What is the Virtue of Tolerance?

This opinion piece from the Prospect has me reconsidering one of the classic debates of political philosophy.  Concisely put, the question raised is whether a just society tolerates the intolerance of its citizens, or, to couch it more explicitly in moral terms, do I have an obligation to tolerate others and, if so, does this obligation extend to the intolerant?  This question begs other important questions, specifically, “What is tolerance?” and, “what is the virtue of tolerance?”  I don’t think that I have adequate answers to these questions, but I think that they are important, so I want to discuss them anyway.  Comments and counter-arguments are welcome.

To those who consider tolerance a virtue, the notion is often broadly defined to include an open-minded attitude toward difference of background and difference of opinion.  On this account, the tolerant person is characterized as the political liberal who opens himself up to the possibility that his is not the only or best way to live. He embraces diversity in his community because he believes it is an in-road to a more broad-minded, and therefore more enlightened, world-view.  A more narrow definition of tolerance is that it is the ability to endure others peaceably.  On this account, the tolerant person may have a strong distaste for those who do not share his race, religion, or predilection for reading the Wall Street Journal, but he refrains from outward hostility toward them which allows him to live or work comfortably in their proximity.

As nice as it may be to consider oneself the broad-minded and enlightened liberal, I think this definition of tolerance ultimately falls apart.  The problem here is not that the liberal accepts the possibility that his way of thinking might be in error, the problem is that values are not the type of thing about which one can truly be agnostic.  In other words, I can accept that my background is responsible for some of the values which I hold, and that these values may influence and prejudice my judgments about how others live their lives, but I cannot escape the values themselves.  I cannot, for example, choose to feel reverence for the clerics of religions that other people believe are supernaturally inspired, nor can I accept as justice the corporal punishment executed against fornicators and homosexuals in some parts of the world.  Though the enlightened person acknowledges that some values are basic* and therefore groundless, he cannot escape a conflict in holding the value of tolerance while, at the same time, believing that tolerance demands that he accept the values of the intolerant as equally morally justified.  I cannot, for example, take seriously my moral obligation to permit others to believe and practice according to their own moral values when my neighbor’s moral values compel him to kill his wife or daughter because he believes that she has practiced sexual immorality.

Generally speaking, free societies draw a line of distinction between free thought (and those things which are generally assumed to fall into the realm of free thought- free speech, free association, free worship) and free action.  The mantra of the liberal state is “Believe whatever you wish to believe, but you must act in accordance with our laws or face the threat of violent coercion.”  Those who advocate the “peaceable endurance” view of tolerance hold a position similar to this, and therefore I do not think their view implodes with internal contradiction.  I can consistently believe that I should try to live peaceably with you despite the fact that I don’t like your religion, ethnicity, or personal disposition, and, at the same time, reserve the right to intervene and compel you to do something differently if I find your actions to be morally impermissible.  The problem here is that if my definition of tolerance allows that I can and should intervene when a person violates a moral rule that I believe is compelling, then the prescription to be tolerant doesn’t seem to have the strength to compel me to change my actions for the sake of tolerance.  In fact, I have difficulty imagining a scenario when it would be morally obligatory for me to tolerate another person who acts in accordance with any value that I do not share.  I am tempted to say that this version of tolerance requires only that we respect others’ right to tastes that differ from our own, but the line between taste and moral value is itself quite blurry.  After all, one person’s preference for braised pig belly and Catholic iconography is another person’s violation of kosher law and idolatry.

If we are to make any sense out of the moral imperative to tolerate others then we must identify some non-arbitrary dividing line between what we ought to tolerate and what we ought not to tolerate in others.  This is the only way to avoid the implosion of relativism endemic to the broad account of tolerance and the whimper of ineffectuality endemic to the narrow account.  Most Western states have pragmatic laws in place to distinguish between permissible private actions and impermissible public actions, but the pragmatic justification** for laws like this does not have an obvious moral corollary.   What I mean is, there is no obvious moral principle which can explain why I should intervene if my neighbor burns a cross on my lawn or rapes his daughter, but why I should tolerate it when my neighbor goes to meetings wearing a white robe and hood or teaches his daughter that the world is only 6,000 years old, though the law clearly distinguishes between the former and the latter.

So, what is the virtue of tolerance?

*The assertion that, all other things being equal, it is better for innocent people to be happy rather than suffering is an example of one of these groundless, basic values.

**Cynically, I think mostly this justification is grounded in the way these laws accommodate the marketplace and the distribution of private property.

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45 Responses to “What is the Virtue of Tolerance?”

  1. probabilityzero Says:

    Very well written post. I agree.

    Tolerance is good, within reason, but we shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming that tolerance is automatically the best position. This is especially true if the question is over whether to tolerate the actions of another, rather than just their beliefs, but it is often rather difficult to differentiate between the two, and even this distinction (between beliefs and actions) seems pretty arbitrary if you look closely enough at it.

