The Paradoxes of Tolerance

Tolerance is an almost sacred concept in contemporary public discussion. It is taken to be a concept that when put into practice almost always guarantees the moral uprightness of the practitioner. There is nothing worse in the estimation of others than to be intolerant. Tolerance is taken to be such a foundational norm of behaviour that it transcends the general moral relativism which abounds these days and can seem to cut through any moral system. Nevertheless, there are certain paradoxes of tolerance that are often the focus of discussion in the literature in this area. I shall focus on three pertaining to important aspects of the nature of tolerance.

The Nature of Tolerance

The general notion of tolerance is that it involves at least the recognition or acceptance that there are people, beliefs, practices etc with which one does not agree, which one finds objectionable in some way, but which one does not take steps to suppress or undermine. So there is something that one finds disagreeable or objectionable, yet one tolerates it for some reason.

The first essential feature of tolerance then is the objection component – in order to be tolerant, we must find something objectionable. If one does not find something objectionable, one does not tolerate it, one is simply indifferent to it.

The second essential feature is that in spite of what we find objectionable, we accept it in some way. This does not mean that we endorse what is objectionable or that it is no longer objectionable, but that the reasons for accepting what we find objectionable outweigh the reasons for finding it objectionable. And so we are led with good reason to tolerate what is objectionable.

The third feature then is that there has to be a limit to toleration. This is because sometimes the reasons for finding something objectionable far outweigh any reasons that could be provided for accepting it. Murder is a classic example in this regard; the reasons for objecting to murder are always weightier than any reason for accepting it. Hence we do not tolerate murder.

On the basis of these three features of tolerance, there are three paradoxes.

The Paradox of Objection

Finding something objectionable is an essential feature of tolerance; if we don’t find something objectionable, we are not said to tolerate it, we are simply indifferent to it. It follows then that the more objectionable we find something and yet are able to accept it, the more tolerant we are and hence have a stronger moral character. But there is a paradox looming here.

Suppose we have a racist who is genuinely convinced of her racism. This person finds people of other races objectionable; yet she realises that the reasons for being tolerant are stronger than those for being racist. Hence, she decides that in spite of finding people of other races objectionable, she will accept them nonetheless. The paradox here is that if tolerance is a fundamental virtue to possess, then this tolerant racist is really being quite virtuous and has a good moral character. Thus, somebody with quite a depraved and indefensible moral outlook can be said to be morally virtuous – and this is an obvious paradox.

The Paradox of Acceptance

To be tolerant one not only has to find something objectionable, one also has to accept what one finds objectionable. So the reasons for acceptance in this regard are stronger than the reasons for rejection. There are plenty of mundane examples of this kind. Many parents of small children will often find the general chaos and disorder of the home objectionable – they would rather it not be like that. But the reasons for objecting here are very slight compared to the reasons for accepting such disorder, e.g. giving children space to thrive, growing in love through play, allowing children to express themselves, watching them grow etc.

On the other hand, there are cases where the reasons for objecting to something are very strong, almost as strong as the reasons for accepting it, and so there appears to be a kind of stalemate. In such cases, if we tolerate that for which we have very strong reason for rejecting, we end of tolerating something that we have very good reasons for finding objectionable. And this is evidently paradoxical since we ought not to tolerate that which we have good reasons to reject.

The Paradox of Limits

There has to be a limit to toleration since we cannot tolerate everything. So if our reasons for rejecting something outweigh our reasons for accepting it, we are thus intolerant of it. But there is a certain paradox here in the very idea of a limit to toleration. If tolerance is taken to be something good and virtuous, then its complementary opposite, intolerance, is taken to be something vicious and not good. But there are quite straightforward cases in which the right thing to do is to be intolerant of something, e.g. we do not tolerate murder, racism, sectarianism etc. The paradox here is that whilst tolerance is conceived as a virtue we can also be said to be virtuous when we practice its opposite and are intolerant.


Given these paradoxes, what are we to do? Are we to reject tolerance as a virtue to cultivate? Certainly not!

In the history of thought, paradoxes have often played an important role in clarifying an issue. Indeed there is a well established proof in logic known as reductio ad absurdum such that if we assume some premise and establish a contradiction on the assumption of that premise, then we can reasonably infer that the assumed premise is not the case or must be clarified in some way. The consideration of paradoxes thus allows us either to deny a premise or clarify its meaning.

