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Political Philosophy

Tolerance, Liberalism, and Community

Kenneth Henley
Florida International University

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ABSTRACT: The liberal principle of tolerance limits the use of coercion by a commitment to the broadest possible toleration of rival religious and moral conceptions of the worthy way of life. While accepting the communitarian insight that moral thought is necessarily rooted in a social self with conceptions of the good, I argue that this does not undermine liberal tolerance. There is no thickly detailed way of life so embedded in our self-conceptions that liberal neutrality is blocked at the level of reflection. This holds true for us in virtue of the socially acquired reflective self found in the pluralist modern world. I reject Michael J. Sandel’s argument that to resolve issues of privacy rights we must reach a shared view of the moral worth of, for instance, homosexual conduct. The view of community most consistent with our situation is a simple causal conception: we are all members of the same community to the extent that we inhabit the same world of causes, physical and social. Any attempt to call us to some thicker, stronger conception of community fails to speak to us in our modernity.

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Liberalism includes many views on many topics. I will confine my attention to the liberal principle of tolerance: the coercive powers of the society are limited by a commitment to the broadest toleration of rival religious and moral conceptions consistent with the protection of crucial social interests such as preventing harm to others and preserving institutions of law and government. The state is thus to be neutral in the religious and moral wars that rage over the point of human life and the detailed ways of life worthy of human beings; but, of course, the state must keep the peace between one individual and another and between competing factions. This peace-keeping function requires that the state intervene when one person (or group) interferes with another's pursuit of happiness or salvation. In exercising this role, sometimes fine distinctions will need to be made, and there is room for worry that in the guise of peace-keeping the state will really work to promote a favored vision of the worthy way of life. Still, this liberal principle tells us what to worry about in such controversies, though its abstractness means that by itself it cannot deal with difficult issues. However, the principle of tolerance does not even abstractly address questions about property rights and the distribution of wealth, so here the liberal tradition includes opposing approaches.

The principle of tolerance is, if not the only thing liberals share, at least a touchstone of liberalism. Tolerance can be defended pragmatically, as a mode of living together justified simply by its success.(1) Or it can be given a basis in critical morality, in differing ways depending upon the particular critical stance of the defender. Both autonomy-based approaches and welfare-based approaches are found. I think that the approach of H.L.A. Hart is most helpful, for it proceeds critically but without appealing to some one grand foundational theory. Hart defends tolerance by placing the burden of moral argument on those who favor coercion—since coercion, as both an infringement of autonomy and a source of misery, is morally wrong unless there is a special justification. He then argues that in cases such as private homosexual acts between consenting adults there is no plausible justification in critical morality for coercion and its attendant misery, since there is no one to be protected, and "the attribution of value to mere conforming behaviour, in abstraction from both motive and consequences, belongs not to morality but to taboo."(2)

This is itself an argument within critical morality about the kinds of consideration morally justifying coercion. In addition to a utilitarian concern for minimizing misery, I see Hart's argument as incorporating an extension into the private moral sphere of Locke's arguments against religious coercion in A Letter Concerning Toleration: coercion cannot create belief and unbelieving conformity is in itself of no value when only the worth of one's own way of life is at issue. Liberal neutrality in controversies about the worthy life is here justified by an argument that does not claim moral neutrality about the justification of coercion.

So from this viewpoint, there is only misunderstanding in communitarian attacks on the principle of tolerance as inconsistently based on moral commitments. The defense of tolerance found in Locke, Mill, Hart, and the Rawls of A Theory of Justice is clearly mounted within critical morality. Other communitarian criticisms of the liberal principle of tolerance take many forms and depend upon a variety of appeals to differing conceptions of community. I will deal only with what might be called the appeal to the sources of reflection, as found in Michael J. Sandel(3) and (with qualifications) in Charles Taylor.(4) This appeal asks us to attend to the constitutive role of community in the very identity of the self, and to accept that all moral reflection is grounded on a self partly constituted by commitments to conceptions of the good communal in nature and origin. And so, the argument goes, there is a deep confusion in the liberal account of tolerance, and the neutrality of the liberal regime to competing conceptions of the worthy life must be specious.

