The puzzle of intolerant tolerance

How can liberal democracies justify prosecuting people who wear crosses or refuse to preside at same-sex marriages and still pride themselves on being tolerant?
Michael Casey | 28 March 2011
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One of the most puzzling features of contemporary Western society is that governments are prepared to act intolerantly in the name of tolerance. Australian sociologist Michael Casey explains how this has come about.

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MercatorNet: You have written about the puzzle of “intolerant tolerance”. What is this all about?

Casey: Tolerance is essential to any sort of life in common, especially in complex democratic societies. Originally it was simply a practice, a way of living together and respecting the freedom of others. It has now become a value in its own right, perhaps the supreme value. Certainly it features high up on the list whenever people are asked to identify what the West stands for.

To create a tolerant society, however, democracies increasingly resort to intolerance. There is no question that a decent society must protect itself and vulnerable minorities from groups which refuse to respect the rights of other people. But intolerant tolerance is directed against groups which actually respect and defend the rights and freedoms of others.

Christians, for example, are treated as intolerant for maintaining legitimate distinctions between couples who can and cannot be married; for reasonably exercising a preference in employing staff for people who share their faith; and for defending the rights of the unborn and disabled. Intolerance means refusing to respect the rights of others, but in these cases it has been extended to something which is not a form of intolerance at all: the right we all have to refuse to validate choices with which we disagree and to say they are wrong. Intolerant tolerance means enforced validation of certain values and practices in the name of the tolerance.

MercatorNet: When did the modern notion of tolerance take shape? Whom do you regard as the touchstone of tolerance in Western history?

Casey: The earliest important source is the Roman writer Lactantius (c240-320 AD), a member of Constantine’s retinue and a significant influence on the concept of toleration Constantine practiced after he became Emperor. Lactantius’ major work is the Divine Institutes, which provides perhaps the first well-developed theory of religious toleration. He argues that religious devotion is genuine only if it is freely adopted. Coercion in religious matters should be rejected because it contradicts the very nature of religious belief. If there is to be punishment for following a false religion, it should be left to God. In short, respect for religion requires respect for freedom.

The major modern account of tolerance comes from Harvard University’s John Rawls (d. 2002). For Rawls, the state must be “neutral” towards different values, and dedicate itself to the project of creating and maintaining an equality of freedom and justice so everyone can live by their own beliefs. This sounds nice, but achieving this goal, especially for groups which suffer discrimination, inevitably involves the state in closer and closer supervision of society. The logic is that “discriminatory” beliefs are intolerant because, when acted on, they violate the rights of others. To preserve a tolerant society the freedom of people with discriminatory beliefs must be restricted. So the “neutral” state finds itself in the business of approving or vetoing values, depending on whether they meet whatever the current requirements of tolerance might be. Increasingly, those requirements now brand orthodox Christians as intolerant.

Putting Lactantius and Rawls side by side highlights an important point. There is a world of difference between the tolerance which has its beginning and end in respect for freedom (Lactantius), and the tolerance which operates as a means of bringing about a vision of a good or just society (Rawls). It is usually when tolerance is placed in the service of a particular project, like that of Rawls, that it is most likely to produce intolerance.

MercatorNet: The characteristic philosophy of our age is relativism. How does this affect the concept of tolerance?

Casey: Relativism seems to make tolerance essential. If different values are no more and no less than equally valid, and if truth—and therefore judgement between values—is impossible, tolerance becomes the only basis of social and political life.

But this is a very slender reed on which to build a life in common. The unstated fear seems to be that we will very quickly be at each other’s throats if we each insist on the truth of our own values over others, so tolerance becomes an article of faith which overrides all other values. For the sake of social harmony, everyone must believe in it, and where necessary it must to be enforced. This task naturally falls to the state.

Relativism reinforces the myth that in a tolerant society the state is neutral between different values. But life is not lived in neutrality. When relativism shapes the moral life of a society any consensual activity by adults which does not break the law becomes a “right” which cannot be resisted, regardless of the destructive effects it may have for individuals and the community. There is no neutrality when the good cannot be preferred to the bad. If you want a genuinely tolerant society you need truth as the foundation, not relativism.

MercatorNet: But how can you possibly be tolerant if you believe in truth? Aren’t you thereby committed to discriminating against people who don’t accept “your truth”?

