Tolerance: Dogma and Dangers of America’s Favorite Virtue

American Flag in front of Chicago Skyline

“Every educational system has a moral goal that it tries to attain and that informs its curriculum,” writes Harold Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind.  “It wants to produce a certain kind of human being . . . Aristocracies want gentleman, oligarchies men who respect and pursue money, and democracies lovers of equality”.[1]

In this article, I will show that the moral goal of America has become a new type of tolerance, which I call dogmatic tolerance.  I define this dogmatic tolerance as assigning equal value to diverse viewpoints, and vilifying those who do not. This is distinguished from the true definition of tolerance as simply the toleration of diverse viewpoints. “Dogmatic” refers to its tendency to claim itself as incontrovertibly true while contradicting its epistemological foundation that truth is relative. Then I will examine the negative impact of this new tolerance on our ability to reason morally and to make moral decisions. Finally, I will suggest an alternative moral goal that is rooted in the Abrahamic faith tradition, but that can be embraced by non-religious citizens in an equally meaningful way.

Tolerance: The Crowning Virtue of Secularism

America is a nation of diversity, a diversity that enriches public discourse, expands minds to consider conflicting worldviews, and fosters creativity by celebrating unique traditions. But problems may arise when respect is uprooted by fear and the creative synthesis of conflicting viewpoints is replaced with close-minded persistence in one’s own traditions. At this crossroads between tradition and diversity, tolerance becomes a saving virtue, to tame the vitriol of political and ideological debate, and foster a sense of unity in diversity.

Although tolerance simply means toleration for diverse viewpoints, dogmatic tolerance has grown from this lowly definition to symbolize the democratic doctrine of a nation, morphing from one virtue in the web of moral character to an all-encompassing creed, the standard by which all judgments must be made. This dogmatic distortion of its true meaning relies on the popular philosophy of cognitive relativism in order to assign all beliefs the same epistemological and moral value. Rather than claiming that all people are created equal, distinguishing the person from their true or untrue beliefs, cognitive relativism prefers to say that all ideas are created equal.

Problems and Paradoxes

But unlike humans, ideas are not all created equal. As readily as we relegate religious belief and moral judgments to the lowly epistemological status of “opinion,” cognitive relativism and its accompanying virtue of dogmatic tolerance claim to be facts, solitary truths in a sea of speculations.

As Socrates criticized in Plato’s Protagoras, if truth is relative, then my opinion that truth is absolute would have to be true as well, which leads to a logical contradiction.[2] If we are to have any meaningful conversation about truth, we have to acknowledge some glimmer of the absolute in its nature, just as a conversation about morality presupposes certain shared conceptions of right and wrong.

Aside from this paradox of relativism claiming to be absolute, dogmatic tolerance proffers additional grave problems. The two most visible problems that result from this dogmatic tolerance are (1) our inability to make sound moral judgments and (2) our increasing justification of unethical behavior.

By claiming that all viewpoints are equally valid, dogmatic tolerance makes moral reasoning impossible without slipping into intolerance. But vilification of judgment-making doesn’t stop judgment altogether; we must, after all, make countless daily judgments about the character or trustworthiness of a person, about the value of a particular belief, or the truthfulness of a political pundit’s statements. What it does do, by insisting on blanket acceptance of all beliefs, is make us ineffective and sloppy moral analysts, those who filter all arguments into two simplistic categories: tolerant or intolerant, sometimes labeled as open- or close-minded. This grievous oversimplification of the truth doesn’t erase our innate moral faculties for judgment-making, but does allow them to rust with disuse.

A study conducted in 2008 by the sociologist Christian Smith found that youth were incapable of speaking about morality in a meaningful way. They vacillated between excuses such as “I don’t really deal with right and wrong that often” to “I couldn’t speak on behalf of anyone else as to what’s right or wrong.”[3] They couldn’t even identify a moral dilemma that they had experienced, speaking instead of morally neutral decisions like whether or not they could afford a certain apartment, and would not even condemn cheating on a test or on a partner as immoral, only taking firm stances on the most obvious cases of immorality such as murder or rape.  The results of this study imply a startling truth: modern American youth simply do not possess the reasoning or the vocabulary to even speak of morality.

Of course, the inability to recognize right from wrong is not a problem relegated to business ethics or jury duty. Dogmatic tolerance blurs the lines of our moral judgments so that wrong can be justified as right, while any lingering moral evidence of guilt can be brushed aside as vestiges of archaic social mores disrupting our enlightened rationality.

Cognitive scientists, who have recently begun breaking ground on the largely unexplored territory of moral cognition, have identified five “primary colors of our moral sense”: fairness, community, authority, purity, and avoiding harm. Transcending national boundaries, gender, and education, manifestations of these five virtues undergird all cultural norms and religious practices.[4] This presents us with a contradiction: on one hand, Americans, with other world citizens, innately recognize the validity of certain morals, but on the other hand, we have been trained to speak of them as relative, with no real intrinsic value.