In the case of tolerance, we do not deny the need to cultivate tolerance as a virtue, so given the paradoxes we must clarify tolerance in some way. What the paradoxes show is that tolerance is not something that is morally normative. It is not enough to be tolerant; one has to be tolerant in the right circumstances with the right object. The only way to do this if we weigh the reasons for objecting to something and the reasons for accepting it. But the only way to do that is if we have certain moral norms more basic than tolerance by which to evaluate what is objectionable and acceptable, i.e. what is right and wrong. Hence, tolerance does not tell us what is right or wrong, it only goes to implement what we already take to be right and wrong. Tolerance is therefore not a sure guide in moral matters, but rather latches onto a deeper moral framework which is our guide; it is the strength of justification of that framework and its informing our actions that will establish whether or not we are acting virtuously, not how tolerant we are.

Dr Gaven Kerr

10 thoughts on “The Paradoxes of Tolerance

  1. Dave Davis

    Paradoxes Unpicked

    Paradox 1
    “Thus, somebody with quite a depraved and indefensible moral outlook can be said to be morally virtuous – and this is an obvious paradox.”

    Just as a person who effortfully overcomes a disability with which they are born and who conquers Everest is more deserving of praise than an able-bodied person who conquers Everest, so too the person who, through no fault of their own, finds people of other races objectionable and who effortfully overrides these feelings so as to consistently act in a virtuous way is more deserving of praise than one who acts virtuously with no racist feelings. The “moral outlook” of the person who overrides their racist feelings is therefore highly virtuous and far from “depraved and indefensible”. There is no paradox here.

    Paradox 2
    “We ought not to tolerate that which we have good reasons to reject.”

    It seems that the point here is that instances arise in which our reasons to object to something are weighted equally to our reasons to accept. Just as our reasons for getting up in the morning can sometimes equate to our reasons for staying in bed, this is a fact, not a paradox. In those instances one has freedom of choice to decide whether or not to tolerate.

    Paradox 3
    “Whilst tolerance is conceived as a virtue we can also be said to be virtuous when we practice its opposite and are intolerant.”

    Water is a good thing, but not when you are drowning. Once again this is not paradoxical. It is a simple fact and similarly, tolerance is virtuous in some instances and not in others. I would challenge anyone to name any behaviour that is universally virtuous. One can always think of instances in which they would not be.


  2. ionainstituteni

    Thank you for your reply. Allow me to take each of your points in turn and let’s see where we get.

    So to the first point, it is certainly the case that one who overcomes a disability is praiseworthy for the effort that they put in; and indeed the convinced racist who in spite of being racist tolerates those against whom she is racist should be given credit. However, the paradox lies in the fact that the racist has an indefensible moral outlook and yet simply for the fact of being tolerant can be said to be quite virtuous. The racist’s moral outlook is not justified in her tolerance, precisely because the moral outlook of racism is still quite indefensible. So on the basis of tolerance as guaranteeing moral uprightness one with an indefensible moral outlook such as racism can be said to be morally upright (obviously if tolerance is secondary, as I think it is, it is not enough to justify moral character and so one can give credit to the racist for being tolerant in spite of her racism whilst at the same time condemning her racism).

    To the second point then, it is certainly a fact that one can have equal reasons to reject and to accept; the paradox lies in this fact and it is such that something we have quite good reasons to reject ends up being something that must accept given the primacy tolerance. So given the paradox it is inferred that tolerance is not primary and does not guarantee moral uprightness since it can have us accept what we have good reasons to reject.

    To the third point then, we are dealing with the view that tolerance is a non-negotiable virtue, say like a cardinal virtue, which always guarantees moral goodness. So given that it is granted that it is sometimes good to be tolerant and sometimes not, there is no disagreement. The paradox only follows for one who holds that tolerance is primary and fundamental. If one does not hold that tolerance is primary but only secondary and its implementation presupposes a deeper moral framework, then there is no paradox since the moral framework can determine when to be tolerant and when not to be.


