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Pathways to Philosophy

Glass House Philosopher

Ethical Dialogue and the Limits of Tolerance

by Geoffrey Klempner


THE nineteenth century philosopher John Stuart Mill believed passionately that freedom of the individual was the single most important condition for all moral goods. Freedom to set out and follow one's own 'plan of life' is inextricably bound up with human well being and happiness, as Mill argues in chapter 3 of On Liberty, 'Of Individuality':

"The human faculties of perception, judgment, discriminative feeling, mental activity, and even moral preference, are exercised only in making a choice...Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing."

Utilitarianism G. Warnock ed. Fontana 1962 pp. 187, 188.

In response to the charge, frequently made by commentators, that the principle of liberty stands in potential head-on conflict with the principle of utility — namely, in those cases where a restriction on freedom of thought or action is calculated to lead to the best consequences in terms of human happiness — Mill has a powerful reply. Unless the principle of liberty is respected and seen to be respected in a given social system, genuine human happiness is unattainable. Human beings can never realise their full potential so long as the threat hangs over them of paternalistic interference by those in authority, or intolerance of their views or behaviour by majority opinion. With such claims it is difficult to quarrel. Yet the very simile of a growing tree suggests a rather different line of attack that Mill seems simply to have brushed aside without a second thought. Who is to say that mature human 'trees' might not continue to benefit from thoughtful pruning — by tried and tested custom, or by those who know best — rather than being allowed to grow as they will?

Behind Mill's extolling of the value of individuality lies a naive utopianism. Human beings were to be left free to attempt all manners 'experiments in living'. In a process of trial and error analogous to scientific inquiry, the bold pioneers of experiments in living would either succeed or fall by the wayside, while those that came after would benefit from their example, and from the wide choice of lifestyles thus made available. The value of a religious or cultural tradition as the unquestioned context in which human beings could pursue their goals within the limiting constraints defined by that tradition seems to have been completely lost on Mill. Or, rather, all Mill the rationalist would have seen in the cultural diversity of present-day society is a palette of colours from which each individual should be permitted, and indeed encouraged to choose at will. As in the words of the popular song, 'I am what I am. I am my own special creation.' In Mill's ideal society, each of us is our own work of art. — Yet the very idea of a tradition belies such a take-it-or-leave-it approach. The traditions observed and celebrated by the society or milieu in which one was born and grew up in supply the major ingredient in a person's sense of identity; of being of a place, a time, a people. (This is the feeling to which F.H. Bradley, one of Mill's fiercest critics, gives eloquent expression in his essay, 'My Station and Its Duties', in Ethical Studies 2nd Ed OUP 1927) It is not without significant cost that one casts these moorings aside.

Bradley recognised the challenge posed by what he termed 'cosmopolitan morality' to the pure ideal of finding one's identity within the social organism. It was a challenge he saw as inevitable. Those of us who are heirs of the cosmopolitan world view are aware, at least on an abstract level, of a choice, of the wide spectrum of possibilities of human involvements and commitments. For some persons — those without secure moorings, those seeking a safe shore to land — there may indeed be a genuine decision to make, say, between becoming a Muslim, or moving to a hippie commune, or joining the Communist Party. While for others, those already committed, choice would be simply unthinkable. Yet for such committed persons it is not enough that one lives as a Muslim, a hippie, a communist. What one is for also defines what one is against: the 'infidel', the 'straight', the 'capitalist'. This takes us to the heart of the liberal paradox. It is all very well for the cosmopolitan philosopher to talk about the task of delimiting the restrictions on freedom required to maintain 'equal respect for the freedom of others'. To see that as the problem is already to take a certain view of these kinds of life choices, an attitude that refuses to treat such commitments with the full seriousness that they demand. We are so blinded by our determination as philosophers to rise above all partiality and conflict that we fail to see that our own project, the project of being 'a philosopher', of attaining the viewpoint of the unattached, cosmopolitan onlooker is a life choice too. What then is the answer? — At this point, it is easy to give into the temptation of concluding that perhaps freedom for freedom's sake is not so important after all.