So if we innately view certain morals as absolute (or at least universal), why do we demote them to the realm of ice cream flavor preferences in public discourse?

Love: What Tolerance Aspires To Be

That invisible hand of the collective moral psyche has evolved towards dogmatic tolerance with good intentions. I have mentioned the need for a unifying virtue in a democratic nation, especially in a nation as diverse as America. And for many people, dogmatic tolerance doesn’t feel like a pseudo-virtue grounded in unsound moral theory. Rather, it feels quite a bit like good old-fashioned love.

Love is, I believe, what dogmatic tolerance aspires to be. The idea of love as uniquely conceptualized in the Abrahamic faith tradition allows for and even delights in differences, realizing that petty political disputes and cultural variety are merely the myriad manifestations of a God who requires countless creations to make His truth manifest. Encountering diversity through this faith-based lens is a joyful encounter with God Himself, an expression of His marvelous creativity and inspiration for our own.

But this concept of love, although Abrahamic in origin, is manifested in many secular philosophies as well. For example, Charles Sanders Pierce, the famous American pragmatist, saw love as the driving force behind the world’s evolution. It is love that sustains and creates us, while allowing us to sustain and create others as well. How? It, too, glories in diversity, pulling out “germs of loveliness” from the ugliest of human hearts, or germs of truth from ideas that are most vehemently opposed to our own. This is how we progress, he maintained, and America would do well to hear his message.[5]

Another philosopher, Hans Georg Gadamer, offers a place between relativism and dogmatism through the art of dialogue. He said that to eliminate prejudices before we have even begun discussing an issue is impractical and not even desirable. He uses this word “prejudice” in the neutral sense of a pre-judgment, not in any way condoning racial or religious prejudice, but rather emphasizing the importance of diverse ideas. Instead of aiming for elimination of these pre-judgments, we should allow them to rise to the fore and be combatted as we engage in dialogue with others. As we strive towards Truth (note the capital “T”), our erroneous beliefs will be challenged and we will be forced to revise them, without throwing up our hands and allowing each person their relative truth.[6] This kind of dialogue demands diversity as well as absolute truth, two elements that should constitute public discourse in America. But more subtly, it also demands a kind of tolerance that is more like the Abrahamic idea of love. Celebrating diversity, still it challenges individuals to revise their beliefs in an upward climb towards truth.

This robust and challenging love offers us the key to self-development and group development. Any philosophy that denies a hierarchy of bad, good, better, and best can never reach the love we most desire, that is, a love that pulls us towards higher ideals from a lower nature. This love thrives on conflicting ideas, knowing instinctively that growth is not born of an inscrutable moral sameness, but rather is generated on the battlefield of good and evil.

Conclusion

Where once the virtue of love accompanied the belief that humans are equal as unique creations of God, now moral and epistemological relativism lies at the root of our crowning secular virtue. Tolerance, not love, has become the new moral mantra of the West.

Dogmatic tolerance pays illogical lip service to cognitive relativism, while vigorously promoting its favorite “absolutes.” But the Abrahamic love, as well as its secular counterpart, can rest on the firmer epistemological ground of moral and truth absolutes, while allowing for fearless debate of ideas in order to draw nearer to that truth. This love both exalts truth and ennobles humankind to attain it.

Religion is not going away. Neither is intolerance. But maybe the virtue we need is not dogmatic tolerance, but rather a revival of a more robust love, a love that can battle freely and boldly with opposing viewpoints, while maintaining respect for those who hold them.

Works Cited:

[1] Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987, 26.

[2] Plato. Protagoras. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. The Internet Classics Archives. MIT. 28 December 2015. http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/protagoras.html.

[3] Smith, Christian. “On ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’ as U.S. Teenagers’ Actual, Tacit, De Facto Religious Faith.” Princeton Theological Seminar. Accessed 23 November 2015. https://www.ptsem.edu/uploadedFiles/School_of_Christian_Vocation_and_Mission/Institute_for_Youth_Ministry/Princeton_Lectures/Smith-Moralistic.pdf.

[4] Pinker, Steven. “The Moral Instinct.” The New York Times Magazine. 13 January 2008. Accessed 26 December 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/13/magazine/13Psychology-t.html?_r=0.

[5] Pierce, Charles Sanders. “Evolutionary Love.” The Monist 3 (1893): 176-200. Print. Accessed at: <http://www.iupui.edu/~arisbe/menu/library/bycsp/evolove/evolove.htm&gt;.

[6] Malpas, Jeff. “Hans-Georg Gadamer.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2014. Web. 8 April, 2016.

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