    • Attlee Says:

      Tolerance in it’s “broader account,” i.e., the notion of absolute tolerance, i.e., tolerance that entails acceptance of a value in another person, culture, etc., that conflicts with one’s own core beliefs or values, is almost certainly incoherent—the reason being, as for example Stanley Fish argues, that if one stipulates tolerance as ones first principle, then one cannot, ultimately, be faithful to it, because, sooner or later, the person (or culture) whose values you are “tolerating” will reveal herself/himself (or itself) to be intolerant at the same core. The value of another culture that one cannot tolerate, if one wants to remain faithful to one’s principles of absolute tolerance, is absolute intolerance—for, to tolerate absolute intolerance is to allow and implicitly endorse it, which is to contradict ones principle of absolute intolerance, is it not?

      For instance, if I tolerate, in the name of absolute tolerance, say…a person who is absolutely intolerant towards women’s claims for equality…then I would be violating my principle of absolute tolerance in that I would be allowing and affirming the legitimacy of a particular instance of absolute intolerance, would I not?

      • Liza Says:

        Yes. Right. I think I liked it better when you were raising objections 😉

        • Attlee Says:

          Well, in the way of “objections” it is obviously impossible to “make any sense out of the moral imperative to tolerate others” since a “moral imperative” to tolerate others can only exist hypothetically. Also, there is, needless to say, no “non-arbitrary” way to distinguish between what one “ought to tolerate” and what one “ought not to tolerate”—lastly, one cannot derive an “ought” from an “is”—indeed, the “ought” is really meaningless, so, in fine, there is no way to “avoid the implosion of relativism endemic to the broad account”—but then the “broad account” is incoherent to begin with.

          • Attlee Says:

            “…the line between taste and moral value is itself quite blurry.”

            This statement is mistaken since “moral” values are nothing more than tastes or opinions—indeed, the word “value” can, ultimately, only mean a taste or a preference.

          • Liza Says:

            I would appreciate a clarification of your position, Attlee. I expect you would describe yourself as a moral anti-realist, but I am unsure of the substance of your view beyond that. Are you a subjectivist, a nihilist, or something else?

            Also, I am also not sure if you are playing dumb with the remark above or if your moral anti-realism honestly precludes you from understanding what most people mean when they talk about right and wrong. I will give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that you are playing dumb, in which case I am curious about what you think this adds to the conversation. Quite obviously, I understand the view that moral outrage is simply a more intense response to displeasing stimuli than disgust or distaste, not something that is different in kind. I am even inclined to agree with this position. But you can’t just make the assertion that all morality is taste when that is the very topic that is up for debate. Think of it this way: As an atheist, I use the word “God” in debates. I could play dumb about the meaning of the word in order to make a point about its incoherency, but that isn’t compelling to anyone who doesn’t already agree with me (and even many of those people would think I was a jerk). The same is true of ethics. You are welcome to say that all moral language is devoid of meaning, but, without an explanation or justification for that claim, that is where the dialogue ends.

          • Attlee Says:

            Moral language is scarcely devoid of meaning. It is perfectly perspicuous, for example, “what most people mean when they talk about right and wrong”—if I say “torture is wrong” what am I doing but proclaiming my personal tastes and perhaps attempting to persuade someone to think likewise about the issue? For what is moral discourse but the venting of one’s feelings, and the hope that others will share them? In saying that something is “wrong” what am I doing but expressing my disapproval? What is the word “wrong” but an emotive sign expressive of one’s attitude, perhaps evoking similar attitudes in other persons or inciting them to actions of one kind or other? What, then, is “morality” but the expression of one’s preferences and emotions? The “line between moral value and taste” is by no means “blurry,” for how do moral values differ from preferences? Can you adumbrate a more expansive notion of moral language? What is left over that is not captured by my notion of preference?

          • Liza Says:

            See my response to Michael.

    • Jim Says:

      Jack, yesterday you posted three comments, all containing the same links to Fish articles. At this point, I consider this spam. I won’t approve another post with a string of links again.

    • Johnny 5 Says:

      Stanley Fish is a no-talent ass clown.

      Fish’s argument: Tolerance = social quarantine = subjugation = ridicule?!

      Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?!

  2. Jack Angstreich Says:

    I posted them three times because they didn’t show up.

    • Johnny 5 Says:

      80% of failure is just not showing up.
      3 x 80% = 240%

      • Liza Says:

        I don’t understand what you mean by this. Can you clarify?

        • Johnny 5 Says:

          “80% of success is just showing up.” ~ Woody Allen

          Jack said, “I posted them three times because they didn’t show up.” As I am more than experienced at ‘ghost posts’ that don’t show up immediately, I was attempting to artfully convolute logic to imply the inverse, then use that improper assumption to calculate the percentage of failure that he experienced.

  3. Johnny 5 Says:

    I think that tolerating others may be prudence, while not tolerating law breaking is justice, both of which are inclusive in the Cardinal virtues of Western philosophy, but not mutually exclusive?

    • Simon Stack Says:

      You might want to try posting in English.

