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Karl Popper and The Paradox of Tolerance

The paradoxical problem can be stated as the following: a tolerant person may be hostile toward intolerance; thus, a tolerant person would apparently be intolerant of something–namely, intolerance. Is it possible to have too much tolerance? Does tolerance involve being tolerant of the intolerant? Are there any limitations to tolerance and, if so, how do we define them? This is the problem in the so-called ‘paradox of tolerance’. In order to attempt to understand the issue, I will recount some of the history and meaning behind the idea of tolerance (aka, toleration), and then present my own current preferred method of defining and applying the idea of tolerance for practical use in our modern political and social context.

Let’s begin in the early modern era with John Locke’s 1689 A Letter Concerning Toleration (coincidentally published the same year as the English Act of Toleration). In this influential treatise, Locke focuses on the conflict between political authority and religious belief. He argued that, since it was impossible for the state to coerce religious belief, it should totally refrain from interfering in the religious beliefs of is subjects. In his eyes, there was an inalienable right to the free exercise of religion that necessitated toleration by the state of all competing creeds (not counting his stated exceptions for Catholics who could give loyalty to a foreign government or atheists who could destroy the moral order). This view, somewhat revolutionary at the time (Locke was writing in exile from Holland), has come to be the central inspiration for the now-accepted doctrine of the separation of the church and the state.

Throughout the next century, many thinkers continued to argue for the case of toleration, which was almost invariably represented as ‘religious toleration’. In France leading up to the Revolution, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Diderot, and Rousseau all followed Locke in different ways, while all generally conceiving of a secular state in which religious belief should be tolerated. Likewise in the New World before and after the American Revolution, where Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison were some of the key proponents of Lockean toleration. Paine, in his 1791 Rights of Man, seconded Locke’s notion that toleration for religious diversity is necessary since neither state nor church authorities could truly judge an individual in matters of conscience.

Madison took the issue further than Locke by refusing any exceptions to universal toleration, writing that “the right to tolerate religion presumes the right to persecute it.” According to Madison and Jefferson, the state was to have nothing to do whatever with religious matters, not only for the purpose of guaranteeing toleration but also to place limits on the power of the state. The Bill of Rights that was authored by Madison and passed in 1791 served not only to restrain political power, but to protect for all time the freedom of thought, speech, and actions of individuals. This has led, among other things, to a tradition of toleration for these things, even in the case of disagreement. This is best summed up in the quote often misattributed to Voltaire (which was actually another author’s epitome of his attitude): “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

If we continue to the 19th century, we encounter the more modern idea of tolerance championed by John Stuart Mill in his 1859 work On Liberty. Now, for virtually the first time, Mill centered the issue of toleration not on religious considerations, but on other forms of political, social, and cultural differences. He provides three arguments for toleration. The first is his ‘Harm Principle’, whereby individual liberty can only be limited to what harms another person or his well-being. The second is that freedom of thought is essential, and that even a wrong opinion can lead to a productive learning process. The third is his utilitarian argument that individuals will be happier, and will lead to more total happiness in society, if their differences are tolerated so that everyone can pursue his or her own idea of the good life. While his overall conclusions are uncertain and have some downsides (as I began to discuss here in regards to utilitarianism), his expanded and reasonable idea of toleration has had a positive and stimulating effect on the discussion up to the present day.

In the 20th century, especially since the World Wars, the concept of tolerance has become an important issue in ethical and political philosophy– especially seen in such liberal theorists as John Dewey, Isaiah Berlin, Karl Popper, and John Rawls. I have previously written here about Berlin in regards to his concepts of ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ freedom, and his idea of a tolerant system of ‘value-pluralism’. Likewise in this essay in which I discussed John Rawls and his ‘overlapping consensus’: a system in which individuals and groups with diverse opinions will find political reasons to agree on certain principles of justice that include mutual and universal toleration. Keeping all of this in mind, I will now turn my attention to Karl Popper.

