Samuel Scheffler on the value of toleration

Screen Shot 2018-04-20 at 7.25.59 PM

Liberal societies value and promote toleration among people whose deepest convictions and ideals frequently differ and even conflict. One reason to value this kind of toleration is that it helps maintain social peace. But as Samuel Scheffler observes, members of liberal societies often see toleration as a something more than a pragmatically justified compromise. Rather, toleration comes to be seen as valuable in itself. Given that life under a regime of toleration constrains and may even rule out the pursuit of some of our deepest convictions and ideals, what explains the strength of our allegiance to toleration as a non-instrumental value? In this passage from “The Good of Toleration”, published in Equality and Tradition, Scheffler offers a compelling and insightful explanation:

In general, the shared experience of subjection to a common authority is a powerful basis for relations of solidarity. Many other forms of comradeship and solidarity, in addition to those among siblings, are also forged on this basis. Think, for example, of the relations among students in a classroom, soldiers in a military unit, or workers in a manufacturing plant. In each case, there is room for competition, rivalry, and even dislike—indeed, the full range of human interpersonal attitudes is available to the members of these groups. But, in addition, there is this: a tendency to solidarity deriving from the shared experience of living together under a common authority.

Obviously, we are not all siblings or comrades, and there is (for now) no common human authority to whom we are all subject. So when I say that there is a form of fraternity associated with participation in a regime of toleration, I do not mean to suggest that the model of siblings and comrades carries over straightforwardly to this case. However, although we are not all subject to a common authority, we are all subject to the idea of authority. That is, we must all confront the normative dimension of human experience. We all live in the shadow of norms, principles, reasons, and ideals that, rightly or wrongly, we regard as authoritative. And although our values vary, the experience of responding to normative authority—of trying to be guided by values and norms that we accept—is part of our common experience. And this too makes possible a form of solidarity—a form of solidarity that derives from the shared experience of subjection, not to a common authority figure, but to normativity or authority itself.

It is in this spirit, I believe, that the adherents of different religions sometimes feel a sense of solidarity with one another as participants in the common enterprise of responding to ideas of the sacred or the divine. More generally, the adherents of different values and ideals sometimes recognize one another as participants in the shared human enterprise of trying to live a good or worthy life—that is, of trying to live in accordance with norms and ideals that one perceives as authoritative. I say that they sometimes recognize one another as participants in a common enterprise, not that they must do so or that they always do so. To the contrary, this unifying form of recognition is easily blocked or disabled by any of the numerous factors that give the differences and divisions among people their salience. However, I believe that a regime of toleration, by enforcing the kind of mutual deference to one another’s values that I have been describing, encourages such recognition. Indeed, it does more. It gives concrete social expression to a compelling but abstract idea: the idea of an otherwise diverse people who are united by the common experience of confronting the normative or evaluative dimension of human life. In addition, it demands that we relate to one another in a way that acknowledges this bond that unites us. And when we do relate to one another in that way, the experience—for many—is one of fraternity or solidarity with one’s fellows. To the extent that that experience is rewarding, toleration comes to be seen as valuable in its own right. In this way, a regime of toleration that is initially accepted on purely instrumental grounds may begin gradually to attract value-based support and may come over time to be seen as intrinsically worthy. What began as a modus vivendi is transformed into a valued way of life.

The rewards characteristically afforded by this way of life might be called the rewards of openness to the other. For some people, the most important of these rewards lies in the sense of enrichment that comes from developing an appreciation for forms of value that are realized in practices other than one’s own. Other people simply find it exhilarating to live confidently amidst the whirl of human diversity. For still other people, there are subversive and transgressive pleasures afforded by engagement with unfamiliar customs and practices. What underlies all of these rewards—what makes them available to the participants in a regime of toleration—is the kind of fraternity that is expressed in and realized by the practice of mutual deference to one another’s values. And for people who experience and appreciate the rewards associated with that practice, its value ceases to be purely instrumental. (pages 331-333)


Response to Tieleman, Anton and Plecas on proportional representation

15Tieleman’s secret stash of anti-PR arguments revealed

In their latest column, Bill Tieleman, Suzanne Anton and Bob Plecas claim that proportional representation would necessarily result in many MLAs being “appointed from the party list”; such MLAs, they allege, “would have no geographic riding, no constituents and no voter accountability.” These claims are demonstrably false.