      • Jim Says:

        So far all your comments have either been whining about others’ “attacks” or attacking people yourself. If you post another comment like this, I’m banning your IP.

      • Johnny 5 Says:

        Why must you create such a toxic atmosphere, Simon? I know that I am not a philosopher, nor a ‘Proustian’, but as I am trying to learn from this blog and the replies cascading from it, must you be so abrasive? Must you mock my attempt to add something to the conversation? Is that what gets you off? Well as I am obviously a glutton for punishment, I will restate my comment, IN ENGLISH:

        In my limited knowledge of philosophy and the study thereof, I remember reading about the Cardinal Virtues of Western Philosophy: justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude. I am referencing these because by doing so, I expect to not have to reference a paper explaining or expounding these virtues. I hope that by referencing such a base tenant of philosophical knowledge, it gives me a springboard to suggest that tolerance, though not a Cardinal Virtue itself, can be seen through that prism. As I have understood the blog entry, although obviously not as thoroughly as Simon, I see two sides of ‘tolerance’ being approached: the moral obligation to tolerate others, and the legal obligation not to. When divided into these separate obligations, they seem to resemble two of the Cardinal Virtues: prudence and justice. My suggestion, then, is that tolerance is simply a composite view of two separate obligations, which may be why the author cannot reconcile them into one moral obligation.

        I am awaiting your severe and untempered criticism, Simon.

        • Liza Says:

          You raise an interesting point, Johnny, though I’m not sure it will be compelling to some of the readers of this blog. A number of the people who have criticized my post have done so on the grounds that there is no such thing as objective, intrinsic value. I think this means that they would reject the notion of “cardinal virtues” as well. I think your point is interesting anyway, because, regardless of whether judiciousness and prudence, et. al., are objectively compelling, it is the case that most people who strive to be judicious and prudent face an internal conflict on the subject of tolerance.

          That being said, I am surprised that you cash out my thesis as a conflict between “a moral obligation to tolerate others and a legal obligation not to,” because I was imagining quite the opposite. In my cynical view, the primary purpose of law is to protect property rights and distributions (to what end is debatable)- including bodily rights. So, the law generally favors peaceful interactions among property holders- regardless of how they treat those who are not defined as “persons” under the law. (I will allow, of course, that this is never how laws are justified, I am just giving an account of how I think they come to be.) This means that the legal obligation to tolerate (to refrain from interfering with the business of others) comes into conflict with the moral obligation to intervene (to stop others from doing something morally abhorrent).

          Also, just so that we keep our terms straight- it is prudent to follow the law, but it may not be moral. When you say that judiciousness is in conflict with prudence, I take it to mean that judiciousness is a stand-in for justice, or morality, and prudence is a stand-in for practicality or legality. If what you mean by judiciousness is “an obligation to follow the law” then it is not in conflict with prudence, at least not in this scenario. It seems a curious poverty that the list of cardinal virtues does not include a category of morality separate from judiciousness and prudence because philosophers have always been aware of the distinction between moral laws and legal laws. I wonder if that is because the people who decided upon the list thought it imprudent to preach a cannon of contradictory virtues.

          -Liza

  4. Michael Dunne Says:

    Attlee is correct here. The incoherence of ‘free-will’ precludes that moral imperatives have any coherent meaning that cannot be interpreted as preference-talk. Toleration has been proposed as a moral imperative – what people think they mean when they talk about moral imperatives is that people should do/think or refrain from doing/thinking something. But since ‘should’ implies ‘can’ and ‘can’, in the sense necessary for a ‘moral concept’ to be formed, is incoherent, they can’t mean anything coherent.

    Liza has made the point that it seems far-fetched to simply say that one doesn’t know what people mean when they talk about right and wrong. That’s an interesting observation. As I see it, it comes down to whether one can mean something that’s incoherent. Can I mean a square circle? I don’t know. However, it is in no form an objection to moral anti-realism.

    When people talk about moral imperatives I know what they think they mean, but when pressed they won’t be able to explain it, and neither will anyone else. The argument that categorical imperatives are impossible is so decisive that the fact that moral language is widely used and occasionally sophisticated is rendered entirely irrelevant to our judgment that it cannot be ontologically significant. Now it might be nigh-on impossible to reduce some intricate moral systems to preference-talk, and indeed we might often prefer just to keep the moral language intact, but it will have to be bracketed. However, pragmatic considerations do nothing to refute the argument, and anyone who doesn’t bracket for a moment is momentarily confused.

    The distinctions between the different flavours of moral anti-realism don’t strike me as hugely important. I think error theory is more or less correct – see Mackie ‘Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong’. Moral subjectivism, using moral language and asserting it’s literal truth while claiming that it refers to people’s preferences, seems like a move Daniel Dennett would appreciate (see ‘Freedom Evolves’). The doctrine is, in effect, the same thing as error theory – it’s just that moral language is said to mean something we can say is true, instead of saying that moral claims are false / incoherent but pragmatically the best we can do is reinterpret them as preference assertions which we can then say are true or false, if we really want to. But there is not any philosophical urgency to judge the truth/falsity of statements like ‘John prefers generally that people not kill each other’. Moreover, I think one would be hard-pressed to fill a room with non-philosophers who think that moral statements refer to preferences. Thus I think we need to be wary about endorsing moral subjectivism. Its immediate theoretical price is merely that moral language is rendered completely redundant but, more dangerously, it tricks people into thinking they can retain their previous concept of morality more or less intact.

