Samuel Scheffler on the value of toleration

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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)


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