We are lucky to live in modern civilised society - at least for now - where we can all express ourselves, more or less how we want. Of course there are many beliefs and ideas that we think are wrong or false, many desires and dispositions that we do not like or are disgusted by, all of which we certainly not accept let alone endorse. Sometimes we do not understand a certain idea or comprehend how anyone could have such a disposition, even be disgusted by it and, as a result, do not like nor accept them either. Often, we do not respect the holders and supporters of such views too, nor do we think we should be expected too either.
And the same goes for others attitudes and responses over us. They may think our beliefs and ideas mistaken or false, they may not like or be disgusted by our desires and dispositions, they may not respect us for having such beliefs, desires and dispositions.
However in this civilised society we are better off allowing each other to hold their beliefs and ideas, to have their desires and dispositions. To not restrict each other, nor to create or keep a society where some live in fear of intimidation, deprivation, repression, violence and worse. After all, if circumstances change -and they have many times in the past - the intimidators could become the intimidated, the deprivors become the deprived, the repressors become the repressed, the aggressors become the aggressed, the murderers become the murdered.
That is most people have many and strong reasons to live and and promote a society where everyone is tolerant of each other. So, if it is in most everyone's interest to promote a tolerant society, how is this to be done?
Now there is an approach called moral relativism which proposes a solution. It says that by not judging each other a more tolerant society is brought about, that to be a moral relativist is to endorse the value of tolerance. To support moral relativism is to support tolerance, to be against moral relativism is to be against tolerance.
However this approach suffers from three inter-related defects with respect to tolerance.
Tolerance as a justification for moral relativism
The value of tolerance is often used as a justification for moral relativism, that is it is a virtue to be a moral relativist because you thereby endorse tolerance and, of course, tolerance is a "good thing" to endorse. So if you value tolerance you should be a moral relativist. However since moral relativism is a view over all moral values and virtues - specifically that there is no privileged society from which to judge other societies - how can you do that? You certainly cannot use your own moral relativist social group, just because you were born into or adopted it, since every society - and every distinct social group within any society - determines their own values and virtues and none is superior to any other. If, to be tolerant, you cannot judge other social group or a member of that group's moral values, since their values just are their values, as yours are yours, how can you judge them for not endorsing tolerance? You cannot without contradiction, after all, tolerance cannot be an morally absolute value - that is the "opposite" of the view of morality stated by moral relativism - and if it is just a consequence of moral relativism, how can it be used as a justification for it in the first place?
Now more sophisticated moral relativists would not use this argument, instead using meta-ethics - on the basis of rational and empirical inquiry alone and not smuggling through the back door values such as tolerance - to justify moral relativism and then, and only then, and now with ethical - no longer meta-ethical - inquiry, argue for tolerance. For them, this is not prima facie self-defeating.
Still others, loosely labelled as post modernists, regard all forms of inquiry as "relative" and so meta-ethics is just as "relative" as anything else and moral relativism automatically follows. This is trading off equivocation over the term "relative" and is popular in "continental philosophy", in my view a better label for this type of thinking is "noise". I will not address this group further here since debate with them is pointless, indeed all their arguments are pointless.
Still looking at the first two groups only, and noting that the more sophisticated ones do not suffer from the specifically self-defeating issue over tolerance, incoherently argued for by the first group, there are still other deeper issues with the relation between moral relativism and tolerance. Still the above noted argument taints these issues as we shall see.
Does moral relativism bring about more tolerance?
The most basic one is does it work? Is a society that endorses a moral relativist's version of tolerance better off than that does not but one that still endorses tolerance on some other basis? This question challenges the presumption, difficult, for obvious reasons, for moral relativists to state that moral relativism is the only way to bring about a tolerant society, as we know this contradicts the other presumptions behind moral relativism. No moral relativist could assert this without contradicting themselves. Still the issue they would still have is how can one even evaluate this question without imposing a privileged society's values? It is, of course, quite possible for other societies to hold tolerance as a value without endorsing moral relativism per se, no-one would argue against that. The question still remains as how one would find out?
Based on experience living in the U.K. the answer was simple, don't bother to find out! Just introduce moral relativist ideas as part of public policies, including their version of tolerance as part of public morality - as part of defining the public space where strangers meet and interact - and tolerance will result. Well, as we know here this has been a disaster and without much argument it has been more or less quietly dropped over the last year or two (still there are many ongoing policies still incorporated that are carrying on such programs). And they could give no good reason as to why to change, just that the attitude of our society had changed, that too many ridiculous results had occurred. However is the tide turning too much now? With the worldwide global meltdown in progress, there is the growing tendency of protecting one's own to the exclusion of others, to be less tolerant of different political viewpoints and people are beginning to take to the streets on this. The issue of intolerance not being the only or primary reason, of course, but it is likely either a contributory or consequential factor or both. And it is getting more popular - everywhere. What still infects all these issues is the moral relativist's avoidance of clearly stating reasons for or against encouraging beliefs, desires and dispositions. This applies to many who would explicitly reject moral relativism but they can remain infected nonetheless. It is for this reason that this question of tolerance needs to be addressed with some urgency and in particular one recurring issue, which I am calling the "paradox of tolerance".
The paradox of tolerance
So this leads to the third and most egregious defect over moral relativism and tolerance. On what basis can you discuss, dissect and criticise beliefs, desires and dispositions of others without yourself being intolerant and certainly being accused of such? What do you do with those who do not reciprocate your tolerance, who rather than follow your example take advantage of it? If you endeavour to discourage them, then you are not being intolerant too? This is the paradox of tolerance. How can one be intolerant of the intolerant, at least in moral relativists eyes?