    On the topic of tolerance, I highly recommend reading the articles Jack linked to, which in my view clearly expose the fatal weaknesses in the principle generally, quite apart from anti-realist arguments showing that it could never be normative even if it was useful in moral systems.

    • Liza Says:

      Michael,

      My response to Attlee had little to do with the content of his view, it was a criticism of his rhetorical approach. I think he is substantively wrong as well. Even a dogged moral nihilist can make a descriptive distinction between what people call “morality” and what people call “taste,” and it is a perfectly coherent distinction. When I say something is “just a matter of taste,” what I mean is “it’s perfectly fine with me if you pick things that are to your taste and I pick things that are to my taste.” When I say something is a matter of moral obligation, what I mean is “it is not perfectly fine with me if you do this thing which I find morally abhorrent.” Leaving aside whether moral claims are true, there is a perfectly coherent descriptive distinction between things which people consider matters of taste and things which people consider matters of morality: They don’t kill each other over things they consider to be matters of taste. When I say that “the line between moral value and taste is blurry,” I am making a descriptive observation about the how the labels of “taste” and “moral obligation” are applied differently from culture to culture. That was my point about dietary law and sexual practices.

      I am aware that this doesn’t give moral value any special ontological status distinct from taste, obviously. Moral sentiment and taste preferences are both grounded in desire which is brute. So, I understand Attlee’s and your inclination to reduce moral language to preference talk. That being said I think there are several good reasons why “moral sentiment” and “taste preferences” should be kept semantically distinct. First, as I have observed above, “moral sentiment” seems to shape behavior in ways that “taste preference” doesn’t, so keeping moral language intact is at least useful in terms of folk psychology. Second, neuro-psychological research seems to suggest that moral impulses and other types of desires are materially distinct (e.g. a much different thing happens in my brain when I feel moral outrage than when I feel grief even though they both seem to be things that are displeasurable). So, the old Humean picture of taste and morality differing only in terms of intensity seems to be wrong. This doesn’t get us categorical imperatives, obviously, but it does open a place to talk about morality as conceptually if not ontologically distinct from taste.

      I have the same concerns about free will and moral responsibility that you have, but I think the issue of free will poses a problem that is distinct from the is/ought gap which seemed to be the observation behind Attlee’s post. I recommend reading some works in contractualism or contractarian ethics (John Rawls’ first paper on a decision procedure for ethics is interesting) if you are interested meta-ethical projects that are not contingent upon the possibility of free will for grounding moral imperatives. Generally speaking, contractualist theories explain moral imperatives in hypothetical terms (the hypothetical contract situation) and thus avoid the problem of ought-implies-can-and-there-is-no-can which makes other moral theories so problematic.

      Also, the problem of free will does not make Attlee’s preference account of morality more plausible. Indeed, I think it makes it less plausible for the same reason it makes the standard account of morality implausible. Just as our usual account of morality is made incoherent if there is no free will because there is no “action I should choose” only the “action I will do,” our usual understanding of preference is incoherent. There is no “thing I would choose,” the standard account of preference, only the “thing I will have,” the standard account of determinism. Reducing morality to preference talk makes our ontology simpler and avoids the problem of the fact/value distinction by eliminating oughts or reducing them to oughts of prudence, but it does nothing to overcome the problem of free will. If we have no free will, it is just as incoherent to say “Jim ought to read the book I sent him because it will make him feel good” as it is to say “Jim ought to read the book I sent him because it will make him good.”

  5. Michael Dunne Says:

    Liza,

    I have no objection to the distinction you’re making, but I’m not sure what you hope to achieve by invoking it. I’m not surprised at all that people feel different when making moral assertions to how they feel when stating preference, or that the language is sociologically distinct, or that much different things happen in people’s brains. It is thought that morality is distinct from preferences because morality is about what people should do while preferences are just about what some people like and other people dislike. But we are clearly mistaken. So what are we to make of moral talk? Since it’s certainly not what we thought it was, and since it does involve some people cheering and other people booing, it seems natural to assume that it’s ultimately the same phenomenon, because what else could it be? There is a lack of an alternative. That moral language and preference language play different roles in society and that different things happen in brains seems to me unsurprising and entirely irrelevant to anything of philosophical interest, but I’ll reserve judgment.

