The Philosophy Resource

Teaching resources for philosophy students and teachers

Problems with these justifications

Various forms of instrumentalist justification

Option A

Tolerance is a value because it helps us find truth. We value truth, so we should value tolerance.
 
 

Option B

Tolerance is a value because it helps genuine piety to flourish. We value genuine piety, so we should value tolerance.
 

Option C

Tolerance is a value because it helps create a genuine public who think together about social matters. We value the existence of such a public, so we should value tolerance.

 
We will focus here on (A) We will first use an illustration that apparently supports the instrumentalist and then use critical discussion to suggest there is a problem with this sort of justification. (You can try the same with (B) and (C))

Illustration

A medical doctor, Dr Barry Marshall became convinced, on the basis of earlier studies by Dr Robin Warren, that stomach ulcers were caused by bacteria. This view went against accepted opinion and was not taken seriously. He was eventually able to prove this by deliberately injecting himself with the bacterium and falling ill. He cured himself with a dose of antibiotics.

He and Warren were awarded the Nobel prize for medicine in 2005. So from being a minority view, now the bacterial cause of ulcers is widely accepted as the truth. This apparently shows that tolerance of unpopular opinions help find valuable truths.

Critical Discussion

Critic: Let us accept that tolerance helps us find truth in some areas, say in medical science. But this is an area in which there is a lot we do not know. How about if we are convinced that we already have the truth? Then why do we need to be tolerant about any views which dissent from that truth?

Instrumentalist: We can never be certain we have the truth about something. After all, the medical experts treating ulcers before Marshall proved his theory believed they had the truth about ulcers but it turns out they did not. Their certainty was misplaced.

Critic: At least for the ulcer example, it looks like we CAN be certain that we know what the true cause of stomach ulcers is, because we have used standards of medical experimentation to definitively show what the truth is. So we do not need to be tolerant of minority opinions on this topic now. Tolerance then is not justified as a general policy. It is only justified where we do not already know what the true view is.

Instrumentalist: It may be that a new point of view will come up and upset views we think are true, so we can never know for certain which of our views are true.

Critic: If such radical uncertainty is inevitable, then tolerance as a means to truth is useless. The original justification we were considering said that tolerance was a value because it leads to truth. But this response shows we can never really know the truth, whether we are tolerant or not!

Various forms of rights-based justification

Option A

Tolerance is a basic value: we can see this if only we consult the genuine reason of mankind. Therefore we should have a right to our opinions.
 
 

Option B

Tolerance is a basic value: we can see this if we think of how we could start a society from scratch with no prior interpretations about what religious truth is. Therefore we should have a right to our opinions.

Option C

Tolerance is a basic value: we can see this if only we recognise how respect for people’s opinions is respect for their dignity. Therefore we should have a right to our opinions.
 

 
We will focus here on A. We first will use an illustration that supports the rights-based justification and then use critical discussion to suggest there may be problems here too. (You can try the same with (B) and (C))
 

Illustration

This picture shows Egyptian Christians joining hands to form a protecting ring, to allow Egyptian Muslims pray in peace during the demonstrations in 2011.

The picture can be used to illustrate the rights-based position, because the action of the people shown looks spontaneous and born out of a fundamental conviction that people should be allowed to pray, even if they practice a different religion. The context of the protest is also relevant here because a key demand of the protesters was freedom of expression, which was outlawed by the Emergency Law of 1957 which legalised censorship and suspended constitutional rights.

Critical Discussion

Critic: The defence being considered suggests that if we consult ‘the genuine reason of mankind’ we will see that tolerance is a basic value. Yet it is hard to see what ‘genuine reason of mankind’ adds to the argument. It is simply another way of saying that tolerance is a good thing. But we want to find out why it is a good thing. And here it is where the problems start: either you have to identify some good that results from it, e.g. peaceful co-existence in a multi-faith society, or claim that tolerance is a feature of something we already value such as human dignity, which moves us to the next step in justification (see the constitutive approach). Going either way means abandoning the basic value view.
 
Rights-defender: Different people are entitled to their views. This is why this is about rights finally: we each have a right to our opinion about everything, especially matters of conscience such as religious belief.

Critic: This is a recipe for a fragmented and atomistic society – with people living alongside each other with very different and often conflicting beliefs – and goes against other things we value such as social cohesion, or a common sense of purpose. In fact, even the rights-defender will have to have some conception of shared values because they seem to think tolerance is a shared value, or should be. If they don’t think that tolerance is a shared value, then they must be vulnerable to the opinions of the intolerant: those who simply do not accept the premise of the defence, that tolerance is a basic value.

Rights-defender: This is why a culture of tolerance is also needed, to foster the value of tolerance.

Critic: The problem then is that for such a culture to take root, the difficult issues, those that make people angry, will have to be smoothed away. A culture of religious tolerance is possible either if people buy into the values of liberal democracy first whatever else they believe in, or are somehow persuaded that core religious commitments are similar across religions. In either case we are asking for people to agree about the basics. But as we saw earlier tolerance requires for its exercise disagreement and diversity of opinion.

 

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