typical natural law theorist (religious or secular), abortion and same-sex marriage are going to count as paradigms, not only of immorality, but of injustice: injustice in the first case because abortion is regarded by such people as murder, and injustice in the second case because the stability of the traditional family is regarded by them as the foundation of any just social order (libertarian or otherwise) and they typically regard same-sex marriage as a threat to such stability. So for one group, justice requires allowing abortion and/or same-sex marriage, and for the other, justice requires forbidding them. It follows that whether or not "political libertarianism" allows for abortion and same-sex marriage, it is inevitably going to be a conception which is far from neutral between competing comprehensive doctrines.
But if tolerance has meaning beyond the tautological, it necessarily includes a reciprocal obligation on liberals to understand the strongly held but opposite views of non-liberals, i.e., tolerating opinions of opponents. Even if based on bible passage or backwoods preacher. By denying the political legitimacy of Congressional bills admittedly influenced by doctrine, Kevin turns tolerance into surrender, one-sided and perpetual--while ensuring liberals never have to say they're sorry.

This issue would confuse America's founders. The authors of the Constitution never intended to end dispute nor imagined policy unanimity. Instead, they crafted a representative democracy of limited Federal powers, allocating most functions to the states (or the people themselves), reflecting the people's will via periodic elections. For America's architects, tolerance (as applied to a society, as opposed to an individual; and apart from religious tolerance under the "free exercise" clause) is procedural; a narrow, but necessary virtue within election losers. Constitutional tolerance is each citizen's responsibility to accept a vote's outcome today, knowing another chance is just two, four or six years away.

Lefties like Kevin elevate liberal tolerance to a universal panacea. That's because they've twisted tolerance into a substantive and one-sided demand that opponents accept and respect results not compelled by Constitutional text with which they disagree. That's fine when the policy's tested via a vote, but thoroughly un-democratic when mandated by faulty logic and enforced by political correctness.

Edited 9am
In sum, Hijacking the syllogism with conclusionary definitions of "personal" and "harm," Kevin turns "tolerance" into Three Card Monte. Today's tolerance is merely a liberal deus ex machina justifying perpetual victory while eliding any duty to persuade -- or even reverse -- the majority. Though claiming to represent ordinary citizens, lefties like Kevin distrust popular wisdom, side step the vote and substitute their judgment for the will of the electorate. True, Kevin's path is simple and quick. But the Constitution contains no special shortcut for the lazy or impatient.

Whatever its merits on a one-to-one basis, democracies don't govern via virtue. Rather, assuming no contrary Constitututional provision, government power is expressed through bills vetted and voted favorably by a majority of legislators and by the President--each of whom is subject to recall or reelection. Such provisions may be popular, but need not be virtuous. As an example, it's neither fair nor virtuous that residents of the District of Columbia have no voting Congressmen or Senator. However, it's lawful -- because the Constitution classes DC as a District and Congressmen and Senators are elected by state citizens. Further without a universally accepted boundary between virtue and vice, tolerance and surrender and harm and personal, then attracting and persuading supporting majorities, Kevin's proposed approach would trigger 52 (Federal govt, 50 states, plus DC) complicated and protracted legislative debates. Absent that, tolerance isn't enforceable.

If liberals, including Kevin, favor change, let them abandon their tautological and un-democratic slight-of-hand. Fight like an American: put tolerance to a vote.


MaxedOutMama makes two great points. First, she ties liberal logic to relativism. When judgment is stunted or scorned by multi-culti political correctness, the supposedly broad minded contract tunnel vision. In consequence, as I've previously observed, lefties lost the ability and incentive to distinguish good from evil. No wonder they see Iraq as a phony war.

Moreover, M_O_M magnificently compresses my four points to one--the left abandoned negative limits on government power (the structure of America's Bill of Rights) and switched to Soviet style positive guarantees. Such "positive right" schemes invariably over promise and disappoint, and so accentuate the negative:
The extreme left in the US is locked into a perfectionist mindset that works by focusing upon eliminating only negative results. But assessing only negative results of actions or beliefs is a very twisted way to form a public ethos, because it eliminates profoundly positive elements from our public life and has nothing else to offer in its place. . .

