Our Michael has initiated an interesting discussion over at Mirror of Justice, by posting there a recent BBC interview with Les Green, Simon Blackburn, Archbishop Rowan Williams, and others about Pope Benedict's expressions of concern about a 'dictatorship of relativism' (HT Brian Leiter's weblog). The discussion has loosened a memory in my poor head, some reflections on which might be of interest to the RLL community.
When I was young, innocent, and hopeful, a conversation broke out among several friends and myself about the old 'Nazis marching in Skokie' case, which I had read about in connection with a history of the ACLU. (The case was said to have deeply divided that organization.) Some of my friends, with whom I was inclined to agree, thought if fitting for the city to prohibit the march. Other friends, with whom I was inclined to disagree, argued that the prohibition was a violation of the Nazis' First Amendment rights. (Isn't that rich? No 'clean hands doctrine' here it would seem!) This faction further argued, in effect, that it was incoherent for those of us who thought the ban warranted to favor it in the name of tolerance, since in so doing we were ourselves being, they asserted, intolerant.
I recall feeling great irritation with this latter observation, and I said as much. It just couldn't be licit, I thought. For it seemed to me that, as an argument, it must surely have 'proved too much.' After all, if one could not, on pain of self-contradiction, refuse to tolerate any instance of intolerance itself, then presumably one would have to tolerate everything. And then that would open one to self-contradiction. For in 'tolerating everything' one would be tolerating, among other things, intolerance -- toleration's contrary.
So were both sides of our juvenile argument committing themselves to incoherence, I wondered, the anti-marchers by being intolerant of intolerance, hence acting contrary to their own professed anti-intolerance, and the pro-marchers by tolerating intolerance, hence affirming their own contrary? Could one simply not speak coherently of tolerance at all in ethically oriented conversation?
As I cast about for means of dissolving this conundrum in the course of our lengthy discussion, I hit upon a tentative solution that I later recognized to have been a primitive grope in the direction of Kripke's response to the Epimenides (the 'paradox of the liar'). The Epimenides, as many here will recall, is the paradox occasioned by a statement's apparent self-denial -- a statement of the form 'this statement is false.' The putative paradox stems from the statement's being false if it is true, and true if it is false -- assuming, of course, that it must be one or the other and not both. (That assumption turns out to be false.)
Now intuitively, Kripke's response to paradoxes of this form, if I'm remembering it rightly, involves distinguishing between what he calls 'grounded' and 'ungrounded' statements. A grounded statement, again if I recall this correctly, is about something other than a statement. It's about dogs, or cats, or what ever, anything other than statements. So long as you have one of those, then any statement about that statement, or about a statement about the statement about the (grounded) statement, or ... , will itself be grounded as well. Otherwise, not. If one then stipulates that only a grounded statement is possessed of a truth value, one defuses the Epimenides by observing that the self-denying proposition in question is ungrounded, hence possessed of no truth value at all, true or false, hence not paradoxical in the 'both true and false' sense.
(Kripke's 'ground' serves, in the language of topology, as a 'fixed point' for any hierarchy of statements about statements about statements about ... And Kripke makes use of that fact in a clever deployment of Brouwer's fixed point theorem to derive interesting semantic conclusions about grounded and ungrounded hierarchies of statements -- again, assuming I recall this correctly. But my own purpose is much simpler, so enough about that.)
Now my own youthful proto-Kripkean response to the 'tolerance' conundrum worked in much the same way as Kripke's response to the Epimenides: 'Tolerance,' I speculated, always carried what I then called a sort of 'argument place' with it. It always implicates what the grammarians call a 'direct object.' One does not simply 'tolerate.' One 'tolerates x,' or 'tolerates y,' etc. And there surely are things -- x's -- that it is right to tolerate, things that it is wrong not to tolerate, things that it is not right to tolerate hence wrong to tolerate, and so on. Further, assuming some x that it is right to tolerate and wrong not to tolerate, it surely will often be right not to tolerate intolerance of that x. At any rate it will need not be incoherent to deny toleration to such instances of intolerance.
Well, you see where this is going, I trust. The first moves in my arguments with my pals over the Skokie case, I decided, were 'ungrounded,' in the sort of pseudo-Kripkean sense I'm appealing to here. My pals and I were speaking of 'tolerance' in abstracto, without attending to the argument place -- the x, y, or what ever -- that the word 'tolerance' always opens. Hence we experienced a strange sort of vertigo in the early stages of our back-and-forth. The conversation was unteathered, unanchored, unmoored. Once you attend to the argument place, by contrast, things grow quickly more tractable. For you recognize that you must 'ground' the discussion before it will take you anywhere. And once you have done that, you might actually make headway. At the very least, you might figure out what you actually disagree about.
