Giant leaps for mankind: Most of our beliefs are unwarranted, even absurd

John Gray in New Statesman:

LockeToleration is out of fashion. We tolerate what we judge to be bad or false and, for many, this is a stance that involves a kind of disrespect. It has become part of the ideal of equality to accept that everyone has a right not only to speak but also to be heard, and regarding anyone as not worth listening to seems to go against this ethos. Yet it is hard to see how we can do without the practice of toleration. It is said that we can reject or condemn mistaken beliefs while respecting those who hold them but the distinction breaks down when the beliefs are not just mistaken but detestable and pernicious. Apologists for Stalinism deserve ridicule and disdain, while Holocaust deniers merit nothing but contempt. If we are ready to tolerate the expression of such views, it is not because their exponents are worthy of respect but for the sake of the greater good of freedom. Protecting the freedom of people we rightly despise is hard. Since those we tolerate may not reciprocate, it can also be dangerous. However, putting up with disgusting views and the people who express them is a part of what freedom means – one that is as important as any panoply of rights. The contemporary cult of rights has encouraged us to think that freedom and human rights are practically coextensive. Yet no freedom of any importance can be secured by a rights-based legal system alone. America’s grandiose constitutional paraphernalia did not protect the country from the frenzy of McCarthyism, any more than the legal right to choice in abortion has prevented doctors who perform abortions there being threatened with violence and in some cases even murdered. Nor did American legalism prevent the authorisation of torture by the Bush administration. A legal structure that is supposed to secure basic freedoms will count for nothing if it is not supported by a larger culture of liberty in which the practice of toleration is central and fundamental.

By putting toleration at the heart of his inquiry, Brian Leiter has done a service to political thought. Focusing on whether religious practitioners can be given special exemption from generally applicable laws on grounds of conscience, he aims to formulate a universal principle of toleration. “A practice of toleration is one thing,” he writes, “a principled reason for toleration another.” As Leiter sees it, Thomas Hobbes’s view of toleration as a means to peaceful coexistence was “nothing more than pragmatic” and even John Locke – author of A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) – argued only that government was ill-suited to effect changes in belief. Instead Leiter is looking for a “pure” form of toleration, one based on principles having to do with the nature of human knowledge and the good life, and finds versions of this sort of toleration defended in the writings of John Rawls and John Stuart Mill.

More here.

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