    I have not followed the blog well enough to judge Attlee’s position. If he says that there is no difference in what people mean when they talk about their preferences and when they talk about their morals then I suppose I disagree, but it’s only a technicality. Again, I agree with your descriptive distinction but I don’t see why it is important. You can talk about moral obligation without the brackets if you want but it’s very confusing since you either mean preference or you don’t know what you mean, like anyone else who talks about moral obligation. If you would rather we say that moral value is merely desire, not taste, that’s ok. I don’t use the term ‘taste’, usually ‘preference’, but ‘desire’ is fine.

    In light of the impossibility of free-will I cannot see what ‘ground’ one could give moral principles apart from the ‘ground’ that one approves of this one and disapproves of that one, perhaps on the basis that this one fits into an elegant system that you approve of while that one doesn’t. From what I know of Rawls he strikes me as well-meaning but hopelessly wrong. It seems to me that you and Jim think the same of Fish, maybe without the well-meaning part. From what I’ve read on this blog it appears that neither of you have read anything he has written besides his newspaper articles – please correct me if necessary. You are of course entitled to criticise him on that basis, but it would be helpful if you read something more substantial. So if you read Fish I’ll read Rawls.

    A ‘moral imperative in hypothetical terms’ seems to me a moral imperative in name only. Why bother with moral talk when you can just say that if you want A then B would be a good idea because C?

    ‘Just as our usual account of morality is made incoherent if there is no free will because there is no “action I should choose” only the “action I will do,” our usual understanding of preference is incoherent. There is no “thing I would choose,” the standard account of preference, only the “thing I will have,” the standard account of determinism.’

    I can’t see how this is right. In the case of preference we can just say that Bill desires ice-cream but doesn’t desire apples, or that he desires that people get along and doesn’t desire that they arbitrarily (as he sees it) kill each other. This makes perfect sense to me, while I can make no sense at all of the claims that he shouldn’t kill people or that he should protect the weak. To take your example, why can’t we just translate A as something like ‘I hope Jim reads the book I sent him because it will make him feel good’ or ‘I will be displeased if Jim doesn’t read the book I sent him because it will make him happy and I desire that he be happy’. The ‘ought’ can be considered a figure of speech. It’s not the ‘ought’ that’s the problem, it’s the ‘good’. The first one is fine and the second one presupposes free-will which is incoherent.

    • Jim Says:

      I have no intention of getting in the middle of your discussion with Liza. She is fully capable of responding to your questions to her on her own. That said, I want to take issue with something you wrote here. In response to Liza’s suggestion that an understanding of contractualism might be relevant to your concerns, and, for this reason, you should read an article by Rawls, you wrote, “if you read Fish I’ll read Rawls.” This strikes me as odd. The criticisms of Fish here have not been global in scope. Rather, they have had to do with specific things he wrote in specific articles. To that end, what is relevant about Fish’s opinions in terms of the posts here is contained in the articles referenced. This would be similar to the situation above where Liza suggested you read a particular article by Rawls. Your contention that a failure to read Fish’s entire body of work is analogous to your not reading one article by Rawls is clearly just wrong. As such, your attempt to wrangle some sort of deal here that involves Liza reading volumes so you’ll read one paper seems absolutely absurd.

      For the record, both Liza and I are familiar with Fish’s larger works. I have a degree in English lit, and you can’t do lit theory to any degree without dealing with reader-response criticism in general and Fish’s interpretive communities in specific. I don’t know what gave you the idea that either of us was unfamiliar with Fish in general, but you asked for correction, and you have received it.

    • Liza Says:

      Michael,

      You are certainly entitled to your own view of what is “philosophically interesting” but I am inclined to agree with Jim that it is inappropriate to discount the work of many, many brilliant contemporary philosophers on the grounds that it is not philosophically relevant. Personally, I cannot think of any philosophical question that is more relevant (or interesting) than the question of what I should do, and the fact that many philosophers leave open the possibility that they may discover a satisfactory answer to this question is not proof of their incompetence or lack of philosophical depth. I have made a post about the Rawlsian view of justification and how it corresponds to value subjectivity. I plan to make a second post about the relationship between Rawlsian justification and free will. If you are not personally committed to justification (epistemic or otherwise), I expect that you will not find the Rawlsian account compelling, but I hope that you will at least understand what I mean when I say that there are coherent moral theories which are not contingent upon the existence of objective moral values. I welcome your comments on the Rawls posts.

      -Liza

  6. Michael Dunne Says:

    Jim,

    I never suggested she wasn’t capable and didn’t ask for your intervention but feel free to comment.

    I think you may have misinterpreted me. I have suggested that Liza read things Fish has wrote a few times and she didn’t say she would or give any indication that she had. I was offering a deal but the deal wasn’t that I read one article and she reads a bunch of lengthy books – it’s one a 1-1 basis. My apologies for not making that clearer. I am hoping that my offer to read a lot of what I anticipate to be worthless rubbish will be motivation for her to read a lot of what she anticipates to be the same. It was meant in a light-hearted fashion.

