Gabriele M. Mras
Institute of Education and Philosophy, Vienna University of Economics, Austria
Modern societies have to cope with the fact that there are different criteria of evaluating human behaviour: what is judged to be permissible in one society is regarded to be wrong in another. Given that modern moral philosophy cannot provide a method that justifies some of these standards as unconditionally right ones, “toleration” of “others”, i.e. different beliefs or principles of acting, seems to be an attitude that has itself value, insofar it is supposed to enable a kind of social interaction that is characterised by respect.
The applicability of the principle of toleration, for which centuries ago philosophers as Spinoza, Locke, or Mill argued, has nonetheless always been questioned, too, most recently because it was supposed to justify restrictions onto the extent to which expressions of religious belief are allowed to be criticised. The tendency to make claims in the name of “toleration” that are in fact expressions of intolerance is one usage of this concept in which its original significance gets perverted. I want to focus on an understanding of “toleration” that seems to me equally wrong, namely the equation of its meaning with a particular view, namely value relativism.
Value Relativism as alleged implication of “toleration” is not only put forward in some theoretical discussions, but also used to defend the permissibility of certain economic practices in third world countries. (Examples of how the exploitation of particular economical conditions and dependencies is defended by appeal to different social evaluation standards are well known). The possibility of ab-/ misusing a concept like “toleration” for sure cannot prove it to be problematic as such. It must, nonetheless, be acknowledged that a purely formal understanding of “toleration” – as moral philosophers have warned us since the times the concept of “tolerance” got promoted in the 17th and 18th century – gives us no means to judge various unwanted application of this concept to be misguided. One expression of this problem is a paradox that arises, if one takes as meaning of “tolerance” the required attitude of acceptance of practices one is opposed to. Since this meaning suggests that it would be ethical acceptable to do something that is morally wrong, the meaning of (ethical) requirements vanishes completely. This does count on my view as an argument against value relativism as a position one person, one community, or one society could possibly be in (see Bernard Williams, Joseph Raz). But, since the criticism of value pluralism only shows that the acceptance of standards, one is opposed to, must not be understood in this way, still no qualitative content is given to the very principle in question. Thus, if “toleration” is to be a concept that limits the permissibility of certain behaviour that violates the esteem of others, one has to analyse the sources that allow the paradox of toleration to arise.
I will – following Scanlon and Raz – try to give such an analysis. This will include showing that as long as “toleration” is understood as acceptance of particular factual social standards of evaluations the problem of determining the conditions under which it should be exhibited and in consequence the question of how to justify any limitations to this principle will necessarily remain.