I think this communitarian point about moral thought includes an important insight: our practical reflection is indeed always situated, in Taylor's sense.(5) I cannot get out of my skin, cannot think in complete abstraction from the social self that I am. And I cannot think about actions and institutions conceived apart from the language and world I share with others. As Michael J. Sandel urges, moral thought is itself embedded in families, political communities, and groups: "these stories make a moral difference, not only a psychological one. They situate us in the world, & give our lives their moral particularity."(6)

Both my problems and my thought about them are equally situated. But I do not think that this insight undermines the liberal principle that the state should be neutral toward competing conceptions of the worthy life. The communitarian faces a dilemma: either reflection is grounded in a strong community for which liberal neutrality is not a live option, or reflection is grounded in community within the reach of liberal questions (even if not yet a liberal community) and so not irrevocably committed to illiberal political conceptions. The reflective self cannot at the same time be faced with the problems of modernity and be so closed that liberality threatens disintegration. In our pluralist community, the conceptions of the worthy life that are constitutive of the reflective self are themselves thin enough (or the constituting is tentative enough) to allow for acceptance of liberal neutrality in the polity without danger to the stability of the reflective self.

There are commitments so deeply entrenched for us that philosophical reflection simply will not abandon them, and some of these we consider enforceable—the commitment is not merely to something as part of a worthy life, but also to providing all with a shared world including these elements. These commitments are precisely the sort that establish the limits of liberal tolerance: we cannot tolerate such things as violence, fraud, or reckless endangerment. The requirements for social peace that the liberal state is charged with enforcing are differently incorporated into the liberal self than other commitments—we find in our reflection that there is both added stringency and a greater claim of universality. There are other commitments that a majority within the pluralist community share, and that are unlikely to be shaken during reflection, but that we need not see as enforceable despite our continued allegiance: here one possible result of reflection is tolerance where it may not have existed before. For instance, once reflection led even people like Locke to deny toleration to atheists, yet now in the cultures descending from Locke's community, reflection brings toleration, often without abandoning theism.

If on reflection someone does not favor legal and social tolerance concerning some commitment of this second sort, the reason will not be the constitutive role of the commitment within the self—for the self is not giving up the commitment by endorsing tolerance. Rather, the reflective self is likely to favor enforcement in the pursuit of some goal such as protecting a favored moral environment—exactly the sort of ground that leads to delicate line-drawing within a liberal regime, attempting to allow both parties to the dispute some space within which to pursue happiness or salvation on its own conception. This kind of refusal of toleration can be seen now in the case of pornography, for instance. But for those in the larger pluralist culture, such issues can have nothing to do with maintaining the self that forms the base for reflection.

This would, perhaps, not be true in our reflective context if we inhabited a strong community, united by many strands of commitment to a finely detailed and thick conception of the worthy life as a necessarily shared set of practices. Someone in the larger pluralist society can consider pornography morally degrading and even include this as part of his self-conception, but he need not have a commitment to living in a society in which there is no pornography; if he does have this communitarian ideal, it would be bizarre for it to be deeply embedded in his self-conception, since he has not been reared into such expectations of living in a strong community sharing detailed practices.

It is, for instance, plausible that for the Amish and for Hasidic Jews the reflective self is grounded on commitments to such a thick and detailed conception of a communally shared life that liberal tolerance within the community is unthinkable. Here the commitment would be, for instance, to a shared life in which there is no such thing as a sexually suggestive image—and it is perhaps imaginable that such a value be literally constitutive of the reflective self. This would fit with the Amish tendency to split into ever smaller groups divided by what seem to outsiders insignificant details of social practice. There are limits to possible reflection in every community, and some communities might be incapable of liberalism, even in the modern age, because they are not of the modern age. Their self-conceptions may be not only imbued with conceptions of the good (like everybody's), but also imbued with conceptions of a rich communally shared way of life, thick with detailed practices.