  3. Dave Davis

    And thank you for your response. I think our difference, insomuch as we have one, with regard to points two and three comes down to a definition of the word “paradox”. Using it in its broadest sense, as meaning a conflict, then yes, a conflict does arise at that point where the reasons for acceptance weigh upon us equally to those for rejection. As I suggested before, this is analogous to the paradox that might arise when my reasons for eating a curry equate to my reasons for eating lasagna. This, I suggest is fairly uninteresting. To me, the more stimulating part of your point is the suggestion that tolerance is taken by some to be a virtue regardless of the circumstances and I would agree with the thrust of your opening paragraph that this view is simplistic. It is the nature of absolutist, black-and-white views that they will invariably be wrong in some situations. You suggest that murder should never be tolerated but even that could be questioned in some circumstances, say, in defense of the lives of innocent children. I suspect that we could agree that, if it was the only way of saving them, the murder of a child killer would be morally defensible. Excepting this detail, I think we are pretty much aligned on these points.

    Returning to the Paradox of Objection, as you have called it, I am curious as to how you came to the conclusion that the self-censoring racist “has an indefensible moral outlook”. The term “moral outlook” here is undefined and so I’d like to dig into it a little if I may. Standard dictionary definitions of morality relate only to behaviour and not to thought and I believe that there is a good reason for this: I am confident that no human being can say, hand on heart, that they have never once had even a fleeting thought which, if acted upon, would be considered morally wrong. Be it the fantasy of sleeping with someone other than their spouse, the desire to hurt another person or the temptation to steal, we have all had immoral thoughts. Does this render each and every one of us as people with indefensible moral outlooks? I believe the answer to this question is no. By resisting temptation we are being virtuous, dare I say it, even Christian and this is why a person can be judged only by way of their actions and not by way of their thoughts. So, when we have immoral private thoughts, if our moral outlook is not being judged to be indefensible, why is our friend the virtuous racist? Why is she being judged to a higher standard than us? If it is because we only have to exercise restraint once in a while whereas she must do so every day then I think it is only right to question that judgment. This leads to the suggestion that an outlook can be judged neither to be moral nor immoral and that the question of morality arises only when it is acted upon.

    And then then the question arises: is she responsible for this outlook in the first place?
    Given that she effortfully inhibits a behaviour that she recognises to be unacceptable one can only conclude that she did not willfully engender these racist feelings within herself. I would be interested in your view as to from where these racist feelings might have come. Were they given to her by God, perhaps as a test of her strength to resist them? If so, she has passed with flying colours. Or were they a punishment for some other immoral behaviour in which she willingly engaged? If so is that punishment, one that means that she must fight every day against an unwanted urge, not enough in itself? Must we add to her pain by labeling her as you suggest? Perhaps it was not a punishment. Let us imagine that it was simply the unfortunate byproduct of that other behaviour in which she engaged. If so, then surely the judgement of her moral outlook can be based only upon that other behaviour, whatever it might have been, and so we can draw no conclusion until we understand what the other behaviour was.

    Or is it the case that the thinking on this point is circular: her indefensible moral outlook causes her to have racist feelings and because she has racist feelings she has an indefensible moral outlook. This, like all circular arguments leaves us chasing our tails and at the same time renders the hero of our piece as a hopeless victim who, by sheer bad luck and through no fault of her own, was simply born bad and no amount of willpower or restraint can ever make her good again. This seems at odds with any sense of natural justice and it would seem to contradict christian thought. My understanding is that christian teaching says that man has been given free will for the very purpose of freeing ourselves from sin and that when temptation arises “He will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” Corinthians 10:13.

    For me therefore, there is no paradox. We can form no judgement with regard to her racist outlook until she acts upon it and, even if we could, our judgement would have to consider both the source of her racist inclinations and her continued resistance to them and, in doing so, we would have to conclude that she is not morally indefensible. As I see it her morality is defensible, commendable and exemplary and I would suggest that the world could do with more people like her, not fewer.


  4. ionainstituteni

    Thank you for your reply. If I may, I will address the two substantive issues in the second part, that is, (i) the nature of a moral outlook and its relation to behaviour, and (ii) the origin of a moral outlook.

