Levels of Toleration.

AuthorDreher, John H.


It is sometimes said of moral subjectivists that the only thing they will not tolerate is intolerance. "Tolerate everything except intolerance" is an interesting admonition if only because it suggests that the language of toleration bears scrutiny. I suppose that tolerance is a virtue--but as we shall discover, not just any virtue. If tolerance is a virtue, then, following Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics, tolerance should be a state or, as we might say, a disposition to act or assert. (Aristotle, ca. 350 BCE, p.953: [section]II,1,1103:13-27), If so, tolerance or the disposition to tolerate must be the mean between extremes, but what are the extremes? Immediately we find ourselves on shaky ground. Surely the disposition to condemn or to condemn eagerly or too easily is a vice, the extreme characterized by intolerance. On the other hand, indifference also should be contrasted with tolerance. To tolerate is not to embrace or even to accept; it is merely, well, to tolerate. Yet are we really prepared to say that accepting or embracing behavior is an excess of "tolerance," or more naturally, of "toleration?" Moreover, there are "libertines" and "nihilists" who are willing to tolerate virtually any act, however sordid, or any speech, however hateful. If that is toleration, then toleration can go too far, and when it does, it can hardly be a virtue. Obviously, the family of concepts that is united and structured by "toleration" is in need of sorting-out.

An excess of "toleration" surely would include the toleration of evil. Toleration of evil is not mere indifference to evil; the "toleration of evil" seems to imply a decision to refrain from opposing evil, at least for the time being. Perhaps that level of toleration could be justified on the grounds that opposing evil would in the circumstances involve even greater evil. I suppose that is how otherwise great and worthy men like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson rationalized their participation in the practice of slavery. On the other hand, it might be argued that the toleration of evil, however costly and inconvenient the opposition to it might be, is "collaborative" or complicit or even cowardly. For example, toleration of Nazi-Germany's designs on the Sudetenland were deemed to be "appeasement." The toleration by Vichy France of the Nazi program of racial "purification" was not merely "appeasement" but rather "collaboration." Perhaps it is not too great a stretch to attribute the rhetorical force of "appeasement" and "collaboration" to those World War II experiences. Indeed, there comes a time when toleration goes too far, and certainly is not virtuous. On the other hand, if toleration that is too easy is appeasement or collaboration, perhaps toleration that comes too hard, and is resentful and begrudging, is inauthentic, and is therefore phony and false--although there doesn't seem to be a better phrase for false toleration than "false toleration.

"False toleration" is the sort of "toleration" granted to Huguenots by the Edit d'Nantes in 1585. Perhaps in 1585, as the Spanish Inquisition gained strength, the Edit could be counted as a tolerant gesture inasmuch as it granted French protestants relief from the "justice" of the Inquisition. On the other hand, the Edit virtually excluded Huguenots from public office and restricted their opportunities for economic advancement. This illustrates the point that there are different senses to be attached to "levels or degrees" of toleration. One way to compare various schemes of toleration is to sort out just what will be allowed and to what degree. In the ante-bellum South, where slaves were merely chattel, their liberties depended upon the principles (or whims) of their "owners." Yet, "genuine" toleration cannot be a matter of whim, which is arbitrarily granted and too easily withdrawn. Even the Thirteenth, Fourteen and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, which granted slaves liberation and citizenship, hardly ushered in an age of toleration. Liberated slaves were not nearly as well of as the maligned Huguenots. Acceptance of former slaves and their progeny into American society was long-coming, and until recently was not even deemed to have been intended by the famous amendments. What shall we say of this dreary record of reluctant virtue? Perhaps it is right to say that for over a century the great amendments were examples of "false tolerance."

