Moral Tolerance

Moral tolerance is a deeply misunderstood notion that hides behind the emotively disingenuous pretence of individual liberty, autonomy and respect. Moral tolerance tends to be associated with democratically entrench values pertaining to difference, openness, individuality and the like. These are cherished noble ideals. Indeed moral tolerance means that the beliefs and practices of other individuals (and nations) be respected and condoned irrespective of whether one finds oneself sympathetic to or in agreement with these. Moral tolerance renders moral beliefs and practices epistemically inept. That is, all moral beliefs and practices are tolerated irrespective of truth and justification. Morally, the argument must then be that tolerance is practiced for the sake of some higher moral good. What is that good? This good is “individual liberty, autonomy and respect”. There, of course, remains the question, “Are individual liberty, autonomy and respect goods that are pursued for their own sake or for the sake of some higher good?”

Individual liberty though distinct from the notion of freedom cannot really be made meaningful without it. It is in reference to the meaning of freedom that certain kinds of liberties are said to follow (justifiably?). For instance, a negative concept of freedom argues that one is free to the extent that no extrinsic obstacles stand in the way of acting thus and so. The liberties that follow from this include the absence from constraint to pursue education such that it is open to one and all irrespective of religion, sex or race. Other examples include access to public roads or services where no special permission is required for the use thereof. However, a positive concept of freedom argues that one is free to the extent that conditions are such that one can pursue said education which is otherwise open to one and all, and can actually use public roads and services. For instance, someone may be negatively free to go to college and wish to, yet not have the economic means to do so. The liberties that follow from this include providing circumstances and/or physical conditions that make this possible. Quoting Berlin, the negative concept of liberty aims at answering the question, “What is the area within which the subject – a person or group of persons – is or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be, without interference by other persons?” whilst the positive concept aims at answering the question, “What, or who, is the source of control or interference that can determine someone to do, or be, this rather than that?” (1969, pp. 121-22).

In a very real way, the concept of freedom already renders the notion of moral tolerance problematic. Imagine that someone gets it into his/her head to cheat on the exam, call him Happy, the introduction of college policies to inhibit the student’s choice would be to constrain the student’s freedom. Happy is negatively free iff his choice of action is tolerated. Imagine also that a young man, going by the name Will, born to fascist parents proficient in the use of fire arms and adopting home learning practices rear their child to believe that others are a violent and unnecessary intrusion upon his/her freedom and that any self-respecting individual would fire at will against those who dare “infiltrate his castle”. Will is negatively free to the extent that no obstacles stand in the way of making good on his volition and he is also positively free since his parents have actually provided him with the means by which he can put his volition into practice.

Yet, College policy against cheating rests on the argument that establishes cheating as a form of deceit, and that “intentional deception (however voluntary) is wrong”. One argument against “intentional deception” interestingly enough rests on the concept of autonomy. This will be explored next. The point is that because intentional deceit is wrong, no one should be permitted to cheat on exams. Hence, teachers, administrators and fellow students should not be tolerant with respect to such choices. Will has been raised in rather questionable circumstances (is it also morally questionable?) and has been bombarded with a host of “false beliefs” (e.g. “other people are a violent and unnecessary intrusion” is false), which will insight him to act in a certain way. But when and if Will decides to murder the mailman because s/he apparently invaded his castle his action should not be tolerated. It should not be tolerated both because murder is wrong and because the reasons on which his action rest are mistaken/false. Moral tolerance is not therefore condoned in this case because the acts in question were an infringement upon the freedoms of others (advocates of moral tolerance may want to argue Will would not be permitted to commit murder because this would violate the higher good (liberty, autonomy or respect?) upon which moral tolerance rests) but because these actions either are or rested upon falsehoods. In comes the need for criterion of moral judgment. The implication that ensues is that tolerance is not adopted for the sake of liberty, it is adopted iff the truth-value is unattainable or the action is morally neutral or inconsequential. These two scenarios are neither beyond judgment, and for this reason it makes sense to say that they should not be tolerated, nor do they have negligible consequences.

Autonomy is another misunderstood concept. The etymology comprises two Greek words “auto” meaning “self” and “nomy” from the “nomos” meaning “rule” or “law”.  Literally the meaning is self-ruled and is often, and for good reason, disassociated with “heteronomy” derived from the words “heteron” meaning “other”and“nomos” again. What is the difference between being “self-ruled” and “ruled-by-others”? One is self-ruled in virtue of the fact that s/he is an agent who can initiate action as an expression of his/her free will. So the lack of autonomy or someone who is heteronymous is prone to act not from his/her own will. Advocates of moral tolerance argue that moral autonomy requires that whatever the outcome of my beliefs one must have the power to act upon them. This would seem to suggest that once again the truth-value of the beliefs one has as well as the truth-value of the conclusion one thereby derives is irrelevant to the extent to which one can be described as autonomous. If this is the case, then indeed, moral tolerance must follow necessarily. What is the seat of choice then, wherefrom does the so-called manifestation of one’s choices spring such that they can be called “mine” or such that the true expression of the agent’s will follows?