    It’s my mistake if you both have read Fish extensively. If that’s the case, it’s my opinion that you havn’t understood him correctly. From what I’ve read I think that the problems you’re having with Fish on these specific issues wouldn’t be so much of a problem if you both understood him better on a general level. Also, your criticisms are not as specific as you say and some of them border on misrepresentation. Your post on epistemologies not all being equal sounds pretty general. You criticise Fish for having us believe that there is nothing to choose between scientific explanations and religious ones, but on my reading of that article he is saying nothing of the sort. The criticism is incorrectly formed anyway, because, in my opinion, if you understood Fish properly you would not think there were such things as ‘scientific’ or ‘religious’ explanations, in the sense in which you use them. But I can continue on the relevant thread anyway.

    Does ‘being familiar with’ his larger works mean you’ve read them?

    • Jim Says:

      Yes, I’ve read Fish, but that doesn’t mean I agree with him. I think there most certainly is a difference between scientific and religious explanations, regardless of what Fish thinks. Your apparent belief that if only I would read Fish I would not make such “mistakes” is unfounded; reading Fish does not equal agreeing with Fish. And my post was about something specific that Fish said, namely that the debate between scientific and religious explanations is a misunderstanding as both rely on different forms of evidence. He’s wrong about that. That issue is also informs the issue of faith, so he’s wrong about that as well.
      There has been no misrepresentation on my part. If you’re going to criticize me of such dishonesty, you need to be specific and cite examples.
      As far as your “bargain” with Liza, again, I’ll point out that she suggested you read a single paper that was directly related to an issue you raised. She did so for your benefit, not her own. I suspect it matters very little to her if you read Rawls. Rather, it looks like you know little about the current discussions of ethics, this being demonstrated by your writing “That moral language and preference language play different roles in society and that different things happen in brains seems to me unsurprising and entirely irrelevant to anything of philosophical interest,” which is wildly wrong (assuming, of course, that you allow “philosophical interest” to be determined by the amount of current study by professional philosophers in those very areas). Your attempt to suggest that something else was at issue when Liza pointed you toward Rawls is a misrepresentation.

  7. Michael Dunne Says:

    Jim,

    If you look you will see that I never accused you of being dishonest, I accused you of being mistaken as to what Fish was claiming. I assumed the alleged misrepresentation was accidental.

    As for Liza’s recommendation to read an article by Rawls that is ‘directly related’ to the issue at hand, I cannot see that it is related at all, since the only claim I am making is that moral systems are normatively impotent in light of the incoherence of free-will, and that the only possible reason one could have for affirming this one over that one is that one likes this one and dislikes that one. Why should it make any difference to me if contractarianism is premised on hypothetical imperatives, since it’s not then a moral system in any sense that is a danger to my claim. My argument doesn’t require that I reject the values contractarianism serves to promote, only that there be no impartial standpoint from where people can judge whether to affirm or reject them. So far I have been given no reason to think that there is or that such a thing is possible. Now as far as I know Liza has no major objection to this, which is why I wonder why she thinks the article is relevant, or why she thinks the language being used differently is relevant, or why she thinks things happening in brains is relevant.

    No, I don’t allow ‘philosophical interest’ to be determined by the amount of current study by professional philosophers in whatever area, since it should be clear to anyone that there is major disagreement between professional philosophers in any area you care to mention, and these disagreements include ones about what counts as relevant or interesting. Thus it would be difficult and pointless to scale one’s interest in a topic to the amount of philosophers studying it, and one can be sure that wherever there is something irrelevant some philosopher will be studying it. Even if there was general agreement, this would be persuasive only until examination showed otherwise. Furthermore it should be obvious that some professional philosophers are consistently wrong – most professional philosophers, for example, affirm free-will, which is obviously incoherent.

    I don’t find the facts cited above very philosophically interesting because, as I’ve said, it seems to me that whether they are true or not has no bearing on what is philosophically interesting – namely whether morality, as traditionally conceived, has any ontological status. Assuming these cited facts are true, which I’m sure they are, what are they supposed to provide evidence for?

    Returning for a moment to the topic of this thread, ‘tolerance’ is not a useful principle for reasons Attlee has already presented. Fish has argued as much in several places – the best one is probably ‘Boutique Multiculturalism, or why Liberals are Incapable of Talking about Hate Speech’.

    • Jim Says:

      I did look, and it is very clear what you said: “Also, your criticisms are not as specific as you say and some of them border on misrepresentation.” I don’t see how that could be suggesting anything other than that I’m being less than honest both when I say my criticisms are specific and when I paraphrase what Fish is saying. The “also” is what makes your meaning clear as you’ve already suggested earlier that I don’t understand Fish well. You’re talking about something new here, and the “also” is what clues the reader in on the shift in issues.
      Yes, the article Liza suggested is directly related to your concerns. She said as much. Your insistence that you know better than she does is odd considering your admission that you haven’t read the article in question or Rawls in general. Perhaps if you refrained from assuming you already know the content of something you admit you haven’t read you could prevent such mistakes.
      Your claim that you get to decide what is “philosophically interesting” rather than professional philosophers is quite strange. Philosophers in general take the issue of ethics to be very interesting, thus “philosophically interesting.” Rather than saying it isn’t of philosophical interest, you should just say it isn’t interesting to you, someone who isn’t a professional philosopher, because you are plainly wrong about it not being philosophically interesting as a cursory glance at current philosophical journals, those places where things of interest to philosophers is found, would demonstrate.