Despite their evident vitality and even prevalence, liberal forms of sociality are rejected by communitarians, who seem to demand that we establish cohesive communities with shared, detailed conceptions of the worthy life. Michael J. Sandel has argued that in deciding whether there is a privacy right to consensual adult homosexual conduct, we must address the substantive moral question of the value of homosexual intimacy.(7) This seems to me like insisting that an adequate account of issues of religious freedom must address the substantive question of the value of various quite different religious (and non-religious) ways of life. (The similarity is meant only to hold within general political theory—not within United States constitutional interpretation, where religious freedom has a specific textual basis unlike any of the new "privacy" freedoms.) Sandel proposes that the nation as a whole form a view of the moral value of homosexual intimacy, rather than allowing various groups and individuals to form separate views. This misconstrues the kind of unity possible in a pluralistic society—as communitarians, with so vivid a sense of liberal society's normative minimalism, should be the first to see.

The attempt to forge such a community-wide moral view would itself violate our self-understanding. But although there is in a pluralist, liberal society no national community in the strong sense, there are communities of various degrees of strength within the nation. What role can these communities and their beliefs play in philosophical reflection in the larger society?

Many of the strongest communities seek no role in the reflective life of the larger society. The Amish, for instance, enter into discourse with the larger society only to protect their autonomy, not to transform "the world." But various communities of faith do assert a transformative rather than a merely self-protective role. Their ability to address the larger society effectively is, however, limited by the points of contact their shared thick conceptions have with the thinner conceptions shared more broadly. And generally the larger the community the nearer it is to the thinness surrounding it.

There is still one more kind of community—the larger community itself, the pluralist society, denied the dignity of the title "community" on some definitions of that word. Apart from such technical gerrymandering, nothing forbids our speaking of the entire pluralist society as a community.

For instance, Ronald Dworkin has urged that the sharing of a legal system leads to the personification of the community expressing its principles in its law.(8) And whatever its virtues or flaws, there is no misuse of language in this use of "community". But the Dworkinian conception of community is constructivist: community is merely used as the interpretive mask or persona enabling the interpreter to insist on a deep coherence of principle in law comparable to personal integrity in the individual. Dworkin's use of personification is like that of Socrates in Plato's Crito: when the laws speak it is the philosopher who gives them voice. The community's principles are thus not found by asking the members of the community, but rather by theory-construction on the part of the interpreter, using the legal practices and texts as the signs of the underlying theory. There is still perhaps a real appeal to community, since the practices and texts will have been created collectively (or at least created by a large number of people). So though the interpretation and theory construction are individualist, the grist for the interpretive mill comes from many not one.

Besides this constructivist conception of what it is for the whole society to be a community, there is a causal conception that all of us constitute a community by living together. This is the notion of community that makes the most sense in the larger pluralist society. We are all members of the same community to the extent that we inhabit the same world of causes, physical and social. The mutual responsibilities of membership in this wider community vary with the kinds of impact we have upon each other, and also depend upon premises contested within the liberal tradition, such as the opposing views of laissez faire liberals and welfare liberals. But the liberal tradition is united on the principle of tolerance and on a an account of community that allows for political neutrality in controversies about the worthy life. Though other conceptions of community may be layered on top of it, the causal conception seems to be basic to a society of tolerance.

On this conception, the only difference between the community of a city and the community of a nation-state is one of extent. In times of disaster, such as floods or hurricanes, the language of community is used in exactly this simple way. And the oddness of speaking of the community of the pluralist nation-state may have no deeper root than the fact that disasters and other causal processes tend to be more limited or more extensive geographically than such political entities. Surely nothing very deep connects the people of a pluralist modern city—except law and geography, and these connect larger polities too. But then perhaps shared liability to suffering is something deep, and natural disasters reveal a deep communal connectedness after all.

