Tom Gilson

“Surprisingly High Tolerance For Racism Revealed”

The ScienceDaily headline reads, Surprisingly High Tolerance For Racism Revealed.

So, where’s the problem? I thought (in today’s secular moral culture) tolerance was a good thing!

Yet I think the authors of this study would like for you to believe that racism is not good. (That’s certainly what I believe.) How do we make sense of this, though, if tolerance is the great good of our moral culture? Should we be tolerant toward those who are tolerant toward racism? How confused that would be! So then what really is the great moral good we should pursue, and how would we know it?

Today Victor Reppert raised a related issue:

I had a teacher at Arizona State who told me that in one culture rape is considered perfectly OK, so long as you do it at the right time. In the morning, it’s forbidden. In the afternoon, it is frowned upon. At night, it is perfectly OK, since a woman who is away from the protection of her husband is asking for it…. If cultural relativism is true, the rules of that culture, with respect to rape, are justified…

Again I ask, what really is the great moral good, and how would we know it?

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27 thoughts on ““Surprisingly High Tolerance For Racism Revealed”

  1. Also from Victor,

    “If cultural relativism is true, then what that means is that the statement “It is wrong to impose your values on people of other cultures” just means “My culture disapproves of my imposing my values on people of other cultures.” Which may or may not be true! So if what relativism attempts to do is prevent people from imposing their values on others, it’s a dismal failure.”

    It is a dismal failure.

  2. The great moral good is Christ’s teaching. I find your question strange. It doesn’t matter what place or time you find yourself. The guidelines that Christ gave us, “Love your enemies” and so on is the great moral good.

    Or at least that is what I say. I find it strange a follower of Christ would have to pose this question. Maybe I missed something.

    Chris

  3. Good question, Chris, and I should have supplied more context. I agree with your answer completely.

    My question was directed toward those who consider tolerance to be a (or the) supreme virtue. That is the opinion of many secularists, and there are probably some regular readers of this blog who would say something like that is the case. The headline about racism shows how self-contradictory that view of ethics actually is. This is the intent that I had: “If you hold that tolerance is a (or the) supreme virtue, then you may see illustrated here that your position is impossible? Since your answer cannot succeed, where will you go to find an answer?”

    You and I share the same view on what that answer is. In the interest of starting a conversation on the topic I did not go all the way there, but that’s certainly where I go with it when asked.

  4. What is meant by “tolerance” here? Are you equating “tolerance” with “indifference to racist comments,” as the article suggests? Do some of your regular readers really think that indifference is a “great moral good” or a “supreme virtue”?

  5. You’ve got it all wrong, Tom. From a relativist perspective, there is no supreme virtue. All virtues must be evaluated in context. So the value of tolerance must be evaluated in regard to what one is tolerant of, in this case racism. Tolerance in and of itself has no moral value.

    From my long reading here, I’ve come to the conclusion that you really don’t understand relativism. Perhaps that is one reason it is so upsetting to you.

  6. I think, os, that I understand it better than you think, in the sense that it raises questions that are very difficult to answer. If all virtues must be evaluated in context, then what is the context? Why is racism the relevant context here? What raises its value above, say, the value of being accepting of a racist’s approach to life? These are questions that can be answered in a framework of moral realism, but I’ve never seen a satisfactory answer from a relativistic perspective.

  7. Tom, you wrote, “Why is racism the relevant context here?” Because you are talking about tolerance of racism. That seems obvious, so perhaps you are you asking a different question?

    You wrote, “What raises its value above, say, the value of being accepting of a racist’s approach to life?” To what does “its” refer?

  8. @CT:

    No, I do not equate indifference with being a moral good, and yet I think there’s a fine line between indifference (in the sense that you probably use the word here), and moral relativism as some persons present it. To be indifferent is not to care, because one sees no distinction between one option and another. Tolerance is similar, except it does not imply that one lacks concern or care.