    To the first point then, free agents engage in action, and all such action has a form to it; this is because if an agent is to do anything she has to do something, and so the something that she does has a form. The form that the action has has a conceptual content that can be divorced from the action and considered in itself. This is why when one is performing an action about which one is not thinking, one can still say what one is doing if one is stopped and asked. Now in moral matters, the actions that we are considering are evaluable against a backdrop which is normative, i.e. it provides the standard by which an action can be judged good or bad. That normative backdrop is a conceptual content by means of which we can represent to ourselves what we ought and ought not to do, so that when we don’t do what we ought or do what we ought not we can be judged accordingly. Accordingly, it is this normative content that signifies the moral outlook of a person and is independent of yet informs action. Given that this normative content can be considered independently of the action that it informs, it can be evaluated as to whether or not it is reasonable or unreasonable. So for instance, the maximisation principle of classical utilitarianism, i.e. greatest good for greatest number, is a content that can be considered for its reasonableness independently of any action performed on the basis of it. The racist’s racism then provides a normative content; and in the case of the tolerant racist, that normative content includes tolerance. Whilst the tolerance is to be commended, it doesn’t justify the racism, and so the racism can be described as indefensible.

    To the second point then on the origin of the racist’s moral outlook. This can come from a wide variety of contexts, but in general they can be divided into two: (i) external influence and (ii) internal influence. In accord with (i) the racist may have developed her racism given her family, friends, wider social environment etc. In accord with (ii) the racist may have developed her racism through thought and reflection and come to that conclusion herself. These two contexts are not mutually exclusive, and often there occurs a mixture of both. In neither case is racism a justifiable outlook; though of course this is not to overlook that the racist has been caught up in a set of circumstances of which she has no control and which have formed her racist outlook – one can have an indefensible outlook without being responsible for the formation of that outlook (though I would argue that a person is responsible for thinking things through critically and so ought to subject his or her views to critical reason). Hence whilst one may not be responsible for one’s outlook (though one may be responsible for not thinking it through), that outlook can still be described as indefensible.


  5. Dave Davis

    First of all I should note that your continued attention to this thread and your clear and unobfuscated writing indicates an admirable desire to communicate deeply considered and genuinely held ideas while being open to their criticism and for that, an unusual combination of qualities these days, I am grateful.

    In terms of the first substantive point, your argument can be unpicked by pulling upon the thread of one sentence. You say: “The form that the action has has a conceptual content that can be divorced from the action and considered in itself.” Let us, for these purposes, accept that conceptual content, a term which I assume you use in a deontological sense to describe moral value, can be considered separately to its associated action. In this instance our reluctant racist has not acted upon her impulses and so there is no action against which to consider conceptual content. Having said that, maybe we can say that there was an action. Perhaps in this case the action could be considered to be the suppression of behaviour that otherwise would have occurred. Now, if we were to separate and consider the conceptual content associated with this, preventative action, I do not believe that we would find it to be morally indefensible.

    And so to the source of our subject’s prejudice and, in considering it, let us accept your thesis that the source is either external, or internal. Let’s take the latter first, and let us ask whether or not our benign bigot has subjected her racism to critical reason. On even the briefest reflection we will see that not only has she done so intelligently and in depth, she has also rigidly tethered her actions to the conclusion of that criticism. One cannot credibly contend that this is anything other than admirable. In the case of the former, external influence, given that she has no control over this source, our subject cannot be held responsible for her racism. In answer to this you say that “one can have an indefensible outlook without being responsible for the formation of that outlook” and this brings us, somewhat unsatisfactorily back to the notion at the centre of your argument that some people are just born bad. This, it seems, is just their tough luck and no matter what they do or how hard they try, they will always be morally inferior to the rest of us. As I said before I do not believe that this position is consistent with most religious or moral thinking and it is analogous to suggesting that, while a Tourette’s sufferer is not responsible for their offensive outbursts, their behaviour can still be judged to be morally indefensible. In fact, by this logic, even if they manage to control their urges, they are morally inferior to the rest of us. This view could, it seems to me, even be considered to be… what’s the word? Ah yes, intolerant.


  6. ionainstituteni

    Thank you for your reply. If I may in turn reply.

    To the first point then, conceptual content is simply mental content that puts its possessor in such as state that he or she is able to say that things are thus and so. In terms of action then the possessor is in such a state to say that the action is this or that. Hence there need not be an action for there to be conceptual content, since that content is prior to action and informs any such putative action. Conceptual content need not be deontological or associated exclusively with that ethical tradition since it can be associated quite easily with virtue ethics and perhaps not so easily with utilitarianism.