Mill was wrong. The unrestricted freedom to be an individual which he described is not an essential ingredient in human happiness. The command, 'at all costs, be an individual' is, if anything, a prescription for human misery. Radical individuality is not worth purchasing at all costs, at least not for all, or, perhaps, most persons. Whether freedom is being unduly restricted all depends upon where you are standing. What appears undue 'exercise of authority' to one person is a source of inspiration and guidance to another. What appears undue 'pressure to conform to the majority' seen from one point of view is a warm sense of solidarity with one's fellows when seen from another. — For all that one can't help feeling that Mill was onto something. The spectre that terrified him more than anything else was the restriction of human creativity, the stifling of those capacities of imagination and intellect that make us truly human. Now it might be said that, taking as just one example, that of painting, the exquisite, formal patterns of Muslim art, or exuberant hippie 'acid' paintings, or the wholesome, earnest poses of heroes of the socialist revolution are evidence of 'restriction' only in the sense that any artistic tradition necessarily imposes restrictions on those who work within it. (A painter can switch styles, but to 'switch traditions' is the action of a dilettante.) All this may nor may not be true. At any rate, it might be argued, from the admittedly biased perspective of the art historian, that not all traditions have proved equally fruitful in aesthetic terms. But that is not the important point. If we were all Muslims, or free-loving hippies, or communists — and genuinely happy to be that and no more — there would be no problem. Within the resources available to a lifestyle, a culture, a people there may, perhaps, be found all the ingredients for human happiness and well being. The problem arises in the real world when we come face to face with the outsider.

To be 'outside' implies repudiation, rejection, not counting. Not one of us. Repudiation is indeed mutual. We are repudiated by the other just as we in our turn repudiate the other. The offence at being repudiated is every bit as strong as the sense of offence that motivates us to repudiate. The outsider is offensive, pure and simple. What is worse than being repudiated is being 'tolerated'. For tolerance implies not only repudiation but, in addition, the denial of the very reality of what is repudiated. We 'let be' what does not touch us or harm us because it means nothing to us. To be regarded as nothing or to regard as nothing is to be held, or to hold, in contempt. — Wise men and sacred books teach us not to disregard the needs of others. The good Samaritan did not pass by the stranger, the one who was not of his kind. Yet all he had to conquer was his indifference. Strong offence and strong contempt present a rather more daunting challenge.

The pre-eminent value of individuality, and the ideal of convergence between rational investigators towards 'the truth' concerning the consequences of any action for human happiness or misery, were the twin pillars of Mill's defence of the liberty of action and of thought. With the rejection of the ethics of the disinterested view, the defence disintegrates. Individuality is not worth purchasing at any price; not at the price of giving up one's sense of cultural identity or feelings of social solidarity. We have also seen that convergence can be multi-stranded as well as single-stranded, towards many truths, not just a single truth. Despite this, there remains a sense of conviction that there must be a space for dialogue, a space where different, incompatible traditions can thrive without bloodshed. — Perhaps the hardest thing to give up here is wishing for some spectacular philosophical tour de force that will solve the paradox and bring peace and harmony to all. In reality, the solution mirrors the very structure of moral dialogue. One way or another, something will have to be given up on each side. If the other refuses to budge, then we shall have to risk the first move towards establishing a meeting point. However you do it, the only compromise is a tough compromise.

One has to start at the very beginning by re-evaluating the desirability of knowledge. The fall of Adam and Eve was occasioned by eating an apple from the Tree of Knowledge. It is a lesson, some might argue, that philosophy has singularly failed to learn. After two and a half thousand years of the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, where the only opposition has been scepticism concerning the possibility of knowledge, it is only in relatively recent history that philosophers have dared to question the value of knowledge as such. Nietzsche's metaphysics of perspectivism was the first theory to deny that knowledge is good in itself. We can be fatally harmed by knowledge. It is our unique, or shared, perspective on the world that determines how much knowledge about any matter is good for us; what we need to know, and what it is perhaps better for us that we do not know. On the question of moral knowledge, as we have already noted, Nietzsche himself was strongly opposed to the idea of a categorical imperative. His philosophy of 'beyond good and evil' was a theory of values sustained in the face of the total repudiation of the idea of a theory of conduct. That would be one solution in the face of the clash of viewpoints, but it is not our solution. For us, the other always counts. But to count the other in our deliberations we must be prepared to meet him, to know what he is about. It is when the other takes the guise of the outsider that such knowledge seems to threaten our way of life, our very being, with annihilation.