    I quote Josh McDowell here:

    Fernando Savatir, the Spanish philosopher, in his new book Nations in the Nations said, “Tolerance, the doctrine, is that all opinions are equal. Each one has its point and there is no intelligent way to distinguish between them.”

    There is no means by which one moral opinion can be intelligently distinguished from another, as to its worth, value, or correctness (a word that cannot even be properly applied). There is no actual difference in value or worth, in fact—a state which, apart from the personal/emotional connotation, is about identical with a state of indifference (“in” = “not,” or “lacking;” “difference” = “difference”).

  9. @ordinary seeker:

    You say that I was talking about racism, which is correct, but it’s not the only topic that was on the table. A person’s right to hold their own opinion, whatever it might be, might also have been considered the relevant context; it might have been taken as the ruling consideration. Why not (under relativism) say that we ought to value holding one’s own opinion as more worthy than being free from racism? You have set one value above another. On what basis can you do that?

    To what does “its” refer?

    Thanks for asking, sometimes I get my pronouns disconnected from their antecedents. Let me try that sentence over again:

    What raises the moral significance attached to racism above, say, the moral importance attached to accepting (or tolerating) a racist’s approach to life?

    Again, in case someone jumps into this in the middle and might misunderstand me, I want to say that these questions have answers under moral realism, but as far as I can tell, they cannot be answered under relativism.

  10. TG, you seem to see a connection between the idea that “tolerance” is “a supreme moral virtue” and the “relativistic perspective”. But what’s the connection? Why should the relativist endorse tolerance? Why shouldn’t the moral realist endorse tolerance?

    In answer to your question, “what is the context?”, doesn’t this just depend upon the particular form of relativism? Specify the latter and the answer might be obvious.

    (I hadn’t seen your reply–I should have refreshed the page. I’ve not read anything by this Spanish philosopher. I agree that the quote you cite seems absurd. I’m not a moral relativist myself, and I wouldn’t be tempted to grant such priority to “tolerance,” but I’d think we might be able to do better, even on our own, to imagine a more compelling account of relativism, and a description of tolerance that made tolerance seem more valuable.)

  11. Tom,
    You say, “You have to set one value above the other.” Yes, it is (perhaps, I’m not fully convinced of this) to do this for oneself, but not for others. For example, I can decide for myself that confronting racism is more important than tolerating others’ views, or I can decide that tolerating others’ views is more important than confronting racism. But I can’t decide for anyone other than myself.

    Tolerance is not the same as accepting, Tom. Was it Patrick Henry who said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”? That’s the difference between tolerance and acceptance.

  12. Why should the relativist endorse tolerance? Why shouldn’t the moral realist endorse tolerance?

    You’re right: the relativist need not endorse tolerance. This particular post is directed toward those who do endorse tolerance.

  13. Is your post really directed to relativists at all–or rather to anyone who gives extreme priority to tolerance (in the sense of “tolerance” you have in mind)? If there isn’t a connection between relativism and tolerance…

  14. There is a connection between relativism and tolerance, in the sense that many relativists, consciously or consciously, coherently or incoherently, elevate tolerance to the supreme position among ethical values.

    I have observed a connection in this another sense as well. Relativists by definition hold all ethical opinions to be contingent, a result of the accidents of one’s upbringing or culture, or the individual’s personal choices, ungrounded in any objective ethical principle against which a personal ethical system could be measured with any authority at all. Standing in that position it is difficult to claim that one’s ethical values are better than another’s. That seems to lead toward a position like Savatir’s quoted above: you can’t claim that one set of values is any better than another’s.

    Maybe these are not philosophical imperatives, so it may be possible to be a relativist without subscribing to Savatir’s version of tolerance. Many relativists seem to move toward that conclusion, though. So the connection does exist, even if not necessarily.

  15. Surely the opinions of a moral realist may be as contingent as those of the moral relativist. Also, it’s not obvious to me why the lack of any “objective ethical principle” entails the lack of any authority against which an ethical system could be measured. Why can’t the moral relativist measure “ethical systems” or “sets of values” with non-ethical principles of rationality? Aren’t there norms of rationality that are “authoritative”?