    In this sense then we can have conceptual content in the absence of an action. So our racist can have a conceptual content which stipulates the norms of proper acting, even if no action is taken. It is this conceptual content which stipulates the moral outlook of the possessor and if the possessor acts on it informs that action. So with the racist then, she has a moral outlook which stipulates as a norm the inferiority of another race (or something along those lines) and such a moral norm, I submit, is indefensible.

    To the second point then, if it is as you submit that our tolerant racist has subjected her racism to critical reflection, then the question remains why she is still racist. Either she subjects her racism to critical reflection and convinces herself of its truth (and in this I would argue she has reached the wrong conclusion) or she has realised its falsity yet remains racist (and this would be to ignore the deliverances of critical reason); either way her racism is not justified simply because she is tolerant.

    To the third point then, if our tolerant racist is so through external influence, then whilst she is not really responsible for her racism (like somebody entertaining false notions because they have not been taught otherwise) she nevertheless still entertains a position that is morally indefensible. Thus whilst her ignorance is a moral defense for her (for presumably she doesn’t know better) the racism itself is not morally defensible as a norm guiding behaviour; in which case whilst she may not be culpable for her racism, the racism itself is still an indefensible outlook.

    None of this requires a commitment to the view that some people are born bad. This is precisely because the genesis of the moral norms that one comes to adopt can be divorced from those norms themselves. So that whilst they may have been generated from all sorts of influences, thereby in some circumstances mitigating responsibility for possessing them, the norms themselves can be judged right or wrong and hence the person can be engaged with rationally so as to demonstrate the reasonableness or otherwise of the position. This is precisely why we have moral philosophy, so that a reasonable individual can interrogate the moral beliefs she has and either affirm them, but now on a rational footing, or modify them if convinced of the reasonableness of the alternative.

    Once again thank you for your reply and ongoing engagement


  7. Dave Davis

    Thanks again for the considered thought but there are a few rabbit holes here down which I don’t believe we need to go. Given that we know the specifics, we do not need to discuss things in generic or abstract terms. There is no need therefore to discuss notions like conceptual content. Similarly we could continue to debate the source of her feelings and whether or not she is morally responsible for them but I suspect that we will increasingly talk past one another and get nowhere. Let us instead, focus on the central point:

    I suspect our difference lies in some part in diverging interpretations as to what is going on in Alice’s head (as I am getting tired of making up alliterative aliases, I hope you’ll permit me to christen her Alice). By my reasoning, because Alice consistently overrides her “racist feelings” it is clear that she knows that acting upon them would be wrong. She, I imagine, dislikes them and she has done everything in her power to eliminate them for good but, like an embarrassing blemish of the skin that stubbornly returns after having painfully been cut out, the unwanted feelings return again and again. “So what?” you may reiterate, “regardless of their source and in spite of her moral fortitude for overriding them, the feelings represent an indefensible moral outlook.” My response to this is just as it was in my first post: “why?”.

    I have argued, using utilitarian logic, that her private thoughts, feelings or beliefs cannot in themselves be described as morally good or bad. From a consequentialist point of view this reasoning is immovable: Thoughts without action are inconsequential. Now that I have reiterated my logic as to why her feelings of racism cannot reasonably be described as morally indefensible, you must present a counter argument, equally clear and immovable as to why it can. Why is it wrong to believe that other people may be inferior to oneself? In answering this I would suggest that it is insufficient to say that it is morally wrong because it has been dictated to us as such by some other source, be it ancient Greece or modern Rome. Let us try to use independent and faultless reasoning to answer this question and if we can, let’s try to stick to this central point.


  8. ionainstituteni

    Thank you for your reply. I would like to address two issues.
    The first pertains to conceptual content, and the second to your request in the final paragraph.

    To the first point then, I think the focus on conceptual content as informing an action is an important consideration, and this precisely because determining what kind of action an action is is necessary for the moral evaluation of an action. I appreciate that you endorse consequentialism, but that is hardly an innocent position, and as yet no justification in this thread has been offered for it. In any case, even a consequentialist philosopher discerns principles of moral action and puts them forth as morally worthy principles representative of that framework and in so putting them forth seeks to defend them as reasonable and worthy of assent. Given then that a moral outlook can be evaluated and is often invited to be evaluated by a thinker in terms of the conceptual content informing that position, the same can be done for a moral agent by interrogating the conceptual content that would inform his or her action, and thus the moral outlook of that agent can be evaluated independently of action.

