The Moral Foundations of Tolerance

Sean Gabb, director of the Libertarian Alliance, wrote a very instructive paper over a decade ago: How English Libery was Created by accident and custom–and then destroyed by liberals. The premise of the paper is this: British Liberty sprung from a spontaneous order. Attempts to formalize a meta-ethical foundation behind this spontaneous order destroyed it.

Keep this in mind when you read Professor Andrew Cohen’s attempts to rationalize the need for a meta-ethical foundation behind libertarian tolerance. Cohen is essentially arguing that tolerance only makes sense as a meta-ethical statement, which is another way of saying “toleration requires judging.”

Professor Cohen’s continued ethical musings serve to remind us of the actual meta-ethical divide between libertarianism and liberalism. I would define “tolerance” in the libertarian sense not as a moral principle but rather as a moral constraint. The distinction here is important. As a moral constraint, we understand “tolerance” to be a product of a rational “tit-for-tat strategy” that results in higher payoffs for all agents. A “Tit-for-Tat” strategy requires no assumptions of moral judgements or moral foundations on the part of the players. Anyone can play this strategy. Hence, we can say the foundation for “libertarian tolerance” is strategic, not moral.

“Liberal tolerance,” however, does derive from a meta-ethical claim: “The moral agent should be given enough space to decide for itself what the good life is. The Liberal State should be neutral on what the good life is, but it should not be neutral in terms of protecting minorities–in their exercise of this right–from the objections of the majority.”

Cohen’s apparent fixation with “multi-culturalism” is actually more applicable to the liberal vs communitarian debate that raged in the academic community back in the 1980s. Communitarians deny the meta-ethical claim of “liberal tolerance” because they deny any practical meaning of the individual self outside the social context. Hence, they reject the the idea of institutional neutrality regarding “individual space” and the ethical basis of the good life.

The liberal contingent retorted that communitarianism lacked any meta-ethical foundation for an actual multi-cultural society, i.e., “multi-culturalism,” and that communitarianism relied on a provincial “culturalization” of institutions. Communitarians such as Charles Taylor responded that a communitarian basis for multi-culturalism could be achieved by a pervasive introduction of a multi-cultural curriculum into the common educational institutional system. Taylor is one of the better-known communitarian academic luminaries associated with the idea of the cultural equivalence of meta-ethical foundations(an idea that appears to be a pet peeve with Cohen).

By the 1990s, the heated liberal vs communitarian debate had begun to recede from the landscape of formal academic debate, with the conclusion that communitarianism was largely a conservative political philosophy. Nonetheless, Charles Taylor’s “The Politics of Recognition” would become dominant in the institutional setting of academia and communication media, but better known by the term, “Political Correctness.”

Political Correctness is a communitarian moral foundation (of a social order) that relies on the cultural equivalence of meta-ethical foundations as means to cultivate equal self-respect among cultural groups. From this social context, then, respected “role models” can emerge from each group, serving both an educational purpose and a purpose of a unification model across all cultural groups.

It would be wrong to say that Political Correctness and the Politically Correct Role model serve as a font of moral subjectivism. On the contrary, Political Correctness very much provides an objective standard for tolerance: We will tolerate mass violence against minority communities, but we won’t tolerate disrespecting the “recognized” leaders of these minorities communities.

Unofficially, of course, Political Correctness is lampooned. And there has arisen this curious cottage industry known as “tabloid media” that finds it very profitable to tear down our politically correct role models.

Moral subjectivism is not the problem. The problem is with the moral foundation…

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