  16. @CT:

    Aren’t there norms of rationality that are authoritative? I think so. Are there norms of ethics that are authoritative? I think so, too—but then, I’m not a relativist. I certainly haven’t encountered any such authoritative norms in any version of relativism I’ve run across, though, and I don’t know how there could be without relativism turning into moral realism.

    You suggest that there might be a way to jump from norms of rationality to norms of ethics (“Why can’t the moral relativist measure ‘ethical systems’ or ‘sets of values’ with non-ethical principles of rationality?”). I would be interested to see how you suggest to do this. In order to measure something, there must be a standard. We have standards for mass, for weight, for length, even for rationality (the principles of logical inference, for example). What is the standard of measurement a relativist would use? You can’t just answer, “rational norms,” by the way, because that would be like saying rational norms are the standard for measuring mass or distance.

  17. TG, you write,”I don’t know how there could be [authoritative norms of rationality] without relativism turning into moral realism.”

    Let the moral relativist accept the following as an authoritative norm of rationality: a system of beliefs (e.g. those beliefs constituting one’s ethical system) should not contain logical contradictions. How does this turn such a moral relativist into a moral realist?

    I suggest that the ethical relativist might accept such norms of rationality for evaluating ethical systems. If you equate norms for evaluating ethical systems, or even just norms for evaluating sets of ethical principles, with “norms of ethics”, then it should be quite easy for you to “jump from norms of rationality to norms of ethics” (just connect the dots).

  18. This is one of the reasons I say you don’t understand relativism, Tom: there is NO NEED for an authority outside oneself against which to measure ethics. You SAY you have an authority (God, Bible), but to an atheist, this holds no authority. You’ve been over this ground before in lengthy discussions with DL and others, and yet still you insist on it as an argument.

  19. CT, you’ve offered an idea of what a relativistic moral system might not include if it is to have some authoritative basis. That’s a start. But what does it include?

  20. TG, you ask, “But what does [a relativist’s moral system] include?”

    I think I lost you. How is this question relevant? We were (I thought) discussing your assumption that there is a connection between moral relativism and the view that tolerance is a “supreme moral virtue”. I asked you to explain this assumption, and you tried. You first pointed to a rather contingent connection (a lot of relativists you’ve met seem to hold this view about tolerance), as well as a more interesting philosophical one: that moral relativism denies that the relative merits of “a personal ethical system could be measured with any authority at all”. I explained to you why this latter claim isn’t true. If you concede this, then you’re back to just making a claim about the relativists you’ve encountered. If these are the same folks who equate tolerance with indifference, then they aren’t a worthy target. Why even bother arguing with folks who claim that the supreme moral virtue is indifference?

  21. @ordinary seeker:

    What you just wrote is not news to me, and it’s not that I haven’t heard it from you and dl. Note the context in which I have been speaking about authority. CT said he thought the Savatir quote represented an “extreme” position. I answered,

    Relativists by definition hold all ethical opinions to be contingent, a result of the accidents of one’s upbringing or culture, or the individual’s personal choices, ungrounded in any objective ethical principle against which a personal ethical system could be measured with any authority at all. Standing in that position it is difficult to claim that one’s ethical values are better than another’s. That seems to lead toward a position like Savatir’s quoted above: you can’t claim that one set of values is any better than another’s.

    So when I brought up the issue of authority, I did it in connection to an argument. I argued that without authority connected to ethics, one cannot measure whether one system is better than another, and that that seems to lead to Savatir’s conclusion.

    You could bluster back at me that I don’t understand, and that relativists don’t need ethical authority, and that I just don’t get it. Or you could note that I was addressing a question raised by someone else, in terms that were relevant to the question they raised. I would prefer you did the latter.

  22. I suggest that the ethical relativist might accept such norms of rationality for evaluating ethical systems. If you equate norms for evaluating ethical systems, or even just norms for evaluating sets of ethical principles, with “norms of ethics”, then it should be quite easy for you to “jump from norms of rationality to norms of ethics” (just connect the dots).