While it is no doubt possible to design a proportional electoral system with these characteristics, there is no reason why a proportional electoral system must have these characteristics. As a matter of fact, most do not. For one, countries with proportional electoral systems are usually divided into a number of multi-member electoral districts. Others use a mix of single- and multi-member districts. Second, in countries that use the single transferable vote or so-called “open lists” to elect representatives in the multi-member constituencies, voters have at least as much control over which candidates from their preferred party are ultimately chosen for office as they do under our current electoral system. And one might even argue that STV and open lists actually give voters more control than they have under the status quo; after all, under our current system, each party can only present voters with one candidate in each electoral district, whereas these forms of PR allows voters to register preferences for different candidates from the same party.

The authors also repeat the canard that proportional representation leads to long delays in government formation following an election. While there have been a handful of news-making cases where the process takes a very long time, such cases are newsworthy precisely because they are unusual. In fact, depending on the circumstances under which a new government must be formed, the average duration ranges from about two weeks to a month. As BC recently proved, with a clear caretaker convention in place and the ongoing support of a professional public service, such delays are nothing to worry about.

Could electoral fusion work in Canada?

A sample ballot from New York. Note that the Conservative Party has nominated the entire Republican slate, while only half of the Democratic candidates have secured the Working Families nomination.

Given that major changes to the electoral system seem to be off the national agenda at least until the Liberals are replaced in office, or perhaps reduced to a minority in parliament, it may be worthwhile for proponents of reform to consider some other options. In this post, I’ll discuss one such option: electoral fusion.

Electoral fusion is a system in which the same candidate can be nominated simultaneously by more than one party. Such candidates are listed on the ballot separately with the label of each party by which they have been nominated. Votes received by that candidate under each label can be reported separately, but they are added together for the purpose of selecting a winner.

The practice of electoral fusion is largely confined to the United States. In recent years, the most prominent user of electoral fusion has been the Working Families Party, a small social democratic party formed in 1998 by labour and community organizations and activists from the similarly oriented but short-lived New Party. The WFP differs from most American parties in three major respects. First, it rarely enters any candidates of its own into competition, preferring to leave candidates from other parties to try to win the WFP’s nomination. Second, the WFP is explicitly organized on the basis of class interest, which wouldn’t be unusual in most democracies but certainly sets the WFP apart from the major parties in the United States. Fusion voting is especially important in New York, where at least five minor parties regularly issue endorsements of major party candidates.

The long-standing alliance between Labour and the Cooperative Party in the UK can also be viewed as a more restricted kind of electoral fusion, demonstrating that fusion can be viable in the context of the more cohesive parties that are characteristic of parliamentary democracies. Members of Labour are permitted to maintain dual membership in the Cooperative Party, and Labour candidates may seek the Cooperative nomination. The Cooperative Party, in turn, only nominates candidates from the Labour Party. Nevertheless, nominations are competitive — although the Cooperative Party may nominate only candidates from Labour, it is under no obligation to nominate anyone at all. Candidates who desire the Cooperative nomination must convince the party that they will champion the Cooperative platform in office. Candidates who secure both nominations appear on the ballot once, with their affiliation listed as “Labour and Cooperative”.

Electoral fusion provides for more freedom of political expression in the electoral process without the risk of vote-splitting or the need to to adopt a completely different electoral system. The practice is also compatible with alternative electoral systems, both proportional and majoritarian. Supporters of proportional representation may wish to consider pushing for electoral fusion as a partial fix for some of FPTP’s flaws, and possibly as a stepping stone to more fundamental electoral reform, while those who oppose proportional representation on balance may also be convinced that fusion would go some way towards correcting the admitted defects of FPTP that motivate supporters of PR.

