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Toleration and Pragmatism
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The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 16.2 (2002) 103-116


University of Wisconsin-Green Bay

Toleration is a pragmatic response to the practical need to coexist with others who have different conceptions of the good. Toleration develops out of the recognition that in practice diversity cannot be eradicated by either philosophical argument or political force. We see this pragmatic approach in both the history of discussions of toleration and contemporary accounts. Locke argued, for example, that since it was not practically possible to produce orthodoxy by way of coercion, the state should tolerate dissent. Locke's approach became more clearly defined in the nineteenth century with Mill's account of the practical need to tolerate dissenting opinions. Both Locke and Mill base their argument for toleration upon an account of human psychology and epistemology. While Locke rejects coercion in belief formation, Mill emphasizes that belief in the truth will be stronger if the truth has been tempered by argument and dissent (1998, chap. 2). Although Mill's psychology of belief is similar to Locke's, his tolerant attitude goes beyond Locke. Mill celebrates diversity as such. Mill thus foreshadows the way in which toleration would develop in the twentieth century. Today we encounter radical diversity with tolerant eyes opened by the horrors of those "final solutions" that have sought to eliminate it. We no longer believe that it is practically possible to unify human life under one concept or idea.

Toleration should not, however, be confused with "heterophilia," or love of difference." Toleration does not need to be based upon essential claims about diversity in human nature. Rather, as I shall argue, toleration is a pragmatic reaction to the concrete fact that diversity exists. It seeks to deal with this fact without necessarily making any further claims about the essential goodness of diversity. In an effort to clarify this point, I will consider recent discussions of both toleration and pragmatism. Along the way I will show that there is broad agreement among those who explicitly affiliate themselves with American pragmatism and those who are more concerned with the political question of toleration. In particular, I will argue that two of the more prominent recent advocates of toleration and pluralism, John Rawls and Michael Walzer, argue for toleration on pragmatic grounds. I will compare these two political thinkers with Richard Rorty and John Lachs, philosophers who explicitly locate themselves in the American pragmatist tradition, and I will use this comparison to flesh out the pragmatic idea of pluralism that lies at the heart of the idea of toleration.

The Fact of Diversity

Diversity is the fact of the matter for us today: the world consists of different people with their own ideas of the good. The fact of diversity leads to the practical demand that we tolerate it. Most recent discussions of pluralism reach toleration by way of pragmatic arguments. Karl-Otto Apel argues, for example, that "we have no other choice in our day than to pursue a cosmopolitan legal order based on political federalism and ethno-religious multiculturalism in the sense of respecting and even supporting a variety of value traditions" (1997, 201). The necessity expressed in Apel's claim ("we have no other choice") is a pragmatic necessity: given the practical goal of peaceful coexistence and the fact of diversity, tolerance is required. Other recent discussions of toleration also make this clear. Even though Bernard Williams argues that toleration is a paradoxical demand to tolerate the intolerable, he views it as a pragmatic political necessity. For Williams, whatever hope there is for toleration lies in the growth of "international commercial society" together with a practical recognition of the "manifest harms generated by intolerance" (1996, 26). The problem is, of course, that the idea of manifest harm is itself subject to a plurality of interpretations. Williams admits that there may be no final resolution for the ongoing task of toleration because toleration will continually confront intolerance. Rather, Williams concludes that the project of toleration is a practical task continually limited or defined by "Hobbesian reminders" as the tolerant encounter the intolerant. The point of these discussions is that toleration results from a pragmatic need and is subject to on...



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