Is it intolerant to not tolerate intolerance?

I have occasionally come across the argument that freethinkers who value tolerance are being hypocritical in trying to impose their values of tolerance on society, while at the same time complaining about religious people attempting to impose their values, such as banning contraception, forbidding shops to open on Sunday or Sharia law, on society. Examples of freethinkers imposing their views are when they campaign or vote for laws that forbid discrimination against minorities.As a freethinker who places a high value on tolerance, this argument troubled me, as I could not see any good response to it. Hence, it seemed that my moral framework was inconsistent, maybe even irrational (oh, horror of horrors!).I think I have resolved this problem, at least to my own satisfaction, as follows. I value tolerance, as part of a broader moral framework that is largely, although not entirely, utilitarian. My moral framework is, so far as I can tell, self-consistent, although, like any logical system, it rests on unprovable axioms. Primary amongst these is that one ought to make decisions in such a way as to minimise the suffering of sentient beings.In contrast, a fundamentalist Christian (or Muslim) might have a moral framework for which one axiom is that one ought to obey Yahweh’s (Allah’s) law, as it is stated in the Bible (Koran) before any other considerations.Hume has observed that one cannot get an ought from an is, and I agree. I cannot prove that my moral framework is true, or superior, any more than the Christian or Muslim can prove that theirs is. Nevertheless, I prefer my framework to theirs, because it is more aesthetically pleasing to me, and it is consistent with my most fundamental intuitive feelings – primarily empathy. In colloquial terms, it just ‘feels right’.So, I prefer a broadly utilitarian approach, and my preference is not constrained to my own moral decisions. I want to live in a world where most people make decisions based on these principles, or at least act, possibly under compulsion, as if they were making decisions based on those principles. A practical way to influence the world in such a direction is to create rules – formal and informal, legislated and societal – that will constrain many people to behave that way. Because I value such behaviour, it is rational for me to do what I can to influence the world in that direction. That may involve a wide range of activities, such as voting for particular political candidates, campaigning for certain issues, attending street marches and protests, attempting to persuade others to my point of view, donating to campaigns or political entities, or maybe even standing for political office myself.

Now the preceding paragraph is equally valid for a fundamentalist Christian. They may wish to live in a world in which people act, under compulsion or otherwise, according to their interpretation of the ‘law of the Bible’, so it is rational for them to campaign to bring that about. Neither I nor the fundamentalist is being inconsistent, nor can we be validly accused of hypocrisy.

These two views will often come into conflict. A common source of conflict is where some Christians (certainly not all!) wish their religion to be taught, or other Christian activities such as prayers to occur, in a publicly-funded school, whereas freethinkers such as myself do not wish that to occur. Let us assume that there are no laws either requiring or forbidding such activities (unlike for instance, the USA where the first amendment of the constitution bears on many of these cases). If I campaign against school prayer by saying that the Christians are imposing their values on others, and ‘should not’ do so, they can validly reply that, by trying to prevent the prayers, I am trying to impose my values of tolerance on them. I am implicitly trying to get an ought from an is, asserting that my value system is more valid than theirs.

What I can do, however, is to argue that our society will be ‘better’ in some way if the prayers are not allowed, than if they are. I might argue for instance that a society that does not officially sanction any particular religion will be more tolerant than one that does, that a tolerant society will be a less conflict-ridden society, and that people will generally be happier if the level of conflict is lower. This is an essentially utilitarian appeal, and will cut no ice with the fundamentalist, but they are not my target. My target is the undecided voters, lawmakers and law implementers such as judges or education department officials. For my argument to succeed I need to do two things:

  • I must persuade those undecided people to value what I value – general human happiness; and
  • I must persuade them that my proposal will be more likely to satisfy that value than the alternative.

Essentially, I am doing a ‘sales job’, selling my worldview to the undecided people, in the hope that they’ll ‘buy’ it. The fundamentalists will do the same on their side, perhaps telling people that school prayers will bring more people to Jesus, which will lead to more people escaping eternal torment in Hell. Neither of us is necessarily inconsistent or hypocritical. What we have is not a contest of logic, but a contest of values, trying to persuade the undecided to value what we value. I hope I win.

Not all disputes about religion are like that. It is often the case that both sides claim to hold the same values, in relation to the issue at hand, but reach different conclusions. In such cases, accusations of inconsistency or hypocrisy do become possible. Take for example the Vatican’s attempt to argue that condoms should not be promoted in Africa as a defence against HIV transmission, because they do not work. Here the Vatican is claiming to hold the same values as its opponents, viz a concern for the physical welfare of the people engaging in sexual activity. Such a claim can be rebutted on purely logical grounds, using scientific evidence. This then lays the Vatican open to a charge of hypocrisy on the grounds that it is  pretending to be motivated by a concern for human physical welfare, when in fact (we allege) that is a smokescreen to hide its true concern which is about compliance with what they believe to be God’s laws.

Likewise, in the school prayer case, if the fundamentalists had made an argument that there would be more kindness and less crime if we had school prayer (a la Ivan Karamazov’s contention that if there is no God, everything is permitted), that could be attacked on logical grounds, as it implies the same value as the nonbeliever – a happier society.

So, in summary, I think it is possible to argue for a tolerant society in two ways that maintain integrity and consistency:

  • by appealing to the undecided to share values, such as minimising suffering, that I hold, or
  • if those values are already shared, to argue that the values are likely to be better satisfied in a tolerant society than an intolerant one.

The first is an appeal to the passions, the second is an appeal to reason.

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