It cannot teach compassion and kindness, so it teaches supreme dedication to a cause with a corresponding hatred for all those who don't support the cause or who are not willing to be fanatic in the support of it. It can't teach admiration for good and purposefully lived lives, so it teaches that one must not criticize anyone - except, of course, for the enemy, which are those who do live and advocate living self-chosen good and purposeful lives of self-constraint and self-sacrifice. It can't teach a meaningful sexual morality, so it requires with a desperate fanaticism that no one teach such an ethos and substitutes an awed admiration for the sexual practices of the very few. In the end, it can't permit individual liberty and choice, so it advocates desperately for collective freedoms, such as the right to shelter, the right to a well-paying job, etc.

The moonbat left trumpets its dedication to liberty, while in practice making common cause with dictators and mass murders. . . [I]n love with repression and with violence[,] it sees this as proof of dedication to the cause - because there is no fundamental cause, and so the only proof of dedication to the non-existent cause is fanaticism and absolutism in service of something that is willing to reprove the US.

1 The founders were familiar with John Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration:
But some may ask: "What if the magistrate should enjoin anything by his authority that appears unlawful to the conscience of a private person?" I answer that, if government be faithfully administered and the counsels of the magistrates be indeed directed to the public good, this will seldom happen. But if, perhaps, it do so fall out, I say, that such a private person is to abstain from the action that he judges unlawful, and he is to undergo the punishment which it is not unlawful for him to bear. For the private judgement of any person concerning a law enacted in political matters, for the public good, does not take away the obligation of that law, nor deserve a dispensation.


Dan said...

Excellent essay!

You nailed it on the mythical "tolerance" theme of liberals. I would like to expound on the themes you laid out.

As you stated, liberals (particularly elite) are generally loathing of religion especially Judeo/Christians. Yet Judaism/Christianity is where the West's sense of morals is firmly grounded in the 10 commandments and the 7 heavanly virtues. Hence religious conservatives are also more wary of the destructivness of the 7 deadly sins.

Simply put, if it is agreed that conservatives are generally more religiously principled, then it logically concludes that religious conservatives generally attempt to adhere to the base philosphical morality of Judaism/Christianity. (hence opposition on abortion)

So I do disagree with you in that the left "just has a different set of morals". I would rather argue that the left has SELECTIVELY ignored certain founding moral codes on which Judaism/Christianity is based upon. In fact they intend on breaking down that code as much as they can get away with to fit their own agenda.

Furthermore, they have twisted portions of that very moral code altogether for their own purposes (abortion for instance).

The Left's guiding philosophy seems intent on trying to shift the world's morality away from these founding Judeo/Christian moral codes. Why? That morailty hinders the full enactment of their agenda. Simply put, when the left succeeds in this Judeo/Christian moral breakdown they can more easily enact the Left's own belief system on the rest of us.

The idea of "tolerance" of the Left is just another smokescreen. It is one of the last "myths" they cling to in order to help them continue to break down the last remaining Judeo/Christian foundations. It is still a powerful tool in their little left-wing toolbox. They still fool a lot of people with this to help "convert" them away from the Right. They certainly fool themselves.

One other interesting point: The Left has found more common ground with Islam than one would think. This is easily understood when you look at the founding morality of Judeo/Chritianity. Islam does not adhere to the founding moral codes of Judaism/christianity and neither does the Left.

In the end, both Islamists and Leftists want to break down that code or twist to fit their own ends.

The left has morals? I would rather say they lack them.

By you arguing they have their own "set of codes" gives their whole philosophy legitmacy which it does not deserve.

ilona said...

As always, you take things to the next level-kudos.

In answer to Dan, yes, the Left has morals. And the whole point is to understand where they are coming from, and engage.

"f liberals, including Kevin, favor change, let them abandon their tautological and un-democratic slight-of-hand."

First, they have to see and be made aware of what they are doing- we so often fool ourselves.

I appreciate the way you have analyzed this... I will have to wait, on my own slower pace, to return to this. Not to worry, I think this is a basic matter that we will need to keep returning to as issues of different sorts-but with the same basic conflict- keep flaring.

MaxedOutMama said...

You are always worth reading; you are often required reading; this time you have reached a new pinnacle of enriching reading.

Sigmund, Carl and Alfred said...

What needs to be addressed is what passes for the current interpretation of islam.