Karl Popper (1902-1994)

Karl Popper was born in Austria in 1902, emigrated to New Zealand after the Anschluss, and spent the last half of his life in England where he received a knighthood, membership in the Royal Academy, and many other awards. He died in 1994 at the age of 92. His primary area of interest was the philosophy of science, in which he is considered the most important thinker of the 20th century. He refined the concept of ‘falsifiability’, in which a theory can only be taken as scientific if it can be shown to be falsifiable. This led him to conduct sustained attacks against such in vogue theories as psychoanalysis and Marxism, both of which he (rightly) exposed as pseudo-scientific. The same line of reasoning led to his supposed solution to the problem of induction which had plagued philosophers since David Hume. He wrote the most fundamental criticisms of the Logical Positivist school during their early days before they were popularized in the English-speaking world by A.J. Ayer. He defied Wittgenstein upon their first meeting at Cambridge by saying that if there were not real problems of philosophy, but only with language, then he never would have become a philosopher (there is an apocryphal story in which Wittgenstein brandished a poker iron at Popper during this meeting). Popper’s work with which I am most concerned is his political philosophy and his vigorous defense of democracy and liberalism, represented famously in his book The Open Society and Its Enemies.

In this book (which can be read or downloaded for free here), written during the latter stages of WWII and published in 1945, Popper maintains as his central thesis that Plato, Hegel, and Marx were all, at best, deeply flawed thinkers whose ideas led to totalitarianism. The reason for this, according to Popper, was that they all preached theories based on ‘historicism’, an idea which states that all historical events are pre-determined according to certain laws of nature. In the first volume, he focuses solely on deconstructing “The Spell of Plato” by analyzing the negative consequences stemming from the proto-fascistic state Plato describes in the Republic. In the second volume, he treats similarly with Hegel’s ‘dialectics’ and Marx’s ‘dialectical materialism’, claiming that both were responsible for the 20th century cases of Nazism and Stalinism, respectively. One of the results is what Isaiah Berlin called “the most scrupulous and formidable criticism of the philosophical and historical doctrines of Marxism by any living writer.” This somewhat polemical book has obviously been highly controversial as well, inviting much criticism of Popper by other philosophers for his interpretations and uses of Plato, Hegel, and Marx.

Popper concludes, against the common long-held belief, that democracy is indeed a more efficient government than a dictatorship, since an open society with guaranteed individual freedoms is more sustainable and more able to solve its own problems over the long term (and, ideally, with less bloodshed). Additionally, Popper advocates what he calls ‘piecemeal social engineering’ rather than the sort of utopian planning which could be seen in theory and in practice leading up to WWII (and continuing today in some places). Rather than the great social upheavals, and often revolutions, brought about by the latter, Popper preferred piecemeal improvements on a small scale that could gradually eliminate errors in social policies and make the necessary improvements. There are many arguments he makes in this monumental work, such as ‘negative utilitarianism’, which are highly interesting and worthy of further debate. For now, however, I will transition back to the topic at hand– tolerance and its paradox.

From Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies, Chapter 7, Note 4:

Less well known is the paradox of tolerance: Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.—In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be most unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law. And we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.

According to Popper, then, there is a limit to tolerance– the suppression, by the State, of intolerance. This is a key doctrine of modern liberalism, and contrary to the idea of individual freedom imagined by Jefferson, Madison, or in the classical liberalism of J.S. Mill. Governments and societies have changed much from 18th-19th century, and even from WWII to today. Governments have in general become much stronger and more centralized, but at the same time there is much more individual freedom, education, and empowerment than ever before, as well as numerous international authorities that can (ostensibly) check the power of any single government. In short, there is much diversity and plurality, and we know now that tolerance is necessary to maintain the peace between peoples of different opinions and ideologies.

So how do we define intolerance, and who gets to decide? How do we limit intolerance while not curtailing freedoms of expression? Intolerance should be defined as treating members of a certain group differently and with less equality only because of their beliefs, race, sex, etc. It should be decided by a democratically elected government which guarantees the rights of the minority. The limits of tolerance should be a point which goes beyond mere criticism of opinions or beliefs to a rejection of the legitimacy of the person making the criticism. As a general guideline, criticism of ideas is allowed, while extreme attacks on people who hold those ideas, and the corresponding attempt to limit the victim’s freedom, is usually intolerance (aka, bigotry). The issue is not so simple, and there are constant court cases which test the bounds of these rules.

Let’s look at an example of how this works. We can quite easily see now that racism is intolerance. In many areas of the United States, especially the South, that particular intolerant attitude was so ingrained that an outside authority was needed in order to ameliorate the situation. That authority was the US Government, which passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Racism by no means has ended, as we can see clearly in today’s political headlines, but it has become become a criminal offense to express it openly. A vicious cycle has been transformed into a virtuous one as new generations are gradually raised with the idea that racism is unacceptable and off-limits. Today, though it still exists in the ignorant fringe of society, you will not see many examples of people who publicly announce that racism is an “individual right”, or that the Civil Rights Act was bad (unless you happen to be a right-wing “libertarian” named Ron Paul). That type is intolerance is no longer tolerated. There is no such thing as a ‘freedom to discriminate’, for example.

