Thursday, 16 November 2017
Monday, 18 May 2015
This is the first in what will be a new series of Blogs from the Morrell Centre for Toleration (it is written in a personal capacity).
The Morrell Centre for Toleration exists to “increase the philosophical and historical understanding an appreciation of toleration as an idea and practice”. In future Blog posts, I hope to alert readers to new literature and debates and to discuss issues related to this purpose. What prompts this Blog is the use of the concept of “toleration” by the Prime Minister followed by comments by the Home Secretary. I won’t be discussing the content of what they propose – though I have views about that, which may well follow in a separate piece – but rather their use of the term “toleration” and what they might mean.
David Cameron’s speech is not available in full, but he is reported as saying
For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone. It’s often meant we have stood neutral between different values. And that’s helped foster a narrative of extremism and grievance. This government will conclusively turn the page on this failed approach. As the party of one nation, we will govern as one nation… That means actively promoting certain values. Freedom of speech. Freedom of worship. Democracy. The rule of law. Equal rights regardless of race, gender or sexuality.
The first question is, what is a passively tolerant society? Presumably, it is not to be understood by reference to its opposite: an actively tolerant one. David Cameron seems to want less toleration, not more.
The first gloss offered – that we should do more than say as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone – does not help. The law, social norms, and other forms of regulation set out what citizens can expect the state and other citizens to tolerate (this is not an uncontroversial view of toleration).
I can wear a loud shirt in a built up area and expect others – not matter how much they disapprove – to tolerate my doing so. I can reprimand my child or my dog in public in some ways of which others might disapprove, but insofar as I keep within the law, I can expect to be tolerated. And that’s the point: if David Cameron wants to introduce new legislation, which he clearly does, what he will do is make more things subject to legal regulation.
Let us suppose that legislation is brought forward to allow so-called “banning orders” on organisations that seek to “radicalise” people. Stay within the law – be an organisation that is recognised as seeking to inform, but not to radicalise – and you’ll be “left alone”. Of course, in practice the law is likely to be vague and things will not be easy, but Mr Cameron cannot be suggesting that legal sanctions could simply fall on people who are accepted as “obeying the law” (of course, legal sanctions fall on many people who are in fact obeying the law, but are not believed to be or who it is convenient for the state to treat as if they are not, but that is another matter).
What, then, of the second gloss? This seems to be a version of the quip that a liberal is someone who does not take his/her own side in an argument. We have been neutral between values; we have not promoted our (right) values – freedom of speech and of worship, democracy, the rule of law, equal rights, and so on – and that this is what it is to be “passively tolerant”. What is more, such passive tolerance has left a space for “extremism and grievance”.
The connection to grievance is hard to see, but is there any merit in the claim that tolerance leads to neutrality when it comes to values; a neutrality that in turn leaves a vacuum in the public sphere that can be filled by extremism?
To tolerate something is roughly to forebear from interfering in some practice that one judges objectionable when one has the power to interfere. Nothing in that suggests that promoting freedom and democracy is inconsistent with being tolerant unless promoting those things interferes in practices that lie within the limits of toleration.
Is there any reason to believe that the promotion of those values threatens practices or ways of life that ought to be tolerated? Insisting on “equal rights regardless of race, gender or sexuality” might do if it was enforced as it reads, but this Government is not about to insist that the Catholic Church appoint women priests or, for that matter, that the Garrick Club allow women members.
Perhaps the feeling is that we have been reluctant to promote those values even when the threatened practice ought not to be tolerated. That we have “turned a blind eye” to practices such a female genital mutilation or domestic violence in certain communities. And, that this permissiveness has left space for others.
If so, this is a failure, but it is not a failure of tolerance. Some things ought not to be tolerated – many more things ought to be – and it is a matter of justice and democratic politics to decide where the boundaries lie. In a liberal democratic society, we ought to tolerate people whose beliefs we find deeply objectionable, but we ought not to tolerate it when they act in ways that are contrary to just and legitimate laws. Think what you like, but obey the law and the state should leave you alone.
Interestingly, sent into the media studios to explain David Cameron’s speech, the Home Secretary Theresa May explained that “this government will challenge those who seek to spread hatred and intolerance” and that we needed to be more positive about the values that unite us: “things like democracy,… a belief in tolerance for other people, equality, an acceptance of other people’s faiths and religions.”
For Theresa May, then – and I suspect for David Cameron – it is passivity (not being positive enough about liberal values) that is the failing. Tolerance is a virtue to be celebrated. One should take comfort in that, but at a time when across the world people are being killed for their beliefs, condemning “tolerance” – even if in an unintelligible phrase like “passive tolerance” – is dangerous.
