On tolerance and relativism
On tolerance and relativism
I have just finished reading some work done by a student in one of my Theory of Knowledge classes. He had been asked to compare several possible solutions to a problem, evaluate them and explain which one was the best one, in his opinion. Toward the end of his essay he wrote that each of the (contradictory) solutions had its strengths, and each could be accepted because the person proposing each one came from a different culture, and had been “exposed to different cultures of learning.”
At one level one must applaud the open-mindedness here; the student was trying to see all possible solutions from the perspective of the person who offered them. Excellent. We are delighted to see tolerance here. I worry, though, about the slippery slope from tolerance to relativism. Toleration of other people is the disposition to fight opinion only with opinion; to use the pen and not the sword. So far so good. But toleration of people is based in respect for people simply because they are people (a good thing)—and it’s easy to confuse this with respecting ideas simply because they are ideas (a bad thing). That means accepting that all opinions “are equally valid”—an appealing but dangerous step.
The trouble is that if all the ideas are equally valid, and all our beliefs are “just our opinions” then we lose the right to search for a better world, or a more just world. If everything is just opinion, then there can be no right or wrong, no progress and no real engagement with other people. Perhaps it is the word just that is the problem; because when we call for an end to human rights violations around the world, for example, it is more than just our opinion; it is the voice of humanity’s bitter experience with war, torture and atrocities over the centuries. The right reaction, therefore, on matter of importance, is not to nod gently, smile indulgently, and respect opinions, but to agree or to disagree, as strenuously as you can and to say why. Philosopher Simon Blackburn puts it thus: “The virtues of courage and intelligence, patience and concern, are virtues the world over.” This cannot be in doubt.
In giving feedback to the student whose work I mentioned above, I told him that I would defend very much his right to make up his own mind. But I would at the same time defend the position that there are some things that it makes a lot more sense to believe than others. We talked about this, and we concluded that there are three ways to respond to differences of opinion:
1. you can shrug and say “all beliefs are equally valid; we are both equally right”
2. you can discuss why you believe what you do, and why others believe what they do, and try to understand the difference
3. you can just say “I am right, you are wrong”
Why is the second of these so much better that the first and the third? Because it is the start of a conversation—probably an intelligent, patient and concerned conversation—whereas the other responses are the end of one.