    To the second point then, you ask: ‘why is it wrong to believe that other people may be inferior to oneself?’ That question needs to be disambiguated for there is a distinction between: (i) asking whether or not it is wrong that a person now believes x the determination of which will be in terms of the genesis of the belief, i.e. whether or not the person is responsible for the formation of the belief and (ii) the content of the belief itself, i.e. x – in the case of racism the belief that people of another race may be inferior to people of one’s own race (or preferred race). There is also a further disambiguation in the consideration of ‘may be inferior to oneself’; within the context of racism, the context of that belief is not that people of other races (or other than one’s preferred race) may be inferior to oneself, but that they are inferior to oneself. The issue thus far that I have been speaking to is the content of the belief of racism, i.e. the belief that people of another race are inferior precisely because they are members of that race, and it is this that I have submitted to be indefensible.

    The reason then why I think the content of the belief of racism is indefensible is because it is false, that is to say, it is false to hold that other human beings are inferior precisely because they are members of a different race. This is because any differences that occur to human individuals through being members of a different race do not accrue to them essentially, but only accidentally given that individual’s position in some spatial temporal location (and could very well pertain to members of the racist’s race or preferred race). Hence, differences that the racist might choose to weigh against members of the other race are not essential to those members in terms of what they are, i.e. human beings; indeed, the racist shares that common human nature with the members of the race she considers inferior. Thus, the racist is the same kind of thing as the person she sees as inferior, and since there are no essential differences between the racist and the member of the other race that she disfavours, it would be false to say that members of that race are inferior to members of the racist’s own (or preferred) race. Our tolerant racist Alice may indeed be tolerant in her racism, but that doesn’t make the racism true and thereby defensible; it is still a false notion that she entertains even though she doesn’t act upon it.


  9. Dave Davis

    Thanks again for your perseverance in interrogating this train of thought. I believe that we are finally gaining traction.

    Notwithstanding my earlier dismissal of it in terms of its immediate relevance, I agree that conceptual content is an important component that informs our judgement of the value of an action however, one can never assume to fully understand the conceptual content of another person’s action, only one’s own and so, the use of conceptual concept as a means of judging the actions of another is, at best, imperfect. I accept that hard consequentialism, one that dismisses the conceptual content of intent or motivation, is imperfect too but I believe that one can defend consequentialism that factors these elements in. I hold that justification for this is fairly self explanatory: one can only truly judge actions based upon their consequences, or the consequences of their motives if they are known, because it is these consequences & motivations that affect the welfare of oneself and others.

    If I understand you correctly, you equate “principles of moral action”, as evaluated by a consequentialist philosopher, to the term “moral outlook” and I do not accept this evaluation. Principles of moral action are, as we have discussed before, never without context and can only be applied or judged based upon the circumstances in which the action is to take place whereas a moral outlook, if such a thing can be said to exist, suggests a state of being, devoid of context and measurable only by the whim of the surveyor. These things are not equal. In our thought experiment, to suggest that the subject can be judged to have a “moral outlook” of any kind at all, based upon a conceptual content that is open to interpretation, for an action that they have not undertaken is, I suggest, a stretch.

    I accept your analysis of the ambiguities that could arise with my question ‘why is it wrong to believe that other people may be inferior to oneself’, however, the question was intended as you interpreted it, i.e. why is it wrong to believe that people of another race are inferior precisely because they are members of that race. I asked this not because I agree with this belief, but because, as the person making the claim that a repressed racist belief is morally indefensible, the onus to explain why falls upon you. Having duly done so I tend to agree with your analysis of why it is wrong to hold that one is superior to anyone else but unfortunately that is simply my opinion. It is a value judgement and, as with all value judgements it is essentially subjective. Someone else could hold an equally valid contradictory view: Yes, they may agree that people are all essentially human and that they are born into different races by accident of birth but, regardless of this, they may still hold the view that brown people are better than white people because brown is better than white. This may be an “essential difference” in their view and, because it is a subjective value judgement, one cannot objectively argue that brown is equal to white.

    And now we get to the heart of the problem: Why is a thing morally indefensible? You hold that falsehood is sufficient to make it so but this leads to some unlikely conclusions. If false beliefs are morally indefensible then, up until the renaissance when Galileo was persecuted by the catholic church for stating that the geocentric model of the universe was incorrect, all Christians had “a depraved and indefensible moral outlook”, to use your phrase, for maintaining a belief in that model. Children too, those who believe in Santa Claus at least, have depraved and indefensible moral outlooks and, to return to your original point I would ask that you conjure up the most virtuous being that ever lived and ask if they have ever held any false beliefs. If so, is it paradoxical that we should find them virtuous?