Response to Bannister: What grounds human rights?

yMxyTIf God can make moral rules just as he pleases, can we be confident that those rules are going to be any good?

At The BC Catholic, Christian apologist Andy Bannister and humanist advocate Ian Bushfield have summarized arguments they presented in a recent public discussion on the foundations of human rights. Bannister argues that Christianity offers a superior account of how there could be such things as human rights, while Bushfield argues for the superiority of a naturalistic, pragmatist approach. To my mind, however, neither approach is adequate; while each contains a measure of truth, both ought to be rejected by theists and non-theists alike. In this post I focus on some of the problems with Bannister’s argument; in a future post I intend to present some objections to Bushfield. Because it is not apparent from Bannister’s statement that he views human rights as importantly distinct from other kinds of moral facts, in what follows I use these terms interchangeably.

Bannister’s argument is as follows. There are three possible positions on human rights. The first is that human rights do not exist in any robust sense. They are just made up rules with no justification beyond their instrumental value in securing conditions for survival and reproduction. The second possibility is that human rights exist, but they are not justified or explained by anything further. The third position is that human rights exist because we have been endowed with them by God, our creator, who made us in his image. The moral skepticism of the first position is unacceptable, and the second position is ad hoc and lacks true explanatory power. Only the third position supplies an adequate foundation for human rights.

This short argument suffers from a multitude of problems. The first problem is that Bannister assumes that there is something morally significant about the status of being one of God’s creations. The grounds of this special status are no less mysterious than the grounds of human rights — in fact, they seem to be basically the very same mystery. If so, then Bannister’s third position has no explanatory advantage over the second position.

Perhaps, however, this objection misconstrues Bannister’s claim that God endows humans with rights in the act of creation. Bannister may reply that God is in a position to determine what is right, good or valuable. When God creates human beings, he is not only assembling a bundle of material and spiritual substances which, by virtue of being assembled by God, thereby acquires value; rather, the act of creation also involves creating moral properties and attaching them to each bundle. On this view, there is nothing morally significant about the status of being one of God’s creations prior to God’s willing that moral significance into being.

Although I think this interpretation is a better fit with Bannister’s intended meaning, it raises a new problem: making God’s will the ultimate source of moral obligation threatens to turn God into the kind of “human rights fairy” Bannister earlier dismisses as an ad hoc pseudo-explanation.

Bannister might respond that there is an important dissimilarity between a human rights fairy and a conception of God as the source of moral obligation. We have independent grounds to believe that God exists, and if God exists, God could play the same explanatory role as a human rights fairy. So God is not invoked on an ad hoc basis to explain morality; rather, God becomes a candidate explanation for morality only after God is established as a candidate explanation for some other phenomenon.

I think this is an effective reply to the charge that Bannister’s explanation for morality is just as ad hoc as the human rights fairy. But the problem with the human rights fairy is not only that it is an ad hoc explanation, but also that it just doesn’t really explain much at all. Unless there are moral facts prior to God’s willing them into existence, the moral facts God chooses to will into existence — and even the choice to will any moral facts into existence — are arbitrary. So even if Bannister is right to claim that God could bring moral facts into existence, we still don’t have an explanation of why these moral facts — why any moral facts — exist. And if Bannister is right to claim that moral facts fundamentally depend on God for their existence, there is no explanation.

It will not do to reply that God is not just good but also loving, and a loving God would create moral rules that are best for us. “Best” is an evaluative concept. If there are no moral facts prior to God’s willing, then prior to God’s willing there is no fact of the matter about what is best for creation. Any set of rules imposed by God would count as the rules that are best for us, so the selection of those rules would still have to be wholly arbitrary even if they were selected by a perfectly loving being.