Casey: That view explains why relativism is regarded as the only form of moral philosophy safe for democracy. Given the abundance of conflicting views, values and desires, and the adamant insistence on our own supremacy, truth appears to be not only implausible but tyrannical. When truth prevails, so the standard line goes, it narrows existence, constrains the possibilities of knowledge, and limits freedom and autonomy. Its ideas of “good and evil”, “true and false” cause division and intolerance.

The way forward is to move from a stubborn insistence that there is no such thing as truth, or that truth is dangerous, to conceding that perhaps truth is possible and available to us after all, and that in our own way we are all seeking it.

Conceding the possibility of truth, and that we all share a desire to find the truth and to live in its light, changes the situation completely. Nothing is lost from diversity, disagreement, scepticism and dispute, but they are re-located within a common journey which makes trust, openness and respect for each other in our different moral commitments stronger and easier. This is what real tolerance means.

Truth is not an answer in a box and it is not a cudgel. It is the unfolding of reality in which each of us takes part. Wherever our own search for the truth might lead us, the shared acceptance that it is the truth we are all seeking changes the game. It takes us out of the dead end of intolerant tolerance.

MercatorNet: A key element in your critique is “decisionism”. What is this? Why does it corrupt tolerance?

Casey: Decisionism is an ugly word for a very impoverished idea of authority. In its simplest form it means that, in the absence of truth, authority derives solely from the decision to assert one set of values over all others. It agrees with relativism that there are no values which are universally true, but completely rejects relativism’s conclusion that therefore all values must be treated as no more and no less than equally valid. Decisionism is a “solution” to relativism, with the decision—an act of will—taking the place of truth to justify one set of values as supreme over others.

In the way most Western governments currently work, the decision might be by majority vote or imposed by courts or government departments. But as long as the correct procedure has been followed, the decision is binding. It will be justified using the language of justice, rights and even truth, but the decision is what matters and to a significant extent determines what is “just” and “true” (or “tolerant”) in any particular case.

In the absence of truth it is success which validates, and a decision is successful only if it is the final word on a matter for everyone. If objections continue, especially from philosophical or religious convictions which reject relativism and argue for the truth, they call the whole show into question.

So, if Christians (for example) continue to maintain objections to certain decisions in defence of the dignity and freedom of the human person, in defence of human life from conception to natural death, in defence of marriage and the natural family, and in defence of religious freedom, conscience, human rights and social justice, they must be acted against to enforce what “the tolerant society” requires. The problems that relativism and decisionism cause for genuine tolerance explain how we end up with intolerant tolerance.

MercatorNet: How can we escape from “intolerant tolerance”?

Casey: We go wrong on most things when we go wrong on questions about the human person and transcendence. When tolerance ends by treating people who respect and defend the rights and freedoms of others as intolerant, it needs to be re-founded. One way of recovering the situation is to anchor tolerance in solidarity.

Tolerance, as we have come to practice it, assumes estrangement from each other. There is no common moral understanding, and even the idea of a common human nature is disputed. The only way of resolving the conflict of values is through the assertion of will. The relativism that underlies tolerance fosters suspicion, mistrust, fearfulness and lack of confidence in the world. It also encourages hardness and self-assertion in imposing one’s beliefs or defending them against the hostility of others. People either live alone with their convictions entrenched or come together with the like-minded, either aggressively or defensively.

Solidarity corrects this by re-establishing tolerance in the truth. All we have to do is concede that perhaps truth is possible after all, and might just be a better basis for our life together than the unexamined relativism from which we currently operate.

Solidarity assumes we belong to a single family. As in a good family, rather than simply putting up with each other with hardened hearts we should try to accept each other as friends, and be enriched by diversity rather than grudgingly enduring it. Solidarity treats human beings not as isolated atoms but as persons who depend on others for their fulfilment. We are autonomous, but our autonomy is shaped by reciprocity; by our ability to freely assume responsibility for each other, not just ourselves.

Intolerant tolerance has brought a presumption of enmity to democratic life. The way out is to replace this with the presumption which animates solidarity; the presumption of friendship.

Michael Casey is a sociologist on the staff of the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, and Adjunct Professor in the School of Philosophy and Theology at the University of Notre Dame Australia. He examines this issue in more detail in an article in the current issue of Solidarity

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