Triumphantly bringing my tentative solution to bear on the Skokie case, I decided that what we were actually disagreeing about was a doctrinal or prudential question rather than a logical or even ethical question. I reasoned as follows: If it is wrong for the Nazis not to tolerate people of a certain ethnicity, then surely it can be perfectly in order as a logical and ethical matter not to tolerate this Nazi intolerance. At any rate it will involve no incoherence, and any argument on behalf of the Nazis' right to march will accordingly have to proceed from something better than the accusation of incoherence. For it was not 'tolerance itself' -- what ever that might mean -- that was rightful or wrongful on the part of the Nazis or their antagonists. It was 'tolerance of [this ethnic group],' 'tolerance of [this attitude],' 'tolerance of [this behavior]' that is rightful or wrongful. And what the Nazis refuse to tolerate it is wrongful not to tolerate, such that the refusal to tolerate the intolerance in question can be altogether rightful. It might still be constitutionally problematic -- though I did not and do not think so -- but if so this would be a matter of the legal doctrine not logic.
Now, how does this bear on the conversation here? I think in this way: Much of the professedly moral opining that many in Pope Benedict's Europe deplore, I suspect, expresses intolerance of things about which most of us would agree it is wrongful to be intolerant. There seems to be much intolerance afoot in some quarters, for example, of girls and women who wish to participate on equal terms with boys and men in educational and vocational settings. My guess is that most of us in 'the West,' be we generally 'leftward'- or 'rightward'-leaning where political questions are concerned, agree that instances of this form of intolerance are not to be tolerated, either as an ethical or as a legal matter. And there is no incoherence, nor need there be any bigotry or relativism, in any such judgment.
All of us, 'left' or 'right' or 'in between,' who find sexism of the specified type intolerable are simply taking a universally applicable human right seriously -- 'absolutely' seriously. We are not thinking as 'bigots' or 'relativists.' And we might even be right, moreover, in some cases, to describe certain instances of the particular form of intolerance itself as bigoted or relativist -- if prompted or defended, say, by reference to a putatively relevant 'fundamental difference' between women and men, or to a putative 'religious' or 'cultural' right to subordinate women.
Other instances of the moral opining to which I refer, by contrast, express intolerance of things about the morality of which reasonable people still disagree -- be they in Europe, the Americas, Africa, Asia, or anyplace else. There are some, for example, who appear to take sexual orientation to be more a matter of behavior or 'lifestyle choice' than of genetically determined or deeply-psychologically-rooted identity. There are others who appear to see things the other way round.
To those who see things the other way round, it will of course sometimes be tempting, in careless moments, to view proponents of the contrary position as 'bigots.' For it will seem to them, prior to reflection, that what they take for granted as an ineluctable characteristic on all fours with ethnicity is not being tolerated. To those who see sexual orientation as merely a 'lifestyle choice,' by contrast, it will sometimes be tempting, again in careless moments, to view defenders of 'gay rights' or 'gay marriage' as 'relativists.' For it will sometimes seem to them, again prior to reflection, that their opponents think 'anything goes' where behavior and 'lifestyle choice' are concerned. But in fact bigotry and relativism are apt to be neither here nor there in these cases. For in fact most on both sides will be absolutists about moral and ethical matters, and in agreement that it is ethically wrongful to view persons as subordinate on the basis of ineluctable attributes.
In cases of this latter sort, then -- cases in which reasonable people continue to disagree about moral (and perhaps related metaphysical) questions, rather than cases in which reasonable people are disagreeing with unreasonable people -- I think we are probably well advised to take special care not to think of tolerance in abstracto, and hence not to play fast and loose with charges of 'bigotry' or 'relativism.' For what these cases are ultimately about is whether some specific act or attribute is tolerable or intolerable. And it is only by keeping one's eye on the real ball -- that is, by fixing attention on the act or attribute in question -- that we keep the door open to real progress. I fear that labeling, as 'bigots' or 'relativists,' those who view the ball differently than we do is, all too often, an indicator that our eyes have strayed from the ball, and that the discussion has accordingly become ungrounded.
I hasten to add that I do not in saying these things mean to imply that I think Pope Benedict's expression of concern about a 'dictatorship of relativism' to be ungrounded in this sense. For, truly, I do not know what he had in mind. Nor do I mean to imply that I think any particular charge of 'bigotry' now before my memory to be ungrounded. I've little doubt that it's perfectly correct to say of many unreasonable people that they hold bigoted views, and of many unreasonable people that they hold 'relativistic' and hence ultimately incoherent views. But I do think by far the greater part of humanity is reasonable, and that none of these reasonable people are bigoted or relativist. They simply continue to disagree, pending further argument on the actual merits, on a number of very specific moral and ethical questions. And I can't help but hope -- yep, I'm still hopeful! -- that in keeping our eyes on those 'balls' we might still move them forward.