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TolerationReview - Toleration
A Critical Introduction
by Catriona McKinnon
Routledge, 2006
Review by Elisabeth Herschbach, Ph.D.
Jul 31st 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 31)

Catriona McKinnon's Toleration "aims to provide an introduction to the dominant ways that toleration can be theorized and its practice defended, and to indicate the most important philosophical and practical challenges to these theories" (16). Like freedom and equality, toleration is one of the central values of the liberal tradition in political philosophy. As McKinnon notes, however, the academic literature on toleration in the last 25 years has been far from extensive, and this "mysterious quiet in the Academy" has coincided with a dangerous complacency about toleration in the "political zeitgeist" of democratic societies (13). Liberals tend to take for granted that everyone agrees on the value of toleration -- or at least on its preferability to the wars, inquisitions, and internment camps that, historically, have been among the more popular routes to conflict resolution. But from the worsening ethnic tensions and mounting support for anti-immigration policies in Europe to the post-9/11 climate of xenophobia and the current crusade against gay marriage in the US, it is becoming increasingly evident that this is a complacency that we can ill afford.

Hence the importance of an accessible but in-depth introduction to toleration that, like McKinnon's, systematically examines the "arsenal of arguments" (3) available to its defenders. How is toleration possible? Why is it required? And what are its limits? Designed for students who have already completed at least one introductory philosophy or political theory course, McKinnon's admirably wide-ranging discussion of the subject attempts to "reassert the significance of toleration" (13) by surveying the leading contemporary answers to these questions (Part I); the book then connects theory with practice by exploring a range of practical examples, including female genital mutilation, the French ban on headscarves in school, artistic freedom, pornography, and Holocaust denial, that challenge our understanding of toleration and its limits (Part II).

The first of McKinnon's questions -- how is toleration possible? -- must be addressed because it is often thought that toleration has a whiff of the paradoxical about it. It makes sense to say that I am tolerant of some practice or belief only if it is one to which I am opposed. But how should we explain the nature of this opposition? If I am opposed to something because it is morally wrong, then surely its moral wrongness entails that I ought not to tolerate it. And yet if the practice or belief is not morally wrong, then surely I ought not to oppose it. Thus although opposition is a prerequisite for toleration, it may seem impossible to define conditions under which both opposition and toleration are justified.

In order to open up space for the possibility of tolerance, we need to drive a wedge between, on the one hand, the personal commitments grounding my opposition and, on the other hand, the judgment that I ought to act on those commitments (in the form of imposing my commitments on others or refusing to tolerate what I oppose). As McKinnon puts it, we need to explain how it is "possible for us to make genuine judgments of evaluative disapproval without judging that those judgments ought to be coercively enforced by ourselves or our representatives" (27).

Part I considers several strategies for meeting this challenge, including arguments based on relativism and other forms of skepticism about ethics (Chapter 3), arguments based on value pluralism (Chapter 4), and the so-called "reasonableness defence" (Chapter 5) that McKinnon endorses as the most promising strategy for justifying toleration. Since relativism denies that there are any universal moral principles, it gives us a way to explain how I can take my judgments of opposition to be justified without inferring that this justifies my imposing those moral commitments on those with whom I disagree. Against the relativist defense of toleration, however, McKinnon argues that a successful account must be able not only to explain how toleration is possible, but also to answer the second of her questions: why is toleration required? (After all, dissolving the appearance of paradox is only the first step; we also need a positive defense of the value of toleration.) Precisely because relativism denies that there are any universal moral principles, however, it gives us no universal standpoint from which we can claim that everyone ought to be tolerant, and hence to criticize intolerance. What we need is a normative argument for toleration, but relativism cannot deliver it.

Against arguments based on value pluralism, here represented by Isaiah Berlin and Joseph Raz, McKinnon levies a similar charge. Value pluralists are committed to the existence of incommensurable values: that is, divergent values that cannot be compared or ranked. If different values are incommensurable, then this would seem to explain how I can be fully committed to my own values without thinking that I have a reason to impose them on those with whom I disagree. But value pluralism, like relativism, is simply a meta-ethical thesis about the nature of morality, and because meta-ethical claims about the nature of morality cannot by themselves establish normative conclusions about the demands of morality, McKinnon argues that the thesis of value pluralism does not in fact play any justificatory role in the argument for toleration. In Berlin's case, what does the work is a commitment to the value of negative liberty; in Raz's case, it is a commitment to a perfectionist vision of the state according to which its role is to promote the conditions of personal autonomy.

