Sunday, December 26, 2010

Is Tolerance a Myth?

The conservative Wilberforce Forum released a publication called The Myth of Tolerance. Here is how they describe their own views.

“With Lawrence v. Texas decision and the debate over the federal marriage amendment, the rhetoric of tolerance is louder than ever. But what exactly is true tolerance? In today’s society, people believe that tolerant people “do not ‘force’ their views on others,” writes Gregory Koukl. “They are...committed to one of the most entrenched assumptions of a society committed to relativism: All views are equally valid.” Koukl debunks the notion: The idea that “all views are equally valid” self-destructs when put into practice—and trying to follow it results in intolerance.”

I thought that was a good synopsis of the conservative viewpoint. It shows succinctly why conservatives are not classical liberals. It also shows the irrational lengths to which they will go to prove their point.

It is obvious to all but the most committed multiculturalist, that all views are not equal. Female circumcision is a barbaric ritual. Slavery is wrong regardless of where it is practised. Even most multiculturalists will agree that racism is not valid. So far the conservative critique is not far off the mark.

Their problem comes in when they make a leap of logic. Notice that they attached to this relativism the concept that one should not force one’s opinions on others. The idea that it is immoral to use force against peaceful people simply is not an endorsement of the idea that all values are equal. It is an endorsement of the value that it’s wrong to initiate force against other peaceful individuals. It is not the espousal of moral nihilism, it is the affirmation of the value that says initiation of force is morally wrong.

These conservatives are clearly upset about the US Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v Texas. It was there that the court overturned sodomy laws. What did these laws do?

They meant that peaceful individuals, who did nothing to infringe on the rights of others, could be arrested, tried and imprisoned simply for having a gay relationship. In some states sodomy laws meant a husband and wife could go to prison for having oral sex as well.

Legislation that has any meaning requires the use of force. It requires that armed men eventually be used against people. Classical liberals are not against force per se, just the initiation of force. There is a difference between protecting one’s life, liberty and property, and using force to violate the life, liberty or property of others. A free, liberal, market society simply does not initiate force against others. It allows all people to live freely with one another in voluntary relationships without the initiation of force from anyone.

The conservative frequently says that all laws require the imposition of someone’s will. I argue that  properly written law only prevents the imposition of one person’s will upon another. The conservative responds by pointing to the criminal and saying: “Laws against rape impose one set of moral values upon the rapist.” From there they conclude that since good laws impose moral values, through the prevention of crime, then it’s proper to have laws that impose any set of values. So, if it’s moral to stop rape, then it’s moral to raid people’s reading material, regulate their love life, etc. The socialist quickly agrees and adds to the list, establishing “fair” wages, requiring forced charity via welfare, and a host of other chains to bind people down.

The rapist is no different from anyone else. He is not free to force his will upon others. Liberal law prevents the imposition of force only. If each person is free to make their own voluntary choices then criminal acts are clearly prevented since criminal acts, to be criminal, require that freedom of choice is violated. A rapist initiates force. What makes his act criminal is the force he uses against an non consenting individual. Had the victim consented the sex act would not have been rape.

If anything, the view of the conservative is similar to that of the rapist. Both believe that they have a right to use force against others. I argue that both are morally wrong, and for the same reason.

What justifies tolerance is not the view that all values are equal. It’s the recognition that initiating force is an evil. That’s not the same thing. But the conservative cannot recognize this fact. To do so would be to admit that what they are advocating is the initiation of force. It means that they don’t differ that much from the socialists they oppose. Both accept big government, both want to use the power of the state to impose their values on the public. Socialists want to force people to be “fair” and conservatives want to force people to be “virtuous.” The liberal doesn’t want to force anyone.

This does not mean that liberals say that one should do nothing when faced with various evils. But the use of force in defense is not the same thing as the initiation of force. That is what the conservative seems to forget. In their system they have basically said that the rapist, and a victim who defends herself, are both moral equals. They are saying that the defending victim has used force just as much as the offending rapist. They make no distinction between defensive force and offensive force. In essence they are doing what the cultural relativist does. The relativist says all values are equal. The conservative says all force is equal. 

To them the fact that force is used to prevent rape means that force can be used to prevent two consenting adults from having a relationship with one another.

Tolerance is not a denunciation of the existence of values. It does not put all acts on the same level at all. It clearly says that using force is wrong. It’s wrong when used by the Left to make people “fair” and it’s wrong when used by the Right to make them “virtuous.”

In most cases the goals of the Right and the Left are not bad goals. Charity can be beneficial and a good thing to do. We’d probably be better off if chastity among teens were more widely practised. But laudable goals achieved through evil means lose their virtue. Liberalism is merely arguing that goals and means be consistent with one another.

We should also be clear that there are different kinds of tolerance. There is political tolerance and personal tolerance. In a free society people would have the right to do many things which privately we’d say they ought not to do. And the rest of us would have the right to make our displeasure known. That would include such peaceful actions as boycotting a business, refusing to hire people who act in ways we find unacceptable, refusing to rent or sell property to them, or shunning them in general.

None of these actions violate fundamental rights until the law is involved—either by violating rights or refusing to protect the rights of the shunned class—though such actions might violate the expanded version of rights promoted by the Left. Prostitution would be legal in a liberal society but that doesn’t mean that any of us are required to support it involuntarily. The same could be said of many actions. Just as the Left would be free to boycott businesses that don’t “give their fair share to the poor” the Right would be allowed to refuse to rent apartments they own to gay people. Political tolerance means people are free to make choices. But having political tolerance does not preclude the possibility that private individuals would also be free to be intolerant even when their rights are not violated.

A lesbian club would be free to refuse to hire straight men as employees. A Christian businessman would not be forced to hire “sinners” of any stripe. A Methodist could decide to rent his house only to other Methodists. And if most of us wouldn’t like such actions, and I suspect most of us wouldn’t, then we’d be free to boycott or shun these people as well.

1 comment:

  1. "What justifies tolerance is not the view that all values are equal. It’s the recognition that initiating force is an evil." Why? Why is it evil to initiate force? While I agree with much of what you have written, the central conceptual difficulty with which you have not dealt is that if something is immoral (or "evil") there must be an objective basis for so designating it. What is your objective basis for declaring the initiation of force to be evil?