Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Tolerant Engagement Redux

I currently revising the paper I'm to give at the Concerned Philosophers for Peace Conference in a couple weeks. The idea is to figure out how toleration can be squared with one's own moral convictions (and preserving one's integrity), where one has serious moral disagreements with others.

The line I've been tempted by is that it won't do to say that we should tolerate those with whom we have serious moral disagreements, unless toleration is understood as something more than restraint and forbearance. After all, why should I restrain myself toward someone I think is doing (or promoting) something I think is pretty seriously wrong?

The concept I'm pushing is tolerant engagement. We can't tolerate something if we don't understand it, and we can't understand another person sufficiently without having some (sympathetic) understanding of that person's perspective. So, we have to engage.

While revising, it's become clearer to me that (and easier to state straightforwardly why) one can't write off tolerance without writing off the virtue of humility and the validity (or however you like to put it) of the principle of respect for persons. And I suspect, as noted before, that those are fairly basic, widely shared values. And if that's right, then justifying tolerance (or tolerant engagement) shouldn't require any elaborate--or as some put it, substantive--framework of liberalism. (Much of the reading I'd done in working up to this paper seemed to suggest that tolerance does need that framework. Am I missing something that should be obvious? Am I being blinded by my own unwitting liberalism here?) The point is, it's a good thing for tolerance if it turns out to be a much more basic value--like humility (from which it flows), it's one of those things we need so that we don't act like self-righteous idiots.

(And importantly, you don't have to be a self-righteous idiot to have, and honor, your moral convictions, which is the other part of the story. I'll post a draft when it's ready.)


  1. Is the liberal framework needed perhaps to distinguish the kind of tolerant engagement you describe from strategic forms whose ultimate goal is to foster the circumstances in which there is no need for it?

    (I often wonder if this isn't the correct way to characterize certain varieties of "interfaith" tolerance: where it is not entirely a function of the impossibility of eliminating its objects, the hope in undermining them, directly and indirectly, through tolerant engagement might be the inspiration.)

  2. By strategic forms, do you mean the sort of strategy you refer to in your parenthetical remark? (I'm assuming yes.)

    That's a good question, and I'm somewhat worried about it. In part, this is because as I've been re-drafting this paper I've decided mainly to speak in terms of "toleration" rather than "tolerance," and there is something of a distinction that can be made between the two (roughly, that toleration mainly refers to the outward activity of restraint/forbearance, and that tolerance refers to the "inner" attitude). Due to space constraints, I didn't want to get into too many subtleties, but I think I can rule out, given what I do in the paper, the sort of (as it were) covert strategy your comment suggests. This is because tolerant engagement, as I construe it, pushes discourse in the direction of seeking a sympathetic understanding, and anyone who comes to the table with too much of an adversarial approach to discourse isn't going to be engaged in the right way. This is tricky, because I don't want to say something to the effect that a person of conviction has to be open to the possibility of conversion--that would seem, in a way, like a preemptive compromising of integrity, especially in the moral case. But one has to be open, I think, to a deepened understanding of the "other side." I guess I could say that a "posture" of tolerant engagement isn't necessarily the real item...perhaps it depends on whether the person is really listening, really trying to understand, or is just looking for the fallacy ("it must be there somewhere") in the other person's position.

    Does that make sense? If it does, then I'm not sure why I need to invoke a liberalist framework, rather than make, as it were, the point about authenticity.