Why not then speak of the global community? Indeed—and an awareness of possible global disaster is exactly what has made this way of speaking common. It is easier to imagine a disaster (or a benefit) affecting all human beings than one affecting precisely all members of a particular nation-state. The exception used to be war, for it did, before the nuclear age, unite nations as such in the prospect of disaster; this may still be so for limited wars. And war is a great sustainer of community feeling. The emotional roots of this tribal unity in battle may go very deep into human nature.

Community through sharing a common fate will differ in scope depending upon all sorts of causal factors. W.H. Auden saw that, in a world of global mutual dependency, the old boundaries of communal feeling no longer make sense, but rather than seeing everybody as a brother (or sister) we are tempted "to regard everybody else on earth not even as an enemy, but as a faceless algebraical cipher." A return to "tribal loyalties" is simply impossible for us, he claims.(9) I hope that this really is impossible, given the ethnic strife and hatred now destroying the lives of so many.

Some philosophical communitarians do sound as if they propose a return to tribal loyalties—or the creation of a new tribe in place of the deracinated pluralist society. Perhaps they so dread the estrangement leading to seeing others as ciphers that they flee in thought toward a communal solidarity impossible in modern pluralist cultures; if so, their efforts can only be counter-productive, encouraging disengagement from those not sharing one's conception of the worthy life. In the pluralist democracies, this means disengagement from the larger society and energetic partisanship within ethnic and religious communities. For the forging of a shared conception of how and why to live must fail in such societies.

For most of us, the appeal to the sources of reflection will reinforce liberal tolerance, not undermine it. We find that our reflective selves are modern, in just the way Auden articulated (though perhaps with some longing for an imagined past). This modernity is the reflective source built upon by liberals in their plea for tolerance. If there are sometimes good reasons to doubt that tolerance should be victorious, they can have no basis in an appeal to an illiberal self most of us simply do not recognize.

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(1) See John Rawls, "Justice as Fairness: Political Not Metaphysical," 14 Philosophy and Public Affairs 223-51 (1985), and Charles E. Larmore, Patterns of Moral Complexity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987, pp. 70-77.

(2) H.L.A. Hart, Law, Liberty, and Morality, New York: Vintage Books, 1966, p. 57.

(3) Michael J. Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982, pp. 159-74 and 179-83.

(4) Charles Taylor, Hegel and Modern Society, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979, pp. 125-34, 154-69, and Sources of the Self, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989, pp. 84-90, 514. However, Taylor makes an important distinction between political principles and morality, and writes of liberal neutrality in political thought: "...these political doctrines are influenced by procedural views in morals....But it is quite possible to be strongly in favour of a morality based on a notion of the good but lean to some procedural formula when it comes to the principles of politics. There is a lot to be said for this, precisely for the sake of certain substantive goods, e.g., liberty and respect for the dignity of all participants....If in the end I cannot quite agree with some such procedural view as the sufficient definition of the principals [sic] of liberal democracy, this is not because I don't see its force. The political issue is, indeed, quite distinct from that of the nature of moral theory." Sources of the Self, p. 532, note 60.

(5) Charles Taylor, Hegel and Modern Society, pp. 162-64, Sources of the Self, pp. 25-49, 73.

(6) Michael J. Sandel, "The Political Theory of the Procedural Republic," in Allan C. Hutchinson & Patrick Monahan, eds., The Rule of Law: Ideal or Ideology, Toronto: Carswell, 1987, pp. 90-91.

(7) Michael J. Sandel, "Moral Argument and Liberal Toleration: Abortion and Homosexuality," 77 California Law Review 521 (1989), 533-38.

(8) Ronald Dworkin, Law's Empire, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986, pp. 167-75.

(9) W.H. Auden, The Dyer's Hand and Other Essays, New York: Vintage Books, 1968, p. 235.

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