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

08 March 2006

Benevolence:People as Tolerance:Ideas

In my recent essay The Virtues of Benevolence and Tolerance, I chose to create a greater separation of the domains of benevolence and tolerance. People often speak of having tolerance for other people's ideas, but they also often speak of having tolerance for other people. Frequently, in either context, the emphasis is put on having to endure something distasteful, painful, and threatening to one's values. In his chapter called Toleration in The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand: Truth and Toleration in Objectivism, David Kelley starts by pointing this out. He then proceeds to say that tolerance, "In regard to ideas, the object [of toleration] is a person with whom we disagree, who holds a conviction we believe to be false."

Now clearly this is at odds with my deciding that toleration can be made a more useful concept by making its object ideas. But what David Kelley does in his very admirable book is to develop the concept of toleration along a traditional mode of thought and in a manner that has plenty of merit. He wants to give us the utmost freedom to argue against and condemn bad ideas without having to morally condemn the person who has made a mistake and who has a bad idea. He then proceeds to give many good reasons why it can be a very bad policy with respect to doing justice to others and acquiring knowledge to too readily morally condemn the person for a bad idea. Why do I choose to take a different path when I agree with so much of his viewpoint, which is a viewpoint I have held in the past?

First of all, I think that all of the reasons that one does not too easily decide to condemn a person with a bad idea are covered by the same reasons for treating others benevolently until one has thoroughly established the rational need to do otherwise. The attitude of benevolence, which is rich in the desire to do justice to our fellow man, already provides us with the virtue of regarding others of being of value to us until we are sure that we know they are more of a threat instead. In a civilized society, such as ours, we constantly derive benefits from living among other men. They generate numerous ideas that make our lives better. They specialize in areas of knowledge that we as an individual cannot amass in our single person and single lifetime. We benefit from their services as novelists, physicists, clothing designers, car makers, doctors, farmers, grocers, and literally thousands of other disciplines and careers. The doctor who may have saved our life or that of someone we love may have some very bad political ideas and yet, he is of great value to us.

We must retain full knowledge of this greater context of knowledge and have a preference for not morally condemning others for their ideas without very strong rational reasons for doing so. There are people who are monsters. There are people we must condemn. However, most people in our society have many very bad ideas and yet they have many good ones also. Most of them are productive and contribute real values in trade with the people around them. The rational man observes this and establishes the policy of regarding others benevolently as the standard. He accepts that there are too many bad ideas and that these can be threatening, but he does not lose sight of the greater context of the value of most people in our society.

This benevolent approach to others with respect to their role as idea generators enables the trade of ideas and personal services with others. Most of the value that others give us comes via their ideas, so benevolence is critical both as justice and as a means to acquire knowledge. The latter is actually probably the more fundamental value. This knowledge acquisition value is actually the value that David Kelley develops most fully in his chapter Toleration.

I now choose to make the object of toleration that of ideas instead of the person. Toleration then only requires us to have a fundamental respect for the value of ideas in human life, to recognize that the resources we can personally direct toward creating and developing ideas are limited, to realize that other people represent a tremendous asset as thinkers, that their ideas are commonly made readily available to us, and they provide us a tremendous resource of thought against which we can check our premises and ideas. These assessments do not differ from those of David Kelley.

Now, if ideas are the object of toleration, we do not reject them as false until they fail rational evaluation. But, if they do fail the tests of rational evaluation, then we can call the idea false and we can note that human action directed by that idea may be evil or at least wrong. We are free to proclaim the falsity of any faulty idea and we clearly have not been intolerant. Now, tolerance is a tool to help us acquire knowledge, with a reduced role with respect to justice. As a tool for knowledge, its epistemological role is the role to be emphasized and we leave most issues related to impartial and rational justice to be provided for by the virtue of benevolence. Assessments of the morality of people would be very complex whether or not ideas are the object of toleration. We have not simplied these assessments of people in any way with this definition of tolerance, but we have simplified the requirements of tolerance.

One of the advantages of developing the concepts of benevolence and tolerance along these parallel lines with the person the object of benevolence and the idea the object of tolerance is that our understanding of benevolence then helps us to understand the role of tolerance better. Tolerance is the somewhat more abstract term and seems to be harder for people to grasp. Of course, the fact that our definitions for tolerance have been traditionally confused does not help. But there are reasons why those definitions were confused. The required concept is a difficult and very abstract concept. Now having grasped this concept, it is helpful that once an idea is rationally evaluated, one can clearly declare it right or wrong without being intolerant, with its negative connotations. It is simply an epistemological issue and we are not making the usually more complicated assessment that the person holding the idea is immoral or evil. Many ideas are wrong which are not immoral. Actually, an idea can only be said to be evil in the sense that a person acting on the idea does something evil. To say the idea is evil is really just a shorthand way of saying this.

One of the reasons it is difficult to get people to accept the need for tolerance is that they think it means that they must adapt an ambivalence about whether an idea is right or wrong. The tolerant person has no need to do this with the definition of tolerance I am using here. Each and every wrong idea can be identified as such and one is free to proclaim it false. This is not the same as condemning the holder of the false idea as evil. The focus is on the idea, not the person. There is no requirement that one suffer a bad idea. There is no need to endure a false idea. There is no need to ignore the threat that a bad idea may cause people to damage one's values.

In the normal confused usage of the concept tolerance, many people, especially a large faction of Objectivists, actually dislike tolerance. They believe that tolerance and any call for it is actually an act of moral cowardice, if not evil itself. This is because they believe that tolerance means either the acceptance of bad, evil ideas or at least the refusal to condemn them. Indeed, if one does not condemn the person who has a bad idea, they claim that you have given your sanction to the idea and to the person. Out of this hatred for evil or wrong ideas and people who have them, they also throw out all the valid and rationally necessary aspects of tolerance. They do indeed become intolerant. They do not have sufficient respect for ideas to give them a thorough, rational, and independent evaluation. They become very dismissive of the value of ideas which do not lie within what they call the closed system of Objectivism. If the idea was not Ayn Rand's, or Leonard Peikoff's or maybe someone licensed by Peikoff to speak of Objectivism, then the idea need not be given a serious examination. Indeed, anyone who does runs the serious risk of being excommunicated from the Objectivist movement.

This rejection of tolerance with respect to ideas (and the corresponding rejection of benevolence toward people) makes it systematically less likely that they can render independent rational evaluations of ideas (and of people). The adherents of this mindset will still likely engage in excessive moral condemnations of people, but more of them may be able to separate the epistemological evaluation of ideas from the moral evaluation of people if they can be brought to accept this more straightforward concept to tolerance. Unfortunately, the very complex evaluation of people will remain impossible for the simple-minded and fraught with error even for very intelligent and wise people. My hope is that with tolerance directed at ideas, it will at least be possible to get more people to commit themselves to the rational evaluation of ideas, even when those ideas originate in the thinking of others.

1 comment:

gonesavage said...

I really like your posts on this. I've been thinking the same thing but haven't elucidated them in words yet (most are just thoughts floating in my head). Thank you. My blog is broken due to database issues of the platform, so I'll have to wait for my posting for now.. hopefully WordPress will fix their issue soon!