The purpose of these introductory remarks has been to reveal the complexities involved in thinking about toleration at a very abstract level. Indeed, Aristotle, the parent of "virtue ethics," warns us not to expect too much from ethics; not to think of it as an "exact" science, like mathematics or physics. Yet, if the concepts of virtue ethics are not to be explicated with the rigor of the likes of "mass," "velocity," force," or "kinetic energy", then perhaps we should not seek definitions of them at all (contrary to Aristotle), but rather should think of them differently, perhaps by reflecting upon the ways the words are "used" in ordinary language. That is the approach of this paper, but even so, we shall find that tolerance can be worked into an (if not the) Aristotelian model as a "meta-virtue," a virtue that enables us to keep our virtue, much in the way that Aristotle conceives continence in the NicomacheanEthics. (Aristotle, 350 BCE, pp.1038f: [section]VII,7,2,1145:21-35-114631.)

How to Reflect Upon Ordinary Language: Wittgenstein: During his later period Wittgenstein argued that many of the concepts that concern philosophers cannot be fully or even plausibly explicated by definitions, in the ways of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. During the 1920s philosophy itself was trying to be "scientific" even though it was obvious that ethics cannot be usefully regimented by the structures of formal logic, mathematics or the technical language of natural science. The conclusion drawn was not merely that ethics (and other values) are not "scientific" but rather that they are not even "cognitive," which is to say that they cannot be objects of knowledge or even rational belief. Wittgenstein more or less endorsed this view-indeed he did much to initiate it. He argued that philosophers would be going badly wrong to imitate mathematicians and natural scientists when it comes to "faith and morals."

Wittgenstein began to make his case the case during 1928-29 in his famous "Lecture on Ethics," which he delivered in German on the continent and in English at Cambridge University in November 1929. He argued that the concepts of ethics, like the concepts of religion, do not have referents that can be publicly identified. In other words, whatever we mean by "good" or "evil" or "God" cannot be explicated by referring to entities or properties that we can all examine in common. In this way words of religion and ethics are unlike our words for ordinary things like apples and pears. That "apple" refers to apples is taught simply by holding up apples. We learn to contrast pears and apples by seeing them together, and even by touching or tasting or smelling them. Wittgenstein's main arguments, as well as reflections by like-minded philosophers of the period, like Igor Alexander Richards, gave rise to the radical subjectivism of the 1930s that was championed by A.J. Ayer and Charles Stevenson. Yet, Wittgenstein was not happy with the logical positivism of the 1930s. Wittgenstein certainly did not think that ethics could be deemed to be a science, and he concluded that knowledge, properly speaking, belongs only to mathematics, natural science and common-sense perceptual judgment. On the other hand, to say that ethics is "subjective" and hence "not scientific" (and therefore not the sort of thing that can be known) is not to say that it is worthless. Indeed, Wittgenstein qualifies his apparent rejection of ethics and religion in the very last lines of "Lecture on Ethics," where he writes:

Ethics so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable, can be no science. What it says does not add to our knowledge, in any sense. But it is a document of a tendency in the human mind, which I personally cannot help respecting deeply, and I would not for my life ridicule it. (Wittgenstein, 1929, pp. 81-6)

Perhaps ethics cannot yield knowledge, but for Wittgenstein that does not imply that it is worthless. Anything that "we cannot help but respecting deeply" is hardly worthless, but if the study of ethics is worthwhile, then it must be important to determine how rational people think about it. Wittgenstein's answer is not systematic, but it is clear that he thinks that reflecting upon the use of ordinary language is the key to appreciating what cannot be validated by the methods of logic, mathematics or natural science. In effect, we argue about ethics and religion by reflecting upon the uses we make of ordinary language in constructing the arguments that are brought for and against various positions, all of which raises the crucial question: Just how can reflecting upon ordinary usage be sufficient to justify ethical beliefs? Wittgenstein's answer involves a set of interdefinable concepts including narratives, language games and their rules, and ultimately "forms of life."

For example, how shall we think about the morality of killing? The biblical commandment, "Thou shalt not kill," flatly condemns killing, but the matter is not so easy. After all, if all killing is evil, then it is evil to kill a mosquito. So, the biblical admonition requires interpretation. Perhaps the commandment should be read "Thou shalt not murder," but the revision would do little to help, because murder is wrongful killing (but of what? a human being, a rational animal, a "moral" creature?). Philosophers like to consider "puzzles" to test their philosophical intuitions. The present case about killing...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT