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Ethics, liberalism and tolerance


To: Charles R.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Ethics, liberalism and tolerance
Date: 22nd February 2011 12:59

Dear Charles,

Thank you for your email of 15 February, with the fifth and last essay for the Moral Philosophy program -- which you originally attempted to send on 3 February -- in response to the question,
''Liberalism is beset by a paradox at its core.' What is the alleged paradox? In your view, is the paradox real or only apparent?'

I must thank you for this powerful and emotionally resonant defence of the liberal viewpoint within the context of an ethics of dialogue. I think you'd have a lot in common with my sister Elli (Rabbi Elizabeth Sarah) whom I've mentioned before.

One point which chimed particularly with me was your distinction between the 'more ancient Hebrew idea of 'to believe'' and the 'later Greco-Roman idea'. This accounts for a lot. Elli often talks about the difference between Judaism and Christianity in terms of their respective attitudes to 'belief'. Jews don't have a catechism. There is nothing that you are required to 'believe' as such, only things you are required to do. A significant number of the members of Elli's 'Liberal and Progressive' congregation (some of them converts) would consider themselves 'Jews' even though they do not 'believe in God' in any literal sense. Elli sometimes talks as if the term 'God' is just another way of expressing the idea of 'the Good'.

The biggest hurdle Elli encounters at the interfaith conferences (Christian, Jewish, Muslim) which she regularly attends is the idea that one 'tolerates' those who 'don't believe' (e.g. that there is 'No way to God except through Me') while at the same time holding out the hope, for the other person's sake, that they will eventually see the light. I'm searching for the right word here. Condescending. It's a condescending tolerance when you say to someone from another faith, 'I accept you as a partner in dialogue even though you do not share my belief.'

Being in possession of 'the truth' ('I am the Way, the Truth and the Life') is one way to be superior. Being chosen by God to be a 'Witness unto nations' is another. So it could be argued that the boot is on the other foot. Jews condescend to everyone else. (I think Elli would disagree with that statement, thus baldly put, although I have a suspicion that some of her pronouncements contradict that.)

What this points to (just as an example) is a complexity in the idea of 'equality in difference', or 'equality amongst unequals' which a true ethics of dialogue must somehow come to terms with.

What is liberalism? You allude to J.S. Mill's distinction between 'liberty of thought' and 'liberty of action', but your liberalism isn't the classic version by any means. I'd call it an enlightened or modern version of the liberal ideal which recognizes that different faiths or political ideals are not required to contest their claims on the field of reason, as Mill fervently believed. This is important, because for Mill any moral belief which cannot be justified by reason must therefore depend on irrational moral 'intuition'. Which moral beliefs can be justified by reason? The theory of utilitarianism!

What about those whose words and actions threaten to put them outside the realm of the ethics of dialogue? You say what needs to be said here: they have excluded themselves, so this isn't 'intolerance' on the liberal's part. But I perceive an unresolved problem here.

It is easy enough to see that the ethics of dialogue does not require me to tolerate Nazis. Yet in the UK, as in other countries in Europe where there is a large Muslim population, difficult questions have arisen about the limits of religious tolerance.

Let me give one example. There is a form of strict dress code for Muslim women which requires that the woman completely covers her face with a black cloth with just a slit open for the eyes (the 'Hijab'). Recently there was a case in the UK where a student teacher made a claim for Wrongful Dismissal because the primary school would not allow her to give classes wearing a Hijab. It scared the pupils, the Headmaster said.

I don't see how the ethics of dialogue cuts any ice with this kind of case. Multicultural dialogue is a valuable ideal, but it comes at a price. There is a point where you are forced back into the position of defending the values of your own culture -- in this case, being able to see the face of the person you are talking to. (And yet, it could be argued that the recent astronomical rise of social networking as in Facebook points the other way. A new form of 'socializing' has arisen where the only thing that your partner in dialogue needs to see is the avatar which you have chosen for your home page. Or consider the tyranny in our culture of the ideal of beauty which means that the first thing you notice about a woman is how 'attractive' or 'unattractive' she looks.)

What do we, as liberals, stand for? Surely not just the principle of liberalism and nothing more. There are aspects of the way we live which we choose, and aspects which were chosen for us -- by accident of birth and upbringing. There is a sense of loyalty, identity, which comes from being part of a group, or religion, or nation. To be sure, these are all things to be 'negotiated' in dialogue, in order to create a respectful distance, to allow for 'difference'. But there is no guarantee that in the end this can be achieved without some very tough and painful compromises.

All the best,