Monday, May 24, 2010

Part 6: Tolerance


In chapter 4, Kelley presents his view of tolerance, arguing that it is a virtue, and is required by the virtue of justice, and due to the nature of objectivity. (CLAR, p. 61) Strictly speaking, tolerance is not a virtue in Objectivism because Rand does not list it as one of the seven primary virtues that she incorporates into the Objectivist ethics. But this doesn't mean that intolerance in and of itself is the proper moral stance by contrast, something that Kelley wants us to believe is the case with Peikoff and anyone who agrees with him. My purpose is to indicate the morality or immorality of tolerance with Objectivism as a guide, and to identify the differences between my view and that of Kelley's.

Tolerance, Justice, and Objectivity

After his introduction, Kelley ties tolerance to justice, and afterward connects it with benevolence. (pp. 61-63) Regarding justice, he says that tolerance consists in not condemning individuals solely for the disagreeable ideas they hold, claiming that it would be unjust to do so. (He gives exceptions to this, as in the cases of clear irrationality from the content of a person's ideas.) Justice sets the limits of proper tolerance—and the limits are set by our consideration of the person's context, what evidence we've accumulated, and what level of tolerance we're considering. Are we tolerating an action, a trait, or the person as a whole? Later he relates tolerance to benevolence, stating that it's the "recognition and acceptance of the needs of a rational being, especially the recognition that rational knowledge is held contextually and acquired by independent thought." (p. 62) It means understanding another person's context, and realizing that they won't change their long-held philosophical views at a moment's notice, and that we should present ourselves as philosophical equals who are also open to persuasion by the facts. Interestingly, Kelley limits the discussion of tolerance to the area of honest errors: "The negative aspect of toleration is refusing to condemn people for errors that are honest; the positive aspect is valuing their honesty even when it is in error." (p. 63)

From practically the outset, Kelley is unclear on his fundamental views, as he says that, "[t]olerance is at root a negative concept; it means not condemning a person solely on the basis of his ideas." (p. 61) This is a very, very narrow definition—more along the lines of a definition of "intellectual tolerance," but even that isn't right. To see why, consider another description of tolerance by Kelley: "It means suspending judgment when we lack sufficient evidence." (p. 62) Neither of these statements capture the meaning of the term—for instance, refusing to condemn someone until one has sufficient evidence isn't tolerance per se, but strictly an aspect of objectivity and justice.

To fully appreciate this, consider the relationship between tolerance and justice. "To tolerate," Dr. Tara Smith remarks in an essay, "is to allow behavior of which one disapproves." (Tolerance & Forgiveness: Virtues or Vices?, p. 32) There has to be a conflict between the views of the person being tolerant and the action being allowed. In addition, there must exist for the relevant individual a moral right or prerogative to tolerate or not tolerate some action; what a stranger wears daily, or how a person chooses to study, are usually the kind of activities in which one is not even in a position to choose between tolerance or intolerance. An example of a circumstance in which the issue of tolerance does arise, by contrast, is when one discovers that a friend or business partner has systematically deceived one for years, because it is one's own stake in the relationship (the bond of friendship, a partner, etc.) that is questioned by considering tolerance, rather than an issue that is strictly the concern of someone besides oneself. To sum this all up, Dr. Smith reflects that a person, "extends tolerance when, holding the authority to disallow activity that he regards as wrong, he allows it." (p. 33)

How does this relate to the virtue of justice? At first glance: not favorably. Justice in the realm of morality (or moral judgment), let's again note, is the virtue of recognizing the facts and moral characters of others, evaluating them according to one's standards/principles, and acting accordingly, thereby granting to each person that which he deserves. The call for tolerance seems to fly in the face of this virtue: it essentially instructs one to identify and evaluate the actions and character of people and then not act in accordance with one's negative evaluations. "Tolerance directly contradicts the conviction that a person should be treated as he deserves. Extensions of tolerance declare (in kinder, gentler language): to hell with what a person deserves." (p. 33) In Rand's philosophical works, we see various examples of improper tolerance: the tolerance of the moral coward who abstains from moral judgment for the sake of convenience (Moral Cowardice); of the person who doesn't know how to apply his morality to others, and thus tolerates moral breaches he would never allow himself to practice; of the militant tolerationist, willing to tolerate without context or rational discrimination; of a person who represents the "sanction of the victim," who allows others to criticize him for his virtues and good character; of the person who substitutes mercy for justice, granting to the immoral or evil more than they deserve; and of the appeaser willing to tolerate the evils of others due to his own fear of them (Appeasement).

