Among the issues most commonly discussed are individuality, the rights of the individual, the limits of legitimate government, morality, history, economics, government policy, science, business, education, health care, energy, and man-made global warming evaluations. My posts are aimed at thinking, intelligent individuals, whose comments are very welcome.

"No matter how vast your knowledge or how modest, it is your own mind that has to acquire it." Ayn Rand

20 March 2005

Rational Men Must be Tolerant of Others

There are at least three major reasons why a rational man must practice tolerance with other human beings. These are:

  • Tolerance makes it possible to learn from the efforts of other people. Without tolerance, others are not encouraged to put as much effort into thinking, since the fruit of their labor is too often viewed as evil. It becomes less risky not to think about anything prohibited and if they have thought about it, they had best not share the thought. Without tolerance one lives in the Dark Ages in Europe or the Middle East of the present. Tolerance is essential if we do not all wish to enter the world and spend our lives reinventing the wheel. Tolerance is also the great tool that makes it possible for us to challenge our own ideas with those of others. This makes it easier for us to identify our own errors of thought and correct them. Tolerance makes it possible for a group of thinkers to tackle a tough problem and take advantage of each person's different experience, interests, and thinking abilities to understand the whole of it, when each individual could only contribute a part of that understanding. I will call this epistemological tolerance.

  • Individuals are very complex and highly differentiated. We are different biochemically and structurally. We have different experiences. We think in different ways and have a history of myriad unique choices behind us. We have different values. These differences add immensely to the richness of our experience with other people. Similarly, they make each of us a unique experience to others. Some of the value represented by each individual is precisely found in the uniqueness of each of us. As gold is more valuable than iron because it is more rare, each individual has more value because each is unique. But, of course, not all of our differences from one another are valued by others. Some of those differences may be viewed with mistrust, some with disdain, and some with repulsion. When a rational man practices tolerance with respect to the properties and values of others, he does not sign on to vouch for the value of each property or the morality of all of their choices. This form of tolerance recognizes the fact of reality that people are individuals. It recognizes that there is commonly much that is sufficiently good in the differences we find in others that we will generally profit in our interactions with them. I will call this the tolerance of individuality.

  • Throughout the history of man, the political entities that have controlled men around the world have established various balancings of dogma versus individual initiatives in thought. They have also frequently sought to direct what values a man may seek and achieve. They have often favored men of one race, ethnic group, religion, cast, tribe, clan, or profession over others. In Europe, the Hundred Year's War, largely between Catholics and Protestants, caused untold misery until finally Europe realized a more live and let live philosophy held benefits for civilization. In a capitalist republic, the government does not favor one person over another for these reasons. In fact, a capitalist republic finds value in the differences among its people, since the many differences in interests and abilities allow the society the advantages of many specializations and open the door to a wealth of trading among its citizens. It is also recognized that when one group suppresses another group or any individual, the fighting and the discord are distractions at best and very often fatal to the continuance of either the government or the entire society. This form of tolerance is political tolerance.

Each of these forms of tolerance are related to one another. They are each important to us as thinking individuals. Since Objectivists are thinking individuals, they should be foremost among those proclaiming toleration as a great benefit to each of us and to the societies in which we live. Objectivists are also a minority, who are not infrequently viewed as heretics. They are dependent upon others exercising the virtue of tolerance toward them. Taken together, the forms of tolerance allow us to develop and function fully as individuals. They allow us to trade ideas and values that raise the level of our civilization to much greater heights than is possible for a society or group of intolerant individuals.

Dogma and rigid social custom are the enemies of tolerance. Rational thought directed at understanding reality and the celebration of the productive individual are the product of toleration. Toleration allows us to experiment with ideas and test them out. It offers us a rich complexity of theories and choices, while aiding us in our efforts to evaluate those theories and choices. It allows each man to draw on the individual insights of others. It is a major virtue whenever two or more individuals live and work together.

There are dogmatic Objectivists (a contradiction in terms actually) who need very badly to understand these aspects of reality. Because reason is the individual's means of surviving and promoting his life, that which promotes reason is virtuous. Rationality is the most fundamental virtue. Tolerance is a major virtue because it recognizes that every other individual has the right of their own attempt to use reason, just as I have that right. Tolerance recognizes that it is the individual mind that must of its own volition choose to focus upon the creation of concepts and the use of principles to understand reality in all of its complexity. It is to be expected that individuals, even when highly committed to rational thought, will independently arrive at somewhat differing understandings of our complex existence. Tolerance recognizes individuality and allows us to take advantage of it to gain much greater insight of reality by evaluating the ideas generated by other creative and rational minds. What we gain in value makes us much more productive and much less primitive. We gain the advantage of living in a great civilization, provided we can also provide our society with a healthy respect for the rights of the individual. The concept of these rights and their exercise again requires us individually to be committed to tolerance.

Among Objectivists, David Kelley has been the most effective spokesman for the importance of toleration. He has been especially concerned with toleration as a means to increase our knowledge. He has also recognized the virtue of independence in each individual. I highly recommend his book The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand: Truth and Toleration in Objectivism to anyone interested in how people can work together to greatly improve their understanding of any subject they may have a common interest in. While he especially addresses issues of Objectivism, there is a great deal to think about and use from this book even for a small group of collaborators in a laboratory or in a factory. It is really about being more productive in thought and action than it is possible for a single individual to be acting alone. As I read this book, I kept thinking that it was a marvelously organized and thought out explanation of many principles that I had found essential to the maximization of productive output in the many groups of scientific and engineering collaborators that I had had through the years.

In those groups, I had long worked hard to set such an atmosphere of tolerance in place. As this atmosphere grew, each such group became more productive. I tried to cultivate an atmosphere in which we maintained high standards for our output, but recognized that errors would be made as we sought solutions to the technical problems on which we worked, especially when we tried our hardest to be creative. Working together, we could makes leaps forward by taking advantage of our differing talents and help to correct each other's errors in a constructive way. In fact, we often learned from our errors. When we became comfortable that making an error was not likely to be viewed as evil or a sign of incompetence, ideas poured forth and our rate of solving difficult technical problems increased. It is surprising how often an idea with an error either contains a partial advance or somehow suggests the correct answer. Sometimes the wrong idea led to a test or experiment which proved it a dead end. Yet, that test provided us a clue to the right path to the answer to our problem. The idea that an error is evil is very wrongheaded. In fact, in certain contexts, making an error may actually be considered good. One does not make errors when not thinking. An error is made when one is thinking. Provided that one goes on to thoroughly evaluate the idea and test its validity rationally, the error is not evil and it may be the spur to the final correct identification of reality. In that context, it may be argued that the error served a good function. In that context, we can and should be less afraid of errors. They beat the alternative of stultification hands down.

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