Siding with Immanuel Kant on this matter, it would seem that the seat of autonomous choice resides in reason. Reason is that faculty that enables one to transcend the effects of the various causal influences (efficient causes) that detract from one’s ability to make choices that can ultimately be called his/her own. When Happy decided to cheat on the exam was he motivated by socially cultivated values pertaining to “success” and its extrinsic measure “the good grade” or was it the result of Happy’s ability to transcend whatever social, and/or personal influences that ultimately drove him to adopt this action? We may never really know. Still, it makes sense to say that only once these “foreign” causal influences are factored out of the picture can one be sure that a decision is free from compulsion of “other” or outside factors. Accepting this, it follows that there can be no autonomy short of judgment where Reason is the means by which it is fostered. To make judgments that can be considered voluntary, one must have the right to demand truth preserving policies as well as unadulterated access to information pertinent to one’s aim to determine the fate of one’s own life. The flipside of this view is that when judgments are rendered null and void in the name of moral tolerance the agent is ultimately asked to blindly accept the beliefs and actions of others, namely not to judge them. Hence, one must also have the right to judge the beliefs and actions of others to the extent that these rest on or derive falsehoods. I am “my own person” and “determine the fate of my own life” to the extent that I can make informed choices based on truth preserving mechanisms and have at the same time the freedom to challenge the merit of the beliefs and actions of others. By implication, strict moral tolerance would impede autonomy.

Regarding Happy, notice that the autonomy of the teacher (as well as the institution and fellow students) is jeopardized since the teacher wanting to be fair makes the decision to give Happy a B in the course, when surely had she known that Happy cheated she would have given him an F instead. So this information is concealed from view precisely because Happy wants to determine the outcome of the teacher’s choice for her.

Respect is different when applied as if to say, “agents have rights” and different when used to underscore “person”. Clearly moral tolerance would wish to preserve the forum in which one can pursue his/her difference (whether religiously, socially, economically, racially or epistemically determined). Hence, respect for those who advocate moral tolerance just means to respect an agent’s right to x, y, z irrespective of race, religion etc. as well as the right to be protected against the imposing will of other groups that threaten the expression of the agent’s/groups difference. The first problem with this would be an infinite regress that would challenge the very backbone of such rights, at least in principle. In principle a taxonomy chart could be provided whereby categories and subcategories, species and genera thereof would be provided cross referenced and the works in order to account for all known differences between groups and individuals such that protective rights would be assigned to the one over and against the other (and vice versa).

More significantly, respect would only be pursued in the name of each individual difference and would find expression as such. This perspective is somewhat demeaning. Indeed, this perspective is contrary to commonplace ideas about respect that are so intuitive to us that it is taken for granted. We respect moms not in virtue of being mom and we respect our teacher not in virtue of being a teacher, indeed we respect a black man not in virtue of being black. The point is that we do not lavish respect on people because they are different (belong to different groups (social, political, religious, etc.), have different properties (are Caucasian, black etc.) or have different ideologies (are pacifists, etc.). Nor however, do we respect a black man despite being black nor still do we respect mom despite being mom. In other words, we don’t want to cancel out whatever makes one different and thereby claim that this difference will not be permitted to jeopardize the rightful hearing of, consideration of, entitlements of, or treatment of such persons. We want to say that we respect mom because of what she brings to the modes of being mom and that we respect a black man because of what he brings to the mode of being a man and so on. Take the example of a teacher. If a teacher is respected in virtue of being a teacher, then all teachers are ipso facto worthy of respect. Surely there are teachers unworthy of respect; indeed, were there no such teachers the use of the term would become redundant. By this I do not mean that the so-called unworthy-of-respect-teacher should be deprived of respect tout court, since this person may indeed be a respectful citizen, mother and so on. However, if this teacher, despite formal qualifications and the like, is rude, austere, abusive, offensive, etc. a student may very well be justified not to respect her as a teacher.

Selective Bibliography

  1. Cooper, 1978, “Moral Relativism,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy 3: 97-108.
  2. Hatch, 1983, Culture and Morality: The Relativity of Values in Anthropology, New York: Columbia University Press.
  3. Rachels, 1999, “The Challenge of Cultural Relativism,” The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 3rd ed., New York: Random House. 20-36.
  4. W. Cook, 1999, Morality and Cultural Differences, New York: Oxford University Press.
  5. Isaiah Berlin, 2002, Liberty, Henry Hardy (ed.), Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
  6. Foot, 1978, Virtues and Vices and Other Essays in Moral Philosophy, Oxford: Basil Blackwell. 96-109. Original Publication Date: 1958.
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