However negative this initial appraisal is, it is important to realize that tolerance is occasionally proper, and that it's propriety depends on the context. Is the disagreeable action an isolated incident, or one of many such transgressions? Does the individual attempt to own up to his mistake or moral breach, and try to make amends, or does he shrug it and/or you off as insignificant? Did the action occur while the person was under extenuating circumstances, such as a painful divorce, a mental breakdown, the influence of drugs, or a natural emergency? Is the action of such a negative scale as to be outside any rational possibility of tolerance? All of these questions (and more) are relevant to understanding the guilty person's context, and reaching a decision as to whether moral condemnation would lead one to sacrifice one's broader, well-considered interests. All such questions allow one to incorporate the benefits of being rationally tolerate while still conforming tolerant behavior to the principles of justice.

The up-shot is that tolerance is sometimes a virtue, and sometimes it is not, and this is determined by its conforming to the virtue of justice, as well as one's considered interests. Contra Kelley, there can be legitimate conflicts between justice and tolerance: to hold that there aren't any such, Kelley shrinks the meaning of tolerance in such a way as to make it fit within the broader theory of justice. (The exception is that we should be intolerant of outright irrationality.)

A closer reading shows that Kelley intends to replace some of the functions of justice with his view of tolerance. Specifically, he utilizes tolerance (instead of an element of justice) to demand that one does not reach moral judgments hastily without considering all the available facts, and the demand of justice that one hold the other person's context in mind when considering one's moral judgment of him. This, however, misunderstands the role of justice in a moral person's life. Dr. Smith reminds us that to reserve judgment until one has an adequate basis to condemn is not tolerance; rather, it is simply a realization that one is not in a position to come to a moral conclusion. This policy is neither an act of tolerance or a violation of justice, but rather is precisely the objective kind of judgment that the virtue of justice advises us to adopt. "The proper corrective to ill-founded intolerance is not the leniency of tolerance; it is a more rigorous dedication to justice," Smith advises. (p. 36)

Kelley's misunderstanding of tolerance permeates his entire chapter on it, including the section "Tolerance and Objectivity." The section is lengthy, but it can be summarized as: to reach certainty in the kind of issues being discussed, we must know and be able to refute all of the available evidence in support of alternative explanations; to access and assess such evidence, we must be tolerant and open to discussion on these alternative theories and principles with others, without condemning them for their differences or honest errors—this is the way in which objectivity requires tolerance. As one can see from reading CLAR, this is only a lengthy elaboration of the previously mentioned idea that tolerance is taking into account the context and ideas of others, including how they might have reached their conclusions. Tolerance only applies once one is certain of the actions or ideas of others with which one disagrees, and when that person is in a position to even tolerate anything. Objectively identifying and evaluating the theories and ideas of others, such as in open debate or discussion, persuading people through logic, considering alternative theories for justifying ideas that one holds—these are all aspects of justice and objectivity, not the domain of tolerance. That Kelley doesn't understand this, only reveals the depth of his knowledge on these concepts.


There are other issues involved that I won't discuss in relation to "tolerance." More than moral condemnation is a logical consequence of being intolerant, against Kelley's definition. Kelley's lengthy (and weird) tying of objectivity to tolerance through the ideas of integration, unit-economy, and certainty, is worthy of another essay in response. The main theme of my paper has been that Kelley misunderstands tolerance: we could certainly benefit from a much lengthier and more detailed presentation of tolerance and its connection to the philosophy of Objectivism. Kelley disagrees with Peikoff's interpretation of his own view (i.e., "fairness through skepticism"), but when everything's considered, Kelley's position amounts to, "fairness through context-induced skepticism." While I haven't taken up all of these issues, I hope I've addressed the fundamental conclusion in Kelley's chapter, that tolerance is required by justice and objectivity, in a way that suggests how those ideas relate to each other as approached from an Objectivist perspective. (Given what I've written about Kelley in this series, it shouldn't be a surprise that I don't consider him to be an Objectivist.)

Reference Works

Ayn Rand Lexicon: Appeasement. Accessed May 18, 2010.
Ayn Rand Lexicon: Errors of Knowledge vs. Breaches of Morality Accessed May 18, 2010.
Ayn Rand Lexicon: Moral Cowardice Accessed May 18, 2010.

Kelley, David. The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand: Truth and Toleration in Objectivism. – Truth and Toleration.pdf

Smith, Tara. "Tolerance & Forgiveness: Virtues or Vices?" Journal of Applied Philosophy. Vol. 14, No. 1, 1997. pp. 31-41.

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