While there are numerous areas in which intolerance is still widespread, there is reason to believe that the tide is slowly turning. Popper’s model has not only been influential on both sides of the political discourse, but it also has the virtue of being a model that works in practice. The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights is one of the shining examples of our moral progress as a species. Part of this declaration reads that education is a universal right and should strive to “promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups.” The authority, in this case, is the international collection of all the countries on the planet, that have collectively decided where to set the limits of tolerance. American constitutional law continues to constantly develop as well as the nature of the society slowly evolves. We are seeing right now, for example, that the ‘traditional’ case for intolerance against gay rights is crumbling before our very eyes.

We can, it appears to me, conclude that criticism of opposing ideas or beliefs is permissible, and even necessary for the flourishing of free speech in a democratic and open society. Attacking people because of their beliefs is not permitted. The discussion on the finer points of this argument need to continue to be debated, but, for now, I think it is safe to say that, in order to maintain our freedoms, intolerance should not be tolerated.

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Liberal Apologetics, Part Two: Robert Nozick

To anyone who would take a sneak peek into the hallowed halls of Harvard (or, as Bob Dylan would say, ‘the green pastures of Harvard University’), I would direct your attention to the ‘Links’ menu on the right in which you will find an online lecture course. The course is called ‘Justice‘, and the professor is Dr. Michael Sandel. Sandel has taught this course every year for the last 20 years or so, and the total number of students that have attended is over 10,000 (as well as many more virtual students by way of the online course). It is an engaging and participatory look at modern practical ethics, with illustrative historical case studies (such as the tale of 4 sailers stranded in a lifeboat who eventually had to decide which person to eat so the other three could survive longer), and a reading list that includes Aristotle, Kant, Mill, Rawls, and Nozick. Sandel was a long-time Harvard colleague of the latter two men, and he wrote a book that mildly criticized Rawls for things like not placing more weight in the Original Position on considerations such as personal relationships (family, etc.) and values. Otherwise, he does not seem to me to really disagree with any of the substantive points of Rawls. Over the course of the course, Sandel stimulates discussion and debate from the students, provoking thought and asking them to justify their opinions in a rational and convincing way to their peers. Naturally, the students make cases for a variety of views, including libertarianism and liberalism. Sandel never explicitly agrees or disagrees with any of the views in question, but contents himself with allowing students to make consistent arguments and decide for themselves based on the facts–as it should always be done in any society, whether between 1000 Harvard undergrads in a lecture hall or between 300 Million diverse Americans across the continent (by the way, this online series, and Sandel himself, has recently become quite popular in Asia, particularly China).  Read more…

Liberal Apologetics, Part One: John Rawls

Anyone who keeps a weary eye on the tedious tidings of the news will no doubt be familiar with the regrettable state of American political discourse. While this is certainly nothing new, and can actually be seen as a sort of necessity for the survival of a ‘healthy’ democracy, it seems like there are fundamental and seemingly intractable disagreements at the heart of this conflict between increasingly intransigent ideologues (who can be found on both the left and the right, though not necessarily in equal proportions). Perhaps these problems are not so grave compared to historical struggles such as the question of slavery, civil rights, etc., but they still must be confronted in a profound way in order for us to collectively define and allocate our national priorities and ‘values’. The most important instantiation of this process is represented by the various beliefs about the degree to which the State should be empowered to collect and distribute resources (tax revenue, budget allocations, etc.), and to interpret the ‘rights’ of individuals vis-à-vis the State. At this point, I will attempt to simplify the issue into what I see as its most fundamental question: do we want the State (or, ‘Government’) to establish and maintain some sort of a notion of ‘justice’ and ‘equality’ in society (for my purposes here, I shall label this as ‘Liberalism’), or do we want the State to maintain only the most basic necessities for the security of the State and its citizens, in favor of a wide-ranging personal and individual liberty (this shall be labelled ‘Libertarianism’).

