Friday, July 23, 2010

Tolerance and Intolerance (and Violence)

I just finished revising my paper "Moral Conviction and Disagreement: Getting Beyond Negative Toleration." There, I suggest that tolerance construed as merely "putting up with" is not a sufficient ideal for cultivating a genuine community. I also point out that seeking to engage tolerantly with those with whom one has strong moral disagreements is not a threat to one's integrity. (This might seem to be a threat, insofar as one might feel that the request to be tolerant asks one to put up with things that one finds intolerable.)

As always, this is only part of the story. In my recent Philosophy Now essay, "In Defense of Intolerance," I focus on something I discuss briefly at the end of the revised paper above, which is that sometimes intolerance is the right attitude. Sometimes one will find it impossible to tolerantly engage with those with whom one disagrees. What then? There, I focus on pointing out that "what then?" is an entirely separate issue from whether one can or cannot tolerate something (or someone).

A great deal of my interest in this topic was driven forward by reflecting on Scott Roeder's murder of George Tiller. I'm still not quite happy with something I say in the Philosophy Now essay, which is that I am not happy allowing that violent intolerance is ever justifiable in the face of moral disagreement. I say, "I must ask what right I have to...risk someone else's life on the chance that I'm not mistaken - especially when that person has not consented to the risk." The obvious instantiation of this point is that I have no right to go around killing members of the so-called Tea Party. But this gets to the difficulty with my comment in Roeder's case. I'm not so much worried about the actual case, because Roeder shot Tiller dead in the lobby of a church. Utterly awful. But someone might spit my words back at me and ask, "What right does Tiller have to 'risk the life' of the fetus [viz. abort it] on the strength of his convictions?" I think, however, that the right answer here is that one could only ask that question by failing to pay attention to the details of the situations in which Tiller was involved. This isn't to say that such attention to details would lead one to accept or endorse Tiller's choices. But would I really be begging any obviously answerable questions if I said that any sane, judicious person would realize that the abortions Tiller performed were surrounded by complicated, unfortunate, and often tragic circumstances? (See here.) The difference between Tiller's decision to save and help those women (and girls) and Roeder's self-described choice to save unborn babies from Tiller is that Roeder acted from an abstract principle and Tiller acted in response to complex, concrete, and often tragic circumstances. Thus, Roeder's act shows what can happen when we put principles above individuals. We can convince ourselves that our principles make the murder of others ok. But maybe I'm making a mountain out of a molehill, since Roeder, a Christian in name, simply failed to love even his enemies.


  1. Another good paper! I don't know whether you're under a word limit again, but this one seems quite compressed in places (basically all the places where you point the reader to other works, which you often summarize very briefly, but perhaps too briefly). Another thing you might expand on is what you have in mind as examples of tolerant engagement. You mention projects, so you don't seem to be thinking only of debate, but when you bring in Holocaust-deniers you talk only (as I recall) about the impossibility of serious debate. Couldn't even neo-Nazis and ethnic cleansers (I'm trying to think who might advocate rape) be invited to join in some project? It might not be a good idea, but not because you couldn't have a real debate with them. Or not obviously for this reason anyway. My fear would be that involving them in some good work might help legitimate them in some people's eyes. But couldn't that happen also with projects involving, say, different sides on the abortion debate? When I imagine joint projects aimed at reducing teen pregnancies, for instance, I can't imagine them as projects understood by the participants as attempts to create community between pro-life and pro-choice people. Rather, I imagine them coming together as "Christians Against Teen Pregnancy" or something like that. And if the focus is on some common feature (here Christianity) then why couldn't the same apply to the neo-Nazi case? If we create solidarity by focusing on what we have in common, I think we could (in theory) do this with anyone.

  2. Thanks, DR. No word limit. Stylistic constraints. (I.e. things I would have had as footnotes either had to get integrated or eliminated.)

    Good question. Neo-nazis, etc., are tricky here. My answer goes something like this: I don't stop buying veggies from certain farmers at the farmers market because I noticed an "I'm Tea'd Off" bumper sticker on their truck (or the "Nobama" one). (I do mean to ask them, since they happen to be the organizers of the market, how their regulation of market prices is consistent with their political ideology...) But if there were a swastika sticker on the bumper, I'd stay away, and I'd encourage others, at least people I know, to stay away, too.

    Even harder cases are what to do about the racist uncle-in-law, and other such personal relationships that aren't voluntary (in the way the relation above is).

    Why exclude the neo-Nazi, but not the pro-whomever-you-see-as-the-"other-side"? Short answer: I don't have anything to learn, morally or spiritually, from the neo-Nazi, but I don't think I can say that about (some) pro-lifers.

    (Or maybe I could have said that the unreasonableness of thinking we could engage in genuine discourse is also a reason to think that working with them on integrated problems (shared concerns) would be problematic, unacceptable.)

  3. Yes, that sounds reasonable. But you might be able to teach the neo-Nazis something, and would a pro-lifer expect to learn much from a pro-choice person? Possibly, of course, but possibly not (if they really think of abortion as morally close to baby-murder). One thing you might learn from a neo-Nazi would be what made them that way. They might be salvageable.