 McKinnon's critique of Berlin's and Raz's arguments is simply that they do not succeed as arguments from value pluralism; she does not consider how they might work as independent arguments. But presumably McKinnon's reason for not considering these strategies would be explained by her motivation for endorsing the "reasonableness defence." Drawing on John Rawls' account of political liberalism, McKinnon argues that political principles should not be justified by appeal to any particular substantive conception of the good (including, presumably, the value of negative liberty or Razian personal autonomy), but instead should be based only on values that could be agreed to by "people exercising their practical reason to solve shared problems of justice in a peaceful and mutually profitable way" (68). Given the inevitably of disagreement on questions of ultimate value, no reasonable person could expect others to have identical reasons for supporting principles of justice. Hence a reasonable person will support only those principles of justice that she believes could be reached by an "overlapping consensus"-- that is, accepted by other reasonable people who may nonetheless have different conceptions of the good.

What does it mean to be reasonable? McKinnon explains reasonableness in terms of two key Rawlsian notions. First, persons are reasonable insofar as they have a capacity for a sense of justice, where this means that they are committed to finding publicly acceptable and mutually beneficial principles of social cooperation that can be justified by appeal to reasons that everyone might reasonably be expected to endorse. And second, persons are reasonable insofar as they accept the burdens of judgment, where this means that they accept that certain facts about how human reason operates-- such as the fact that we must make judgments based on complex and sometime inconclusive evidence and that interpretation, which will inevitably vary according to different life experiences, is often necessary -- make it both inevitable and reasonable for people to disagree about important religious, moral, political, and philosophical questions.

On the reasonableness defense, then, "what justifies toleration is the unreasonableness of intolerance" (67). Insofar as we are reasonable in McKinnon's two senses -- that is, insofar as we recognize that others can reasonably disagree with us and that problems of justice should be solved in terms acceptable to all -- we ought to recognize that it would be unreasonable to impose our own commitments on others or to expect the state to wield its authority in support of our own private conceptions of the good.

How does the reasonableness defense help us to address McKinnon's third question regarding the limits of toleration? Here McKinnon argues that the notion of reasonableness by itself does not give us an adequate way to draw the boundary between the tolerable and the intolerable, and hence that the reasonableness defense needs supplementation. In Chapter 6, McKinnon suggests as a solution the classic liberal account of harm, which defines the intolerable in terms of the violation of rights. In Part II (Chapters 7-11), McKinnon tests this account against various hard cases that evoke some of the standard worries about the liberal theory of rights -- for example, that it is too narrow and individualistic and that it is biased toward western cultural standards. In large part, McKinnon's goal is to show that the reasonableness defense of toleration, in conjunction with a rights-based account of its limits, may be more flexible and may apply more broadly than both its defenders and its critics often assume.

In some cases, McKinnon's reasoning is not fully persuasive; for example, her suggestion that even pro-censorship opponents of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses may be able to develop their case in terms consistent with the liberal harm principle seems, at least to me, to stretch the notion of a rights violation beyond its plausible limits. More generally, it's not clear how well the reasonableness defense succeeds on its own terms. If we simply stipulate that what it means to be reasonable is to accept the burdens of judgment and the necessity of finding mutually beneficial principles of social cooperation justifiable through public reason, then all we have done is to establish that anyone committed to being reasonable in this specific sense ought to be committed to toleration, whereas what we need is an account that explains why everyone ought to be tolerant. (To echo McKinnon's criticism of the arguments from relativism and value pluralism, to establish that everyone ought to be tolerant would require a normative defense of the Rawlsian notion of reasonableness, whereas stipulating the definition of reasonableness simply delivers a meta-ethical claim about what reasonableness consists in.) However, if we give normative force to the appeal to reasonableness and claim that everyone ought to be reasonable in the Rawlsian sense, then we seem to run afoul of the requirement that public justifications should not proceed by reference to any particular substantive conception of the good. After all, the Rawlsian notion of reasonableness is not uncontroversial. But although in the end I was left with some doubts about how well the reasonableness defense works, McKinnon's well-argued discussion is without doubt a fruitful and stimulating contribution to the subject, and the thoroughness with which she examines different alternatives, raises objections, and considers possible responses makes Toleration a valuable resource for students and teachers of political philosophy.

 

© 2007 Elisabeth Herschbach

Elisabeth Herschbach has a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania and teaches in Rhode Island.

 


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