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Conscience Magazine

What the World Needs Now

By Daniel A. Dombrowski December 20, 2016

The thesis of this book is that, despite rhetorical uses of the concept, 21st-century society does not take the clas­sical liberal ideal of tolerance as seriously as it should. Tolerance is a relatively recent historical phenom­enon in that, despite antic­ipations of it in ancient Greece, it was not really born until the 17th and 18th centuries as a result of various Enlightenment thinkers’ responses to the wars of religion in the early modern period. It came to be seen that toler­ance was the only real alternative to conflict and violence when people had irresolvable differences in their worldviews. In one sense, we are still in the wake of the Enlightenment, but in another sense, the contemporary critics of tolerance are numerous. It is now common to hear critics speak of “mere toleration,” as opposed to some sort of enthusiastic acceptance of, or respect for, or robust recogni­tion of, others. Furedi’s view of what lies behind this devaluation of toler­ance is a therapeutic inclination to think that we must affirm others and contribute to their self-esteem at all costs. One strategy in response to such devaluation is to expand the concept of tolerance so that it includes the ideas of rec­ognition and respect. The danger in this sort of response, however, is that it sidesteps the possibility that there are some views that one simply cannot accept, even if one thinks that one has a duty to tolerate them in a spirit of democratic civility. To cite a trivial example (more serious exam­ples easily come to mind), I personally hate bowling, but that does not mean that I think that bowling alleys should be shut down.

The conceptual battle on which Furedi focuses is that between liberal political philosophers, particularly John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant, and defenders of identity politics. The latter, according to Furedi, tend to be critical of tolerance.

Whatever readers of Conscience might think of Furedi’s view, he leaves us with several crucial questions regarding pro-­choice politics. On the one hand, it seems that pro-choice advocates should be energetic defenders of the liberal ideal of tolerance in that they want their own view to be tolerated even in contexts in which it is unpopular. Of course, one of the implications of this liberal ideal is that pro-choice advo­cates, in order to be consistent, should tolerate, if not endorse, the views of those who are anti-abortion. On the other hand, many pro-choice advocates are likely to have feminist commit­ments that tempt them away from tol­erance. For example, in the 1980s, Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin developed the thesis that por­nography not only leads to violence, but is itself a type of violence and should not be tolerated. The purpose of the present review is not to pick sides in this dispute, but rather to highlight Furedi’s thought-provoking book, because he encourages asking the right questions about tolerance, which is not an insig­nificant accomplishment.

Furedi is especially interested in arguing against Wendy Brown’s thesis that tolerance should be denounced because it thwarts people’s aspiration for recognition and fools them into thinking that if they are toler­ated they are free. That is, according to Brown, tolerance tends to hide inequality. Furedi’s response to Brown is in terms of his own assessment that tolerance is a precious resource that is in need of constant intellectual renewal. He insists that tolerance is crucial in a just society, even if it cannot accomplish everything that is needed; it is a neces­sary but not sufficient condition for justice. Bitter disputes over abortion, wearing headscarves, eating junk foods, experimenting on animals, euthanasia, and climate change provide evidence for this necessity.

Mill’s view that if we intolerantly compel someone to be silent we pre­suppose our own infallibility is defended by Furedi. This stance should resonate well with those who are sympathetic to Catholics for Choice, given this organization’s antipathy to papal claims of infalli­bility. Instead, faith should be reas­serted in the power of ideas and in the ability to improve ideas through rea­soned criticism. Tolerance is, in fact, the key virtue of democratic citizen­ship. And tolerance as a moral virtue is indeed connected to (Kantian) respect for the person tolerated.

The argument ad hominem is still a logical fallacy in that while it is legiti­mate to criticize others’ ideas, there is something odious about attacking the persons who hold those ideas. In dif­ferent terms, we should be suspicious of the idea that criticism in general is a type of violence: Some concepts (not people) should be attacked. Even in a condition of radical pluralism, we have a right to be heard and to be respected, but we do not have a right to infalli­bility (whether the papal variety or the sort of infallibility implied when we are intolerant).

It is a common understanding in liberal political theory that not all speech can be tolerated, because some speech causes harm. But it is also a commonplace that the meaning of harm itself is contested territory, as in the abortion pornography debates. My own view is that prior to the develop­ment of a central nervous system towards the end of the second trimester or the beginning of the third trimester, the question of harm cannot so much as arise regarding the fetus. But restric­tive abortion laws obviously do harm women.

It should be emphasized that both religious believers and secularists can be tempted by intolerance. Likewise, those on the political left can be just as intolerant as those on the right. This is why Furedi’s book is so important. Pluralism of opinion is not going away at any point in the foresee­able future. Nor should the virtue of tolerance.

On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence
Frank Furedi
(Continuum Books, 2011, 216 pp)
978-1-4411-2010-6, $22.99

Daniel A. Dombrowski
Daniel A. Dombrowski

is professor of philosophy at Seattle University, as well as the chair of the Catholics for Choice Board of Directors. His publications include coauthoring the book A Brief, Liberal, Catholic Defense of Abortion.