Both of these political philosophies have traditions and divergent uses dating from at least Industrial Age Europe, which I will happily ignore in the name of brevity. They both conspicuously share the same etymology: the Latin root liber, which simply means ‘free’, and which also found its way into the medieval universities’ notion of the ‘Seven Liberal Arts’ (the Trivium and the Quadrivium), which were considered the essential subjects for free citizens to study.  I will attempt to synthesize the basic arguments of each ‘school’, and their competing views of an ideal society. I will also use as my point of departure the ideas of the two most representative and influential thinkers of each ‘school’: John Rawls and Robert Nozick.

These two men were colleagues and friendly rivals at Harvard University for several decades (and both recently died in the same year–2002). Rawls wrote A Theory of Justice in 1971, which presents his idea for creating a new social contract in favor of distributive justice. Nozick wrote Anarchy, State, and Utopia in 1974, which presents his ideas about the benefits of a limited and minimal state– it is a fundamental text for modern libertarians. Part One will involve the key aspects of Rawls, and Part Two will address Nozick, as well as my final conclusions.

John Rawls, 1921-2002

In A Theory of Justice, Rawls attempts to find a solution to the question of to what extent a society can have both liberty and equality, and where we can place the concept of justice on a continuum between those two incongruous concepts. He called his theory ‘Justice as Fairness’, and derived from it two principles to establish the ensuing justice: the ‘liberty principle’ and the ‘difference principle’. Prior to this, Rawls describes a hypothetical social contract which would need to be drawn up whence would follow these two principles; this is the ‘Original Position’, in which principles of justice are all decided behind a ‘veil of ignorance’. Behind this veil, no one knows any facts at all about their own background, place in society, class, race, sex, intelligence, or natural abilities, so that judgment about notions of justice will be unclouded by any prejudice or knowledge about personal outcome. Naturally, ignorance of these personal details leads to the establishment of principles that will be fair for everyone, will not privilege any specific class of people, and will maximize the potential benefits for the least well-off (‘maximin’ strategy).

Let’s take a step back for a moment before looking at the the theory in more depth. By using the concept of a ‘social contract’, Rawls’ Original Position follows the traditions of Hobbes and Locke. Rawls is not as concerned with the problem of justifying a type of ideal government (such as Hobbes’ absolute monarchy), but follows a bit more closely Locke’s ideas of natural rights (life, liberty, possessions). Unlike these earlier thinkers, however, Rawls’ theory was only a thought experiment, totally hypothetical and ahistorical, which he used merely to demonstrate the means by which his principles of justice could be established. These principles would then be used by the government to protect individual rights as well as to regulate the distribution of social and economic advantages across the society in question.

The first principle of justice that follows from the Original Position is the Liberty principle, which states that “each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.” Basically, this ensures political liberty (voting rights, etc.), freedom of speech and assembly, freedom of personal property, and freedom from arbitrary arrest. This would seem to exemplify Isaiah Berlin’s (an early teacher and influence on Rawls) concept of ‘Negative Liberty’, a topic which I discussed here. This principle should also seem to come naturally to us, since we have long had many such freedoms in Western Liberal societies, as seen in the Bill of Rights. It is not so clear-cut in reality, however, as seen by the fact that civil rights and voting freedom are not necessarily guaranteed in America even today; in fact, there are still no shortage of attempts to push back against such freedoms in favor of regressive policies of disenfranchisement, limiting freedom of speech, and even racial segregation. It is notable that Rawls’ first principle does not protect the rights to certain types of property (such as capital and means of production) or freedom of contract between parties. Also, since any individual liberties, especially in a large and diverse population, may conflict with another person’s liberties, some sort of pluralism is needed (such as Berlin’s ‘value-pluralism’).

The second principle of justice, called the Difference Principle, is somewhat more controversial. Rawls states that social and economic equalities are to be arranged so that: a) “they are to be of the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society”; and, b) “offices and positions must be open to everyone under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.”  The interesting thing about these points is that Rawls does not attempt to classify ‘inequality’ as a concept unjust or undesirable in itself, and does not claim to solve the problem of injustice; he simply uses the egalitarian-like notion that justice should be enacted (and injustice decreased) by way of the distribution of the most surplus benefits to the least-advantaged members of society. Since it follows from the Original Position that the opportunity to succeed should be completely open and available to all members of society, no matter their class, natural abilities, etc., the best way to ensure this fairness of opportunity is to always seek to redistribute inequalities which occur naturally in society to those members who are most in need of assistance. This seems to be more in the spirit of Berlin’s idea of ‘Positive Freedom’, only applied to society writ-large rather than the individual. Basically, it allows for the least-advantaged members to ‘catch up’ to the most successful members by having additional access to benefits (education, food/housing/medical subsidies) that are most needed by the disadvantaged. The second idea in b) also attempts to ensure that even these same least-advantaged members will nevertheless have equal access to opportunity (such as work, political office, etc.).

