Tolerance in morality.

A lot of the rejection of morality has been inherited from our attitude towards religious morality. We observe that religious morality is intolerant and leads to the persecution of innocents, that it is dogmatic and unjustifiable, that it makes people arrogant and self-serving. Therefore, people think that this means all forms of morality must be intolerant, dogmatic, unjustifiable, arrogant and self-serving.

There is a sense in which this objection is just obtuse. Everyone has some kind of moral system, whether implicit or explicit, but not everyone is arrogant and self-serving. Also, not all explicit moral systems are intolerant, lead to the persecution of innocents, dogmatic and unjustifiable (while I sometimes argue against utilitarianism, it does not fulfill at least three of these criteria).

Does a moral system entail intolerance of people who disagree? This is not obvious. Even from a purely pragmatic standpoint, it seems rather wasteful to actively oppose all those who disagree, even on the smallest points. It seems a lot easier, in general, to “live and let live,” although some issues may be too important to tolerate disagreement (e.g. on whether murder or assault should be permitted- the average cost per person is far higher than the average cost to maintain enforcement).

There are two ethical principles that apply here: equality and consent. The principle of equality means that any freedom or responsibility we create must apply to every individual in a society. The principle of consent means that one cannot be free if one is coerced into obeying or supporting organizations or institutions. What this means is that everyone must have equal freedom of thought, expression and action, and that, in case of disagreements, we must ultimately agree to disagree.

Tucker’s theorem, on the other hand, fixes a hard limit on tolerance: we must stop tolerating someone’s actions when they invade someone else’s values. This means that “freedoms” and “rights” which serve to hide invasion, such as the right to privacy and freedom of religion, should not be tolerated.

We cannot speak of tolerance in a vacuum; this should not be surprising, as any issue of ethics involves society as a whole. So in fixing this hard limit from Tucker’s theorem, we are imagining a balance of power in some hypothetical ideal society between institutions which seek to protect freedoms and rights, and individuals who perform actions which (we believe) attack those freedoms and rights.

Presumably these institutions are at least slightly more powerful than the individuals they protect (either in terms of force, of indoctrination or of incentives), or they could not accomplish their function. In reality, it is likely that, no matter how benign or evil they are, these institutions will always be a great deal more powerful than individuals, because otherwise they may have to stand idle against some crime on the basis that the criminals are more powerful than they are (granted, this still happens even in our societies to a certain extent, regarding mafias for instance).

These institutions, then, are powerful enough to apply Tucker’s theorem and to prevent invasion. But in doing so, they necessarily construct a default cultural position as well. To fight against invasion means, for instance, to prevent girls from being forced to wear burqas. Yet the father may very well reply that it’s part of his culture and that we should tolerate it. By affirming Tucker’s theorem and rejecting his misogynistic claim, we’re not only attacking an invader but also attacking a culture.

For people who are committed to multiculturalism and tolerance at all costs (up to the point of physical assault, and often even past that), this is unconscionable. A person’s culture, they say, must remain inviolate. But it’s important to put this in perspective: I am not talking about preferences in food or music, but rather about actions which attack some other person’s values. The Islamic fundamentalist has, through religious indoctrination, attacked his daughter’s rights ever since she was able to understand language, and the burqa is merely the culmination of these attacks. It will do us no good to simply state that the burqa is a choice and that our examination should stop at present time. So there is more than “culture” there.

So there are two issues here. The first is that the invading act is “just a cultural issue”: it isn’t, because that kind of abusive culture is only the surface manifestation, and repetition, of childhood abuse. The second is the belief in culture as sacrosanct: it isn’t, at least when culture leads to the imposition of harm.

Now someone may reply that my assumptions, including Tucker’s theorem, are themselves culturally biased. But this would be as obtuse as calling the law of gravity culturally biased. My premises stand or fall on the basis of their evidence.

It would be more accurate to say that the kind of society fostered by these ideal institutions will be culturally biased, just as the kind of society fostered by our current “justice” system is culturally biased. I have no problem acknowledging that. What we label invasion and not invasion is to a certain extent culturally motivated, but we must still do so. Therefore here there is another hard limit to tolerance. We must pass judgment on cultures using our own logical framework. The principle of equality, however, demands that we pass judgment not only on other cultures but on our own as well.

The principle of consent also puts a hard limit on tolerance, in that no one should be forced to cooperate in ways they oppose. Under a hierarchical business, the worker must cooperate with all assigned objectives, including morally repugnant ones, or ultimately face termination. Under a hierarchical society, a citizen must follow all laws, including morally repugnant ones, or face vengeance. This is why, in a hierarchical society, obedience is a virtue and critical thinking is a vice (unless it is watered down, like skepticism).

When talking about tolerance, people always bring up the paradox of tolerating intolerance. But as I’ve pointed out many times in this entry, tolerance is not unbounded in nature, but rather bumps upon many hard limits. So there is nothing contradictory about not tolerating intolerance; it really all depends on what kind of intolerance we’re talking about. Intolerance of invasive actions is beneficial for society as a whole. Non-invasive intolerance of innocent people is regrettable and disgusting, and should be opposed, but not violently. Invasive intolerance of innocent people must be opposed, violently if necessary.

So the “tolerating intolerance” paradox is only a paradox if you assume that tolerance is unbounded in nature. Once you acknowledge that there are these hard limits, then it’s not only logical but necessary to refuse to tolerate beyond those limits.

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