Tolerance, Liberalism, and Community
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.
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...