Those who still find Bannister’s argument persuasive on balance may at this point wish to bite the bullet and accept a view of morality grounded in arbitrary divine commands. Before doing so, however, it is worth considering some further options. Nihilism, brute explanation and divine commands do not exhaust the options for understanding morality, and Bannister’s neglect of these alternatives is puzzling, especially given that the idea that moral facts depend on God has faced noteworthy challengers even within his own religious tradition. The influential Early Modern philosopher and theologian Samuel Clarke, for example, argued that while God’s will was always perfectly congruent with moral truth, moral truth was not dependent on God’s will. Moral truths, according to Clarke, are necessary truths, knowable by reason:

Screen Shot 2018-04-01 at 2.55.49 PM.png(from A Discourse of Natural Religion)

Morality is not a simple matter, Clarke acknowledges, and in some cases the distinctions between right and wrong may be very fine indeed. We have reason to pay attention to divine revelation concerning moral truth, because God’s perfect knowledge of morality can help us navigate the hard cases. But when it comes to certain elementary truths, Clarke says:

Screen Shot 2018-04-01 at 3.07.53 PM.png


Drawing on the philosophy of Plato and working with the methods of natural theology (i.e. deriving theological truths from reason rather than revelation, mystical experience, or analysis of sacred texts), the 17th-century Christian philosopher Ralph Cudworth likewise argued forcefully against the idea that morality is dependent on the divine will. The idea of absolute authority over the content of morality, Cudworth thinks, generates a paradox:

The right and authority of God himself, who is the supreme sovereign of the universe, is also in like manner bounded and circumscribed by justice. God’s will is ruled by his justice, and not his justice ruled by his will; and therefore, God himself cannot command what is in its own nature unjust. And thus have we made it evident, that infinite right and authority of doing and commanding any thing without exception, so that the arbitrary will of the commander should be the very rule of justice itself to others, and consequently might oblige to any thing, is an absolute contradiction, and a non-entity; it supposing nothing to be in its own nature just or unjust; which, if there were not, there could be no obligation nor authority at all. (from The True Intellectual System of the Universe)

Instead, Cudworth follows Plato in positing an abstract, mind-independent property of goodness — what Plato called a “Form” and Cudworth an “Essence” — as the basis of moral truth; God’s perfection ensures that his will is always exercised in conformity with essential goodness. While imperfect beings like humans are less reliably moral, the basis of our moral knowledge — rationally grasping the eternal essence of goodness — is ultimately the same as God’s.

Immanuel Kant, also a theist (although not an orthodox Christian by the time he developed his mature moral philosophy), developed a very different account of the objectivity of morals. In contrast to realists like Clarke and divine command theorists like Bannister, Kant argued that the source of moral authority must be found within moral agents themselves. But this does not mean that the dictates or morality are relative or otherwise mutable.

According to Kant, we are free only when our wills are not determined by “alien causes,” i.e. causes that are external to ourselves. This rules out the possibility that we could be free when we act according to whatever our strongest impulses happen to be, because these impulses are determined by external natural causes. Nor can random action make the will free, because the very notion of a randomly acting will is incoherent. It follows, by process of elimination, that the positive definition of freedom must be autonomy or self-legislation, i.e. action that is determined by a law that we give to ourselves. This law cannot be a hypothetical imperative because hypothetical imperatives are based on our particular interests and inclinations, and these in turn are naturally determined. And if the law is not a hypothetical imperative, then it must be a categorical imperative, which is the moral law. Therefore we are free only when we govern ourselves according to the moral law.

Clarke’s realism, Cudworth’s Platonism, and Kant’s rationalist constructivism are just three alternatives to Bannister’s grounding of moral truth in God’s will. All of them were proposed by people who believed in God, so they are at least compatible with Bannister’s broader religious beliefs. And because none of these alternative theories of morality presuppose or entail the existence of God, they are also compatible with secular humanism. Because Bannister fails to address these alternatives — let alone the multitude of realist theories originating within the field of secular ethics — his claim that Christianity offers the only secure foundation for morality lacks adequate support.