    I think you’re saying that ethical systems must be internally coherent, non-contradictory. Okay… suppose I start from a solipsist position, and proceed from there to an ethical system that says that in all things I should maximize my own personal pleasure and position. I think I could develop a fully rational, internally coherent ethical system out of that. Would you consider that to meet your standard?

  23. CT, with reference to this,

    … as well as a more interesting philosophical one: that moral relativism denies that the relative merits of “a personal ethical system could be measured with any authority at all”. I explained to you why this latter claim isn’t true.

    But I don’t think you did. You described a negative condition of a measurable relativistic moral system: it should not be irrational; or conversely, what you stated is a very empty positive condition: it should be rational. Given that small bit of information, I still don’t have a clue what else is true about your putative measurable relativistion moral system. I don’t know (for example) whether it’s better to condemn racism or to support one’s freedom to think and act as a racist without being judged for it. How would you decide which is more moral? What is your basis for that decision?

  24. TG, you write, “I think I could develop a fully rational, internally coherent [solipsistic] ethical system….”

    Though some may disagree, I’m inclined to agree with you that solipsism can meet the requirement of internal consistency. Let’s even grant that a moral relativist might be a consistent solipsist. But what does this show? If you have granted that such norms of consistency constitute an authority by which the moral relativist can evaluate the relative merits of ethical systems, then this is a straightforward denial of your claim that moral relativism entails the denial that the relative merits of “a personal ethical system could be measured with any authority at all.” Can you see the straightforward denial?

  25. TG, read very carefully your claim that I am denying here. See also my 10:59 pm response above. There is no need to flesh out any particular moral relativist’s system in order to falsify your very general claim.

  26. CT, thank you for this interesting conversation. As a side note, I’m finding that the “Reply” to comment system has a huge limitation, in that it places comments out of order on the page. I experimented with a different, more complex version of this once before and it didn’t work out. I thought this simpler one might do better, but even this has us jumping all over the page, trying to read things in order. I’m thinking I might disable it later today, and for now I’m not going to use it.

    Now, responding to this, I’m going to try to sort out what I think you’re saying. There’s always a chance of getting something like this wrong, and that possibility is multiplied when there’s confusion on the page like I just described. So I’m not going to answer until I have some confidence that I’m reading your position correctly

    I think, if I have not misunderstood you, that you have proposed:

    (1) that moral relativism can potentially be tied to something objective that gives it authority.
    (2) that rational thinking has an objective character to it.
    (3) that an ethical system that exhibits rationality, in the sense of being internally coherent and consistent, somehow acquires the objectivity that inheres in rationality.

    Further, you have granted

    (4) that a solipsistic moral system, one that sees self-pleasure as the chief good, can exhibit the kind of rationality described in (3).

    And therefore you conclude

    (5) and that therefore we have a demonstration of a moral system that possesses authority, and finally,
    (6) that my claim that there is no way that a relativistic moral system can take an authoritative stance is disproved.

    How did I do? Is that a fair and accurate re-statement of your position?

  27. TG, thank you both for your efforts at improving an already great blog, and for your charitably efforts to restate my position. My reservations with your restatement may only be with particular wording. Here’s how I’d put the particular point currently under discussion. My target at this step is very modest and circumscribed: to show, in contradiction to your premise, that moral relativism does not entail the idea that there are no authoritative standards by which to evaluate the relative merits of any systems of morality, or sets of moral principles. This very modest point stands upon these rather modest premises:

    1. Certain principles of rationality are authoritative.

    2. The moral relativist, as such, can accept these principles of rationality as authoritative.

    3.These principles of rationality provide standards by which the relative merits of some systems of morality, and some sets of moral principles, can be evaluated.

    I really think it’s best for you to grant my modest point here. There are obvious ways to modify your claim about the limitations of moral relativism. The larger issue, recall, is your attempt to show why moral relativism is connected with placing a high priority on tolerance.

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