That leaves the question of whether there is space for both tolerance and the Government’s understanding that being “positive” requires introducing new laws to control its citizens. That is something for another Blog once the proposed legislation is clearer.
Wednesday, 29 January 2014
In Barack Obama’s recent state of the union address he promised decisive action to address inequality. He promised to expand opportunity for more American families and to build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class. “What I believe unites the people of this nation ... is the simple, profound belief in opportunity for all - the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead” he said. This idea is one that resonates far beyond the USA. Indeed, it is strikingly similar to how some Conservative members of the British government present their mission: as “rebuilding the economy for those who work hard and play by the rules”. The core idea is simple and fairly clear: Any citizen should secure a good standard of living if they work hard and obey the law. Let’s call this Our Ideal.
I believe ours is a sound ideal and if it were better realized in the US and UK they would be much fairer places. However, there are two aspects of Our Ideal that we may find somewhat surprising. First, Our Ideal is not robustly egalitarian since its realization is compatible with huge inequalities. Instead, it aims at making people sufficiently well-off. To illustrate this point, imagine Bert and Ernie. Bert earns a decent living as a nurse and Ernie is a stockbroker who earns one hundred times as much. Both work hard. Both obey the law. Both earn a decent living. Many egalitarians would find this inequality unfair, but it cannot be condemned by Our Ideal.
Second, though not robustly egalitarian it is an ideal of ‘equality of opportunity’. It specifies the obstacles (unwillingness to work hard or obey the law) that may legitimately obstruct citizens’ from obtaining some good (a decent standard of living). Citizens have an opportunity for that good since they can work hard and obey the law or not. The good is neither unachievable nor guaranteed. However, Our Ideal has very radical implications of which our politicians may not be aware.
In societies like ours there aren’t enough decent jobs for everyone who is qualified, let alone everyone who works hard and obeys the law. Instead, co-citizens compete with one another to secure jobs that are necessary for most of us to secure a decent standard of living. When there are more hard-working law-abiders than jobs, some of them inevitably miss out what Our Ideal states is rightly theirs. Our Ideal cannot easily be reconciled with this competitive model of job allocation.
Our Ideal requires a radically different type of economy; an economy in which either i) anyone can secure a well-paid job if they are law-abiding and hard-working or ii) there are significant unemployment benefits for hard-working law-abiders who can’t get work due to the market. I take it that the best route to realizing ‘Our Ideal’ is to ensure that people are in work rather than on welfare. If we are serious about ‘Our Ideal’ then there are at least two things we can do.
First, we need to ensure there are enough jobs for every hard-working law-abider. This requires an increase in the supply of jobs. To achieve this government could become an employer of last resort or make it easier for those in well-paid jobs to decrease their hours without sacrificing a decent wage. The following example provides some illustration. Some people in very well-paid jobs may prefer to have free time and work half the hours for half the pay. Another person, who would otherwise be out of work, would likely be willing to work the remaining hours. If every well-paid job was like this, and if individuals could be adequately trained, this proposal would effectively double those well-paid jobs. Second, these jobs must pay enough to meet the decent standard of living. This could be achieved by increasing the minimum wage or by reducing the costs of having a decent standard of living. Because purchasing power fluctuates, wages must keep up with inflation and the cost of a decent standard of living. Alternatively, tax credits or transfers for those paid less than the minimum wage would have the same effect.
There may be some pleasant side-effects of pursuing Our Ideal. Rather than competing with one another for jobs and a decent standard of life, depending for our success on others’ failure, we might view one another in a different way, and see our own success as compatible with, rather than opposed to, their success. For when there is a scarcity of jobs we view our fellow citizens as a threat, rather than a compliment, to our own good. This new relationship might help arrest growing alienation from politics and society in general, especially among young people.
I draw on ideas in the following articles and books:
Paul Gomberg, How to Make Opportunity Equal: Race and Contributive Justice, 2007, Blackwell.
Julie Rose, "Money Does Not Guarantee Time: Discretionary Time as a Distinct Object of Distributive Justice." Journal of Political Philosophy (2013).
Peter Westen, "The concept of equal opportunity", Ethics 95.4 (1985): 837-850.
Dr Liam Shields is a Post-doctoral Researcher at the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society at Stanford Universit, working on a Spencer Funded Project on Equality of Opportunity in Education. Dr Shields also holds a faculty position in Politics at the University of Manchester, UK. He is an alumnus of the University of York, where he read for the MA in Political Philosophy (The Idea of Toleration) in 2008-9, funded by a scholarship from the C & JB Morrell Trust.
Liam Shields tweets at @PhilosopherLiam
Anyone interested in applying for a Morrell Trust scholarship for MA studies at the University of York in 2014-15, should consult these pages:
Tuesday, 4 December 2012
Friday, 12 October 2012
|Professor Sue Mendus|