The Difference Principle is controversial because it mandates that social goods and benefits will be basically redistributed from one group (the well-off) to another (the poor). We shall see the arguments against this from the Libertarian perspective next time, but for Rawls, who equated justice to fairness, fairness had to then be ‘re-written’ into the social contract in such a way as to always err on the side of greater equality, rather than inequality. Before classical liberalism came on the scene in the 18th-19th centuries, women, minorities, and poor people were almost totally without rights, just as they had always been. Gradually, women gained the right to vote (1920 in America), African-Americans were relieved of the burden of slavery (1863) and given more civil rights (1964), and the poor were able to rise out of poverty due to labor laws and universal education. These things, thankfully, seem obvious to us today, but it took decades (or perhaps, the entire history of civilization) of struggle to finally realize them. All of these events, and many more, happened before the publication of A Theory of Justice in 1971. Rawls continues this liberal tradition by taking things even further, and seeking to map out an even more just and more equal society than has yet been achieved.

Let’s try to look at some examples of how Rawls’ principles of justice could work in action today. Affirmative action began before Rawls’ work, but it continues to be a controversial issue. It is fair, according to Rawls, because it mitigates inherent inequality by distributing extra benefits (job positions, university placements, etc.) to the least-advantaged. So universities are allowed, in some cases even obligated, to accept more students who are from social groups that have been historically marginalized in America (minorities and impoverished). This policy (which some universities also justify by saying that it adds to the diversity of the student body) begins to decrease social inequality, while increasing a more universal freedom of opportunity. This same idea could be applied to the hiring practices of corporations and government agencies. In addition, it is easy to use Rawls as a justification for progressive tax rates, in which the rich (successful, usually well-educated, but a small minority of society) pay a higher tax rate than others; this revenue should ideally be used to support programs which help the large number of the middle and lower classes by providing extra education, medical benefits, etc., that will help to decrease inequality. Strictly speaking, though, Rawls only states that further economic gains by the most-advantaged are not to be made at the expense of the least-advantaged. The concepts of reciprocity and mutual respect should virtually ensure that benefits are distributed in the manner I have discussed. I think it is highly debatable whether this ever happens in reality.

As you can imagine, there have been numerous criticism leveled against Rawls’ theory on any number of major and minor points. I will discuss some of these in my next post. Some have argued that Rawls does not treat political factors seriously enough, that he only deals too exclusively with social institutions, or that he does not properly define natural rights. Some have argued against the fact that Rawls’ conception of equality derives too much from primary social goods, or that it does not account for and deal with the existence of inequality in the first place. There are many nuanced aspects of the theory, and the criticisms against it, that are too long and complicated to explain at this point (but that might appear as future topics on this website). For now, I am satisfied to say that Rawls has presented us with a strong case for justice as fairness. This involves (and requires) an understanding of justice and equality by the active participation of the citizens of a well-ordered society. It does not depend on any specific ‘values’ of any of the diverse groups. Therefore, an ‘overlapping consensus’ can be established by which everyone agrees to respect the rules of justice which apply to all and by which all are governed (this is similar, once again, in my opinion, to Berlin’s ‘value-pluralism’).

From this foundation, Rawls gives us his Difference Principle and its mandate of distributive justice. Whether disagreeing with this principle outright or simply nitpicking some of its parts, everyone should understand the ideas behind such a principle. If you disagree, you should be prepared to explain why and what your alternative solution is to the problems of justice and equality in society. We are free to decide these things however we desire, and, in fact, it is necessary to do so in order to maintain a well-ordered society. It all depends on how we define and prioritize the concepts of ‘justice’ and ‘fairness’. Should everyone have an equal opportunity to succeed? Or should individual liberty be so precious as to outweigh any amount of injustice or inequality that occurs in society?

UPDATE: Here is a link to a recent article by a philosopher talking about what Rawls might have thought about the Occupy Wall Street movement. He presents a good summary of ‘justice as fairness’.

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