  8. Michael Dunne Says:

    Jim,

    Why couldn’t it be possible that your criticisms were not actually as specific as you claimed, you being honestly mistaken about how specific they were, and that your presentation of Fish’s claims was a misrepresentation due to insufficient understanding, you being honestly mistaken again, and that you not understand Fish well, all at the same time? For instance, you don’t understand Fish well, and you are ‘also’ mistaken about these things. To be honest I can’t be bothered getting involved in an elaborate debate about the meaning of my own words. If I think you’re dishonest I’ll say so. In the meantime if you want to think that I think you’re dishonest then go ahead.

    Again you bring no argument to the discussion at all, merely assertions. You assert that the article is very relevant, apparently because Liza says so, but I don’t think she could be too upset if I don’t take her word as gospel. I don’t recall ever saying that I hadn’t read Rawls – you just assumed I hadn’t. What Liza claimed was that the article was relevant because

    ‘contractualist theories explain moral imperatives in hypothetical terms (the hypothetical contract situation) and thus avoid the problem of ought-implies-can-and-there-is-no-can which makes other moral theories so problematic’.

    I have made several clear objections hoping to show why this is not relevant to my claim, why the price for basing a moral system on hypothetical imperatives is that it ceases to be a moral system in anything but name, but you continue to ignore objections and prefer to question my competency to participate in this discussion for what seems to be no particular reason.

    ‘Your claim that you get to decide what is “philosophically interesting” rather than professional philosophers is quite strange.’

    If you think the fact moral language plays a different role to preference/desire language is philosophically interesting, rather than just sociologically interesting, then please present an argument, instead of an assertion, against mine that it isn’t . So far you havn’t once addressed the actual content of this thread.

    • Jim Says:

      Why can’t I be mistaken about Fish and also mistaken about Fish? I suppose I could, but it seems redundant, and presenting it as such is odd. If you’re prone to that sort of thing, I’ll accept that for now, skeptical though i might be.
      You’re right, you didn’t explicitly say you hadn’t read Rawls, but you tried to make a deal that included reading Rawls when you thought Liza hadn’t read Fish. It would seem odd and a bit dishonest for you to suggest that you would like to make a bargain to read stuff you’ve already read.
      I haven’t contributed to your discussion with Liza on purpose. In fact, the first sentence of my first response to you reads, “I have no intention of getting in the middle of your discussion with Liza.” As such, your criticism of my not getting in the middle of your discussion with Liza seems, for a third time, odd.

  9. Michael Dunne Says:

    I said that I had discussed it with her before on more than one occasion and that you misinterpreted me – ask her yourself. She should be aware that I’ve read Rawls and aware that the offer was not what you misinterpreted it as. Well you see, when you say that you have no intention of getting involved, what you seem to mean is that you have no intention of presenting arguments.

    • Jim Says:

      She clearly doesn’t think you’ve read the single article she suggested, and that’s to what I was referring this entire time. I didn’t misinterpret anything.
      What I said was that I wasn’t going to get into the middle of your discussion with Liza on a particular topic, not that I wasn’t going to “get involved.” Obviously, I’m involved. I’m one-half owner of the blog on which you’re posting. Don’t put words in my mouth just because what I’m actually saying doesn’t fit what you need me to say to meet your preconceived notions.
      Your whole crew seems to be guilty of constant willful misunderstanding. It’s boring.

  10. Michael Dunne Says:

    What ‘crew’?

  11. Michael Dunne Says:

    And yes, you are involved and you are involved in this particular issue, since you insist that I’m wrong about the article and these facts about language being irrelevant, which is part of my argument on this particular issue. The problem is you don’t present any arguments of your own. Could you please do so or if not just refrain from posting on this thread. The fact you’re ‘one-half owner’ of this blog doesn’t remedy your lack of arguments and doesn’t justify you making assertions without any. If you would rather that everyone agree with you then I recommend banning anyone who doesn’t.

    • Jim Says:

      Now it’s clear that you’re just being contrary. I made no assertions about the content of your discussion with Liza. I said it was absurd to attempt to wrangle some sort of deal with Liza that had her reading Fish’s body of work when all she suggested you read was a single article. That has nothing to do with my wanting everyone to agree with me, and I have suggested nothing of the sort. I’ve made no argument because I’ve committed myself to no position outside of the absurdity of your desired “deal” with Liza. I’ve said this repeatedly, and yet you have failed to understand each time. You are either doing so willfully, or you’re simply a fool. Either way, I have long since grown bored with ridiculousness.

  12. Michael Dunne Says:

    ‘Yes, the article Liza suggested is directly related to your concerns. She said as much.’