In my view I can see such moral relativism as a smuggling in of the dubious Christian doctrine of "turning the other cheek" and the most likely result is that you will get a broken jaw or a sore bum (depending on which cheek you turned). Some Christian's like to claim our modern secular values origin is in Christian religious values but it is quite ironic that one of the best (as well as few) examples of this is this particular doctrine of moral relativism! Moral relativism is, as we know, anathema in most orthodox Christians eyes! On the other hand, when actually has Christianity actually practised "turn the other cheek" when it had absolute power?
Anyway is there a "paradox of tolerance"? Is this, instead, the product of inadequate and incompetent thinking infecting our government and policies? We might most all agree that tolerance is a "good thing" but cannot one give clear culturally unbiased reasons why this is so, can one not say why this is a "good thing"? Cannot one do this without imposing some form of absolutism - anathema to moral relativists too? Does one have only two choices here?
My answer is yes there is a third way and it has already been tacitly implied in the introduction, where I discussed what tolerance is and why it is of benefit to most people. One does not need to label it as "good thing" in addition to that but you can if you want. Still when challenged as to why you mean by tolerance is a "good thing", you can give such arguments as made in the introduction. Anyone should be able to make such an argument anywhere in any society. The fact they might not be allowed to make such argument - due to restriction over freedom of speech and expression - is a symptom of the problem and in need of a solution too. Still what is the solution that resolves the paradox of tolerance?
As noted in the introduction most people have many and strong reasons to promote tolerance. However how does one actually do this? We have already noted that setting an example is a start but not sufficient. It can be taken advantage of by the intolerant. Then just being tolerant, at an extreme of the cost of one's own life or one's loved ones, some "saints" maybe, are just not decent examples. Far from it, these can only serve to encourage the opposite, that intolerance is the way to go. We first have to understand how to promote tolerance before we can determine what are good examples of this.
So if examples of unconditional tolerance (another ironical twist over a moral relativists position by the way) is not the starting point then what is? Well everyone seeks to substitute a more fulfilling state of affairs for themselves, over a less fulfilling one. To the degree that others can help (or hinder) us in the realisation of such states of affairs, we have thereby have a reason to encourage (or discourage) them in their actions, by debating their beliefs and appealing to their desires and dispositions. Now we use the tools of praise and condemnation, honour and sanction, reward and punishment to encourage and discourage desires and dispositions. We can use these tools directly and indirectly, on those who are responsible or on anyone else who (thereby indirectly) supports them. And everyone uses the same tools on us. In some cases we, or they, might lack certain desires or dispositions, in which it is this lack primarily which is addressed. In other cases we, or they, have the relevant these desires and dispositions but those are overwhelmed by desires and dispositions, in which case it is these primarily that need to be addressed. Either way we each try to influence and mould each other's desires and dispositions to reduce barriers to and increase the likelihood of us achieving our more fulfilling states of affairs. Often, as a result, what we, or they, deems more fulfilling states of affairs changes. And then the cycles repeats. That is how social interactions and the whole of society is constructed and works or fails - if some achieve a position of being impervious to such social forces and their consequences. (It is the latter failures most people have all have many and strong reasons to reform too).
So how does this relate to promoting tolerance? Certainly one needs to respond to statements, let alone acts, of intolerance. One does that by discouraging intolerance. If most people have many and strong reasons to encourage tolerance, this can be restated as saying that they have many and strong reasons to discourage intolerance. For this particular issue, it is the latter where we can all act mutually and beneficially. We need to criticise and condemn intolerance. We need to criticise and condemn those who support, endorse and encourage intolerance. We need to encourage each other to do this wherever and whenever the opportunity occurs, on both a private and a public level as required. The result would increase tolerance in our society.
Still we might be mistaken in identifying cases of intolerance. Only by supporting one's criticisms with evidence and argument can this be checked. And this turn means that the ability to criticise one another is part and parcel of encouraging tolerance. You do not help the promotion of tolerance by remaining quiet when you could speak. You do not help the promotion of tolerance by arguing that any criticism is itself intolerant. You most certainly do not aid the promotion of tolerance by the use of legal and government sanctions to restrict criticism. Indeed anyone who does these things deserves themselves to be criticised and condemned - based on the reason of promoting tolerance
And here is the resolution to the paradox of tolerance. There is no paradox. It is a pseudo-paradox. It is an artefact of the infection of ideas from some moral relativists and some moral absolutists (those cheeky Christians mentioned above)!!! So when anyone says one cannot criticise another social group's beliefs, desires or dispositions on the basis of promoting tolerance, they are doing exactly the opposite by such actions and they, in turn, need to be criticised and condemned for doing so! If we want to promote tolerance we all need to inhibit intolerance, an important way to more more tolerant society is through criticising and condemning intolerant beliefs, desires and dispositions and those who hold them or support them. It is not achieved by preventing such criticism or condemnation and anyone who tries, especially in the name of tolerance, is equally deserving of criticism and condemnation. The only civilised response to words is words in reply, not censorship or violence and anyone who does the latter, for whatever reason, deserves our condemnation.
And now the whole argument in one line and as a conclusion:
If you want to promote tolerance, focus on discouraging intolerance by not only criticising and condemning any and all those who support or endorse it but also anyone who, even in the name of tolerance, tries to prevent such criticism and condemnation.