Nietzsche was a supreme ironist. He was well aware that the project of philosophy involves pursuing each and every line of argument as far as it will go, refusing to accept that there could ever be such a thing as forbidden knowledge. The philosopher, as we continue to believe — or perhaps merely flatter ourselves, the difference is not important — marches ever onward and upward, scorning merely partial views and seeking a vision of the whole. For Nietzsche, however, the ambitious, world-encompassing perspective of the philosopher was just another perspective to add to the list. Maybe this is where his own vision faltered. While philosophers climb their lofty look-out posts, perpetual war and conflict remains, or so Nietzsche believed, the inevitable state of things. In the absence of a categorical imperative, the will to power reigns supreme. That is not an option for us, however. For if recognition of the claims of the other is the only thing that stands between the individual and the abyss of solipsism — and by 'the other' is meant any other that we might encounter, not just some others, such as those of our family, tribe or nation — then we must be prepared to take the risk of tasting that forbidden knowledge.

The myth of Eden is highly appropriate. The Central American tribe that encounters outsiders for the first time undergoes a fall. It does not matter if the tribe succeeds despite outside pressure in keeping its traditions intact. For what we term their 'traditions' were never seen by its practitioners as such. The principles and practices that guided every aspect of their lives were the irrevocable law of nature; their day and night; unchanging, universal, unquestionable. Now, if the elders are canny, if the tribe's collective sense of self-preservation is strong enough, the men, women and children will learn the skills of the actor — or the clown — polishing their beads and necklaces, and their technique. Of course, if 'survival' is to mean more than merely the perpetuation of an ancient name, the preservation of a museum exhibit, our tribe must not allow their celebrations and rituals to degenerate into nothing more than a show put on for tourists. They can only do that by continuing somehow to believe in them, even while they mourn their fallen state and dream of owning Walkmans.

Each of us has our own cultural Eden, our area of forbidden knowledge. One cannot take everything on board, recognise the reality of every form of life, every culture, every viewpoint. At least, not all at once. When the opportunity and necessity arises, as I have argued, we have to take the risk of admitting the outsider to our circle; we have to recognise that we too are 'outsiders'. — The ancient Sophists, the preachers of cultural relativity and Protagoras' doctrine that 'Man is the measure of all things' were wrong in at least this respect: to grant the equal validity of every viewpoint is not an option. It is a cop out. Each of us has to believe in something (though it must be noted, the ancient sceptics of the Pyhrronian school made an earnest — some would say comic — attempt in their daily lives to practice 'belief in nothing'). You have to stand up for something. There is no giving up the pursuit of truth, or the right way to live. The upshot of our discussion is only that such a pursuit can no longer be a blinkered pursuit.

What then of freedom of thought and action? To allow the freedoms that Mill effectively denied, to create a mental and physical space where opposing beliefs and cultures can meet in dialogue, requires far greater circumspection than can be summed up in any philosopher's rule of thumb such as Mill proposed in his 'simple principle' of liberty. There is no neutral vantage point from which offence or harm caused to others may be deemed legitimate or illegitimate. This is the origin of the much maligned concept of 'political correctness'. It is not enough that my words and deeds appear perfectly innocent in my eyes, nor even in the eyes of someone who sets themself up in the position of impartial referee. We are not to judge. That does not mean that calling something an offence automatically makes it so, but rather that the only practical policy in the light of our unavoidable ignorance is to err on the side of caution. The end justifies the means. In a similar way, two strangers when they first meet might pause before launching into conversation, weighing one another up, deciding through the mutual reading of expressions and postures who is to risk the first move. I cannot simply blurt out what is on my mind until I am reasonably confident that it will be taken in the right way. The principles at work here are not principles of philosophy, or any rational process of assessing 'rights' and 'wrongs'. They are the principles of game theory. — Philosophy only tells us that this is a game one cannot afford not to play.

© Geoffrey Klempner 1997


Paper given at the Shap Conference, Philosophical Society of England, Cumbria 26 February 1998


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