    • Jim Says:

      Really? My pointing out that it is odd that you would doubt Liza’s word when you haven’t read the article in question is not some issue that requires extensive argument. Do you genuinely not understand something so straightforward, or are you just being a jerk?

  13. Michael Dunne Says:

    Since you are obviously didn’t read my posts, didn’t understand them, or are just not interested in having a discussion, I will quote the relevant passages for you –

    ‘As for Liza’s recommendation to read an article by Rawls that is ‘directly related’ to the issue at hand, I cannot see that it is related at all, since the only claim I am making is that moral systems are normatively impotent in light of the incoherence of free-will, and that the only possible reason one could have for affirming this one over that one is that one likes this one and dislikes that one. Why should it make any difference to me if contractarianism is premised on hypothetical imperatives, since it’s not then a moral system in any sense that is a danger to my claim. My argument doesn’t require that I reject the values contractarianism serves to promote, only that there be no impartial standpoint from where people can judge whether to affirm or reject them. So far I have been given no reason to think that there is or that such a thing is possible. Now as far as I know Liza has no major objection to this, which is why I wonder why she thinks the article is relevant, or why she thinks the language being used differently is relevant, or why she thinks things happening in brains is relevant.’

    ‘What Liza claimed was that the article was relevant because

    ‘contractualist theories explain moral imperatives in hypothetical terms (the hypothetical contract situation) and thus avoid the problem of ought-implies-can-and-there-is-no-can which makes other moral theories so problematic’.

    I have made several clear objections hoping to show why this is not relevant to my claim, why the price for basing a moral system on hypothetical imperatives is that it ceases to be a moral system in anything but name’

    Now which parts of these objections don’t you understand? All indications suggest that you’re just not interested in having a serious discussion and seem to prefer attacking me personally, someone you don’t know and don’t know anything about. The fact you accuse me of belonging to a ‘crew’ is curious considering the only people here I have ever had any previous contact with whatsoever are Liza and Jack. If your next reply doesn’t contain an argument I will just ignore it.

  14. James Gray Says:

    I don’t have time to read all of the comments, but here is my thought:

    Tolerance is a virtue, just like any Aristotelian virtue. There is a right way to do it and it can become immoderate. This virtue can be an intellectual virtue about the fact that we should be open to arguments and evidence provided by others. This is merely a virtue of open-mindedness. It can also be a virtue about leaving people alone. In this case, we should leave people alone who are either not doing harm, or who are not doing enough harm to worry about. Gay marriage, different genders, and different races should be tolerated because these people are not committing harm qua their identities. It would be missing the point of harm. Look specifically at the harm done, not at the kind of person doing the harm.

    • Liza Says:

      First, saying that it is a virtue to tolerate those who do not commit harm qua their identities won’t work here because the very concept of harm is up for debate. If you believe that God exists and that He might reign down fire on individuals who don’t obey His word, (or on communities that tolerate such individuals) then you probably also believe that homosexuals are harming you, or at least putting you at risk. I think you are going to have some trouble appealing to some fact-of-the-matter about what harm is. John Stuart Mill spent several chapters of Utilitarianism on that topic and he still didn’t come up with a coherent, fail-safe account.

      Second, I agree that it is an intellectual virtue to be open to arguments and new evidence, but I am inclined to think that this isn’t what people mean when they say we ought to be “tolerant.” Instead, they mean something more like “put up with that person even though he/she is stupid/offensive/abominable.”

      • James Gray Says:

        My answer was not meant to be a huge philosophical argument, so some room for debate is compatible with what I said.

        Aristotle never completely defines virtue. He doesn’t give all necessary and sufficient conditions because it requires personal experience and it is perfectly normal to debate the specifics of a virtue.

        If homosexuals do harm people through their behavior, then we don’t have to tolerate them. I think this is absurd, and anyone who thinks this will have to back it up with empirical evidence. The idea that homosexual marriage will “destroy marriage” might count here. If this is true, it should be proven. Also, we need proof that marriage is something important. (i.e. destroying marriage would harm people.) Saint Paul himself seemed to despise marriage, but he would “tolerate” marriage insofar as it kept unenlightened people from being promiscuous, or something to that effect. If he is right, we would still need to know why being promiscuous is harmful.

        We have a choice: Either we count “tolerance” as a virtue and try to make sense of it as a virtue, or we take what the general public calls “tolerance” and simply count it as a false value. This tendency would incline us to find the public wrong about just about everything considering that they tend to lack a philosophical understanding of the world, and turn good ideas into bad ideas.

        Is authenticity a sophisticated philosophical notion or is it a stupid everyday idea of “be yourself?” and “keepin’ it real?” Is relativism a sophisticated philosophical position or ab absurd everyday belief that everyone lives in a separate reality? And so on.

  15. What the Loch Ness Monster Taught Me About Tolerance « Apple Eaters Says:

    […] be tolerant of others is a tough question.  Liza has addressed that issue to some degree in an earlier post.  Now, something else has happened that has me wondering how far we should to go in our […]


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