    Finally, echoing your statement that “any differences that occur to human individuals through being members of a different race do not accrue to them essentially, but only accidentally given that individual’s position in some spatial temporal location” I would note that this is true not just for racial differences. It is true for all differences and, having accepted that Alice’s innate racist feelings are the result of factors that are beyond her control, I suggest that you have to accept that they too have occurred accidentally, given her position in space and time and that as such she can be judged as equal to me, you and everyone else. Perhaps, in that we all hold false beliefs thus implying that we are all morally indefensible, she can.


  10. ionainstituteni

    Thank you for your reply.

    In general, a point worth making which was made in my previous response is that my concern is not with the person who forms the moral belief of racism but with the content of that belief. Hence judgement is not made of the person entertaining that belief but of the content of the belief itself; a number of things turn on this distinction in what follows.

    Accordingly, the first thing I would like to point out is that I agree that only a subject can know properly the conceptual content informing his or her action, and indeed it cannot be used to judge the actions of another (unless the other has revealed the intention, motivation etc). This is well and good and the task of moral philosophy is that a subject can come to discern the conceptual content informing his moral outlook and either substantiate it or change it for himself. Nevertheless, one can take some conceptual content such as racism or any other moral position and judge upon it without thereby judging upon the person who holds it, since the former judgement pertains to the truth or falsity of the belief whereas the latter pertains to the responsibility for the possession of the belief. And per my previous response (second last paragraph), it is the content of the racist belief that is judged indefensible, not (at this juncture) the racist herself. As for consequentialism and the judgement of a person’s actions, those are interesting discussions in moral philosophy pertaining to (i) the nature of an action, (ii) its end, (iii) its object, and (iv) its circumstances. Thankfully, thus far my concern has not been with racist actions themselves, since as we agree that would entail a certain degree of familiarity with the racist herself, but per my previous post it is with the content of the belief of racism as indefensible (and per the original thread not justified through tolerance).

    Concerning principles of moral action, they are what inform the action, i.e. what make it the kind of action that it is. These are independent from the action itself, and can be formulated (and evaluated) independently of any action, e.g. Singer’s Practical Ethics outlines a number of moral principles which would inform an action. Whilst these principles can be evaluated independently of any action, the evaluation of the individual who performs the action in accord with these principles may not be identical to the evaluation of the principles, since as we have discussed the individual may not be responsible for holding those principles. Fortunately, per my previous post and in the discussion more generally, my focus is not on judging the individual who performs racist actions, but on the racism itself. Hence the context sensitivity of action does not affect the position I have been defending.

    The next point I would make would be to disagree with you that the judgement of the wrongness of racism is simply an opinion and essentially subjective. The basis for the judgement of wrongness is based on the fact of the identity of human nature amongst all humans, and so any differences between humans of different skin colour for example do not pertain to what it is to be human (unless there are some grounds for holding that persons of a different skin colour are a different species from human; but I haven’t come across any such ground in the literature). Now, simply because someone entertains a different view does not undo the fact that there is a human nature the possession of which makes one human and which is independent of skin colour for example. The value judgement in the case of the non-racist position builds on the fact of the identity of human nature amongst humans, and so is grounded in something that is not subjective.

    Concerning false beliefs then, I did not say that mere falsehood makes a belief morally indefensible, since not all beliefs are moral beliefs, i.e. they do not specify some normative content that informs action (as a racist belief does). Hence beliefs about what there is e.g. Santa, or the state of what there is, e.g. a geocentric solar system, are not morally indefensible, they are simply indefensible. Morally indefensible beliefs are moral beliefs, i.e. beliefs with a normative content capable of guiding action, which are false. Belief in Santa or a geocentric solar system are not such beliefs and so are not morally indefensible, they are simply indefensible since they are false.

    Concerning the final point then, it could very well be that Alice’s racist beliefs are beyond her control, fortunately my concern is not over Alice’s responsibility for her racist beliefs but for the content of racism itself, which as I have argued is itself indefensible and not justified by tolerance.


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