To say that Islam today, as Christianity or Judaism, is tolerant of 'others' is simply inaccurate. The political call for a new Calipahte, for example, is an extension of a religiously mandated Jihad against Dhimmi and non believer. Dan is on the money with comments on the matter.

Carl said...


Thank you for the good ideas and praise; my thoughts here.

Vash said...


What an interesting blog. Thanks for the link you left at TG.

To get to the point:

This "tolerance" argument is a confusing one. I certainly tolerate your views inasmuch as I don't attempt to forcibly prevent you from holding them or commit any illegal or discriminatory acts upon you on the grounds of the views you hold. Aside from that, I don't fully understand the argument, and hope you can enlighten me.

"Tolerance" seems to be used to mean "accept". Liberals in the US sense of the word generally do tolerate (accept), for example, homosexuals. I don't see how it follows from this that they should "tolerate" (accept) political positions opposed to theirs, any more than conservatives should be required to accept political positions they do not believe in. This Kevin guy may well belittle religious positions, if he himself is not religious, and may also believe that the political philosophy he adheres to is "more evolved" or generally just more sensible than the conservative viewpoint. Likewise, conservatives (of religious type) would probably belittle the beliefs of a strident atheist (thinking him or her childish, perhaps, or malicious) and would see their political philosophy as more sensible, natural and evolved than any leftist view of the world.

Can you explain?

Carl said...


It's a good question. Taking your example, what would result should "tolerance" exclude tolerance of opposing political views? Liberals, not hurt by homosexuals, would be unchanged. By contrast, conservatives that are hurt by homosexuals would be prohibited from seeking relief from that harm.

An example: your neighbor likes loud music--and plays his at an earsplitting 120 dB. The noise keeps you awake at night. When you complain, he responds, "well it's fine by me if your music is equally loud. I'm willing to tolerate noise. Why won't you?" As you see, where toleration controls, it's anything but neutral and may increase overall harm to the community.

Tolerance, as you've stated it, locks-in the politics of one side and excludes the view-point of another. Put differently, tolerance is a substantive outcome favoring liberals, not a procedural neutrality or middle ground.

Opinions differ on homosexuals. Were there Constitutional provisions on the issue, they would control. In their absence, how do democracies settle disputed public policy solutions? Not by assumptions, by disregarding one side or the other or by fiat, or ignoring different views. Democracies settle this kind of question via the vote. Let both sides attempt to persuade the electorate. One side will win. And the result may change in a subsequent election. But that's for the people to decide.

Vash said...

Thanks for your reply.

"Taking your example, what would result should "tolerance" exclude tolerance of opposing political views? Liberals, not hurt by homosexuals, would be unchanged. By contrast, conservatives that are hurt by homosexuals would be prohibited from seeking relief from that harm."

When you say "liberals" here, do you mean liberals in general, or liberals specifically in government? I'm also reading "liberal" as "left-wing", and hope that this is correct. (I'm not American.)

"Tolerance" already does exclude tolerance of political views...not the tolerance of my definition, but of yours. In some cases, even the most basic definition of "tolerance" doesn't work. It's not sensible, for example, to say during WWII that if Nazis feel like being Nazis it's quite OK with you because all views should be tolerated. Similarly, the Bolsheviks would have been stuffed during the Russian Civil War if they'd decided that the Whites ought to be left alone to believe what they feel like and act accordingly.

However, I don't think homosexuality counts as a "political view" and so the category changes. In your view, what about homosexuality harms conservatives but not liberals?

"As you see, where toleration controls, it's anything but neutral and may increase overall harm to the community. "

That's because this idea "toleration" has no useful meaning beyond the very simplistic. It seems to be being used in the argument to mean "acceptance". You are saying to the music-playing neighbour "Oi, pack it in, I won't accept this." And he's saying to you "Why not, if I'd accept it if you did it?" You are correct - this doesn't make any sense (assuming you don't want to play loud music when he's sleeping.)

If we use "accept" the argument becomes very clear. If we use "tolerate", you, me and Kevin are all operating off different definitions.

". Democracies settle this kind of question via the vote. Let both sides attempt to persuade the electorate. One side will win. And the result may change in a subsequent election. "

I'm not sure what this vote would be on! "Should homosexuality be allowed"? Should it be subject to punishment? Should homosexuals teach in schools? Or?

In other words, I think this subject is far too complicated to reduce to this "tolerance" level.