06 Jun

Can we just ‘Live and Let Live’?

Posted By Politybooks

Andrew Jason Cohen

In the contemporary west (and perhaps elsewhere), many of us like to think we are open to meeting and having friendships with all sorts of people that are different from us.  We might have our own religious or moral beliefs, but we think of ourselves as beyond having to impose them on others.  So we meet others with views that can’t be true if ours are and we think “they are entitled to their views.”  With that firmly established in our minds, we think we can have an honest and respectful relationship with the other.  We think we can and should tolerate everyone else. Live and let live. So far so good.

Too often, however, the “live and let live” attitude is thought the opposite of a proselytizing dogmatism.  Proselytizing dogmatists, as I understand them, are uncomfortable with their own beliefs not being accepted by others and seek to convince everyone they meet of those beliefs.  These people are seemingly so convinced of their own beliefs that they can’t tolerate others not accepting them as true.

We seem to have two possibilities:

1.    Those thoroughly committed to the truth of their own views and, so, unwilling to accept that others can’t come to see the truth of these views

2.    Those who live and let live, presumably not very committed to their own beliefs.  The non-proselytizer, it seems, isn’t willing to say others are wrong.  Indeed, we often hear it said that we can’t (or shouldn’t) judge others or their beliefs and so must tolerate them.  Toleration, on that view, is based in our inability to judge others, perhaps because of a recognition of our own fallibility.  But, of course, if we are fallible with regard to our other beliefs, we are fallible with regard to our belief that toleration is a value!

We are, indeed, fallible.  I don’t think anything follows from this with regard to toleration.  It is perfectly reasonable to think toleration is a value while recognizing one’s own fallibility.  One may be wrong, but to say one thinks X is to say, “given all else I know, I think X and I will maintain X until shown that X is false.” 

As Joseph Schumpeter said “To realise the relative validity of one’s convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly, is what distinguishes a civilized man from a barbarian.”  Indeed, it seems entirely natural to be willing to stand for one’s beliefs unflinchingly, recognizing one’s judgments may nonetheless be wrong.  Importantly, moreover, that willingness to judge is necessary for toleration (and, I think, part of a good life—consider someone unwilling to judge a chain-sawing wielding hockey-masked stranger). 

This is an important and sometimes overlooked fact.  To tolerate something is, in part, to refrain from interfering with it, but not every instance of noninterference is an instance of toleration.  I can watch my son play with his wooden trains for hours without interfering.  No one would say I tolerate his play.  If I said “yes, I tolerate his play,” I imagine people would wonder about my parenting.  This is because saying I tolerate the train play implies that I dislike or disapprove of it—that is, saying that in some way, I oppose it.  But I don’t oppose it.  I love it.  (This is also why multiculturalism, as advocacy of multiple cultures, is not a form of toleration; it is a form of endorsement rather than indication of opposition.)

Saying I tolerate X means, in part, that I have made a judgment that X is something in need of toleration, something not thought worthwhile or good, morally or otherwise.  If I make no judgment against X, I cannot (conceptually) tolerate X.   This suggests that the two possible positions noted in my third paragraph above are not exhaustive of the possibilities.  Indeed, a third sort of person is missing: (3) those thoroughly committed to their own views, willing to judge that others’ or others’ beliefs are worth opposing and yet insistent that—at least in some of those cases—the others must be tolerated.

“Advocating toleration does not mean advocating some wishy-washy namby-pamby way of being that requires you to refrain from judging others” (page 2).  To be an advocate of toleration is to think toleration is objectively valuable—that is, to think it something all should value, not something one merely endorses as good for oneself but perhaps not good for others.  Tolerating others requires opposing them in some way. 

This is one of the fundamental lessons I hope people take away from my book.  I also lay out different principles that indicate when we should tolerate and when the limits of toleration have been transgressed.  I endorse one of these and indicate why I reject the others—though I suspect others will think at least one of those others must be endorsed as well.  I will tolerate that.

Andrew Jason Cohen is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Georgia State University.  His book Toleration was published earlier this year by Polity Press