Monday, June 22, 2009

Tolerant Engagement

I just read an excellent paper by Barbara Herman, "Pluralism and the Community of Moral Judgment" (in a collection of papers edited by David Heyd Toleration: An Elusive Virtue (1996)). Herman explores the idea--very similar to one I'm working on (and I welcome an ally in thought here!)--that toleration can remain too static, and that the presence of moral conflict or disagreement calls instead for engagement. Working from within the Kantian tradition, Herman notes Kant's argument that "where 'a multitude of persons' live in such a way that they 'affect one another,' they are under moral necessity to enter together into civil society" (p. 75). She goes on to claim:
I think it can be argued that we are similarly obliged to enter and sustain a community of moral judgment not to secure enforceable rights but to bring about the conditions for moral development and colloquy: the conditions necessary to secure what Kant calls 'the public use of reason.'"
The general idea is that moral reflection and development are by their very nature not static, and so the "public use of reason"--where we are engaged with others on moral issues--is a necessary part of our own moral development. She tends to treat toleration and engagement as different possibilities: I can tolerate someone else without "sitting down with them" and so treating toleration as a "first moral response" to moral difference can lead to moral stultification.

I agree very much with the direction of Herman's ideas. I have been working to develop a notion of "tolerant engagement" which is opposed to "bare toleration." Herman's work would seem to raise the question as to why invoking the concept of tolerance is necessary. After all, I might engage with other's whose beliefs or practices which I judge to be (prima facie) deplorable, and that judgment might persist even after some amount of engagement with them.

In my view, the "tolerant" component of tolerant engagement is an essential attitudinal component of what makes genuine engagement possible, with those with whom we have apparently deep moral disagreements. Primarily, such tolerance takes the persons with whom we disagree as its basic object (or subject, as it were). An attitude of tolerance dictates a "softened" response toward these persons, which makes a civil discourse possible. As I hinted in my last post, our judgment that a person is mistaken (or even acting in a morally intolerable way) does not remove the obligation to honor the basic principle of respect for persons. Thus, our default position cannot be exclusionary and maintain this basic respect. (Even in the case where the person has been convicted of a criminal offense, our laws recognize this idea in its prohibition of sentencing in absentia except in specific cases where the person chooses to be absent.)

Thus, the problem with refusing to discuss points of moral difference with those whose beliefs or practices we find intolerable (or bordering on it) is not simply (or essentially) that such an attitude is intolerant. Rather, in doing so, we refuse to honor a moral responsibility we ourselves have to engage. Now, there are limits to engagement, such as when the other party refuses to do so. There, no engagement--which can include discourse and compromise--is possible, and such refusals should be regarded as morally suspect. (I ignore for now problems of power inequality, such as when a more powerful party requests a "discussion" but only if the weaker party first meets various "conditions." For now, it's sufficient to point out that the imposing of conditions, too, can be a morally suspect lording of one's power over a disadvantaged party which, for that, is not necessarily in the wrong...)


  1. Matthew, do you consider morality to be a relative or an absolute truth at its highest lived level of attainment by a man?

  2. Matthew, do you encourage your students to engage with you on your blog? If not then I think you should consider it because you never know exactly what the tipping point might be for their minds.

    I can say from personal experience that I wish someone would have engaged with me on what I call a deeper level.

  3. Jack: Relative to what? (I think there are moral truths, but I also think values can conflict and am not convinced that there are "absolute" (or impersonal) methods for resolving all such conflicts.)

    There's a link to my blog on my faculty webpage. I don't push it. Those who are interested seem to find it. On the other hand, we've been working on some tough stuff in my summer ethics class; there's some good thinking happening there...