Classical liberalism #2: How does toleration fit into a pluralistic society? | Chandran Kukathas


I think of toleration as really a
response to the the fact of pluralism so in that sense toleration is the the
normative principle whereas pluralism I think of as the as the condition of the
world I suppose just to be you know just to complicate things a little bit one
could think about pluralism as itself a kind of principle so if one says one is
a pluralist what one means is I think one recognizes the diversity of ethical
views out there and one’s attitude therefore is tolerance of toleration so
in that sense pluralism sounds like it’s also an ethical position but the way I’m
using it here I’m gonna take it that pluralism is the condition so toleration
is the is the response to it we accept that there is a plurality of
perspectives on the world of ethical views and so on and the attitude we take
is that well we we accept these these differences and we think that we should
try to to work around them at some point is going to be difficult because we may
have about some issues very very strong views and may not be willing to to
tolerate or accept certain forms of diversity but I think the aim of the
person who is moved by their the idea of toleration is to is to go as far as
possible to recognize that that others may themselves think about our own views
as somehow this stateful distasteful or repugnant or immoral within the theory
of liberalism what’s dominated for some time really probably the last 50 or 60
years is the idea that justice is the is the most important value for trying to
understand the good society and even for understand
in the free society but I think that the classical liberal tradition really is
one that sees toleration as much more important now it hasn’t always been
explicitly so but I think if one looks at the at the origins of liberal
thinking at least in the modern world then toleration becomes much more
important and the reason for this is that I think liberal thinking really
arises out of a reflection on the fact that people disagree substantially above
the exam different ways of life especially I think in Europe they had
different religious convictions although different religious convictions within
Christian traditions and one of the theories that came out of this was a
theory of how to deal with these differences and the solution was to
develop norms of toleration norms that suggested that what you should do is try
not to reconcile differences by coming to a mind about fundamental principle
since by definition these were things that people disagreed about the solution
was to try to find a way of not so much reconciling as accommodating differences
so in principle the idea of toleration is what makes most sense now one of the
difficulties I think that came up straight away though was that there’s a
question but what one should do when toleration threatens to break down and
one very prominent answer to this has been and especially in in modern liberal
thinking has been well what we do is we appeal to principles of justice to
settle this question and what are the limits of toleration but the problem
here is that if justice is itself something that we can disagree about
then to appeal to justice would really just beg the question because we’d be
appealing to something that we say is the correct view when we’ve started off
with the problem that we don’t agree but what the what the correct view is so I
think the retreat to justice as the solution
to establishing the limits of toleration is extremely problematic and that’s why
I think for classical liberals the principle of toleration is really much
more important and should have the status of a free-standing principle not
one that is somehow subordinate to considerations of justice I think the
purpose of the principle of toleration is to offer us a little bit of guidance
in thinking about how one understands a good society under conditions of
pluralism or diversity it doesn’t go too much further in the sense that it
doesn’t help us for example settle on how to establish determinately you know
what the law should be or how we should settle particular questions I think what
it really does is suggest that the way to go is to think about how one can
reach some kind of understanding by you know accommodating differences and
diversity one can think about toleration in that sense in in a number of
different ways one can think of it in a very minimal way we can think about
being tolerant in the sense of just being willing to put up with something
or what can think about toleration as something a bit more expansive something
that is a virtue in the sense that you know one not only accepts reluctantly
but actually accepts with a kind of open spirit to think okay you know I will not
only not you know exercise violence to force my views upon you but I might
actually also go a little bit further to try to understand your point of view I
think that’s the more capacious kind of toleration so this is quite a there’s
quite a wide range of attitudes that you could take if you you know if you
accepted the principle of toleration but just saying I accept the principle of
toleration wouldn’t be enough to actually say exactly where you stood on
a whole range of things

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