Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Exclusivism, etc., and Tolerance

Massimo Pigliucci has a somewhat muddled post at "Secular Philosophy" on religious tolerance. Not having read the article to which Pigliucci refers, I'm not sure whether the muddle is due to him or the article; since Pigliucci is often pretty sharp I'm going to assume that it's the article and that Pigliucci just hasn't thought through the argument completely.

The muddle comes from trying to link exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism with tolerance. This can't be done, because the former three are not positions about what can be tolerated but about the evaluation of the truth of other positions: an exclusivist holds that one and only one position is sufficiently true (i.e., is close enough to the truth, or has enough true elements); the inclusivist holds that all positions are sufficiently true (without necessarily holding that they are all equally true); and the pluralist holds that there is no one standard for determining whether a position is sufficiently true, but several lines of evaluation at which different positions might excel. What the position is held to be (or not to be) sufficiently true for, varies slightly depending on the context; it usually relates in some way to the question of how crucial it is to convert people who hold that position. (Note, incidentally, that neither the inclusivist nor the pluralist are committed to the claim that every position is equally good. The inclusivist is committed only to the claim that every position is good enough that you don't have to worry too much about them; this is consistent with holding that some of these good-enough positions are better than others. The pluralist holds that there are many standards of good-enough that have to be considered, and thus that there is no such thing as 'equally good', simpliciter. Further, note that it's possible to have one approach if one set of standards are met, and another approach if they are not. For instance, you might be inclusivist toward all positions that have feature F, but exclusivist toward all positions that don't. Indeed there are probably no absolute versions of any of these; the strictest exclusivist allows some variation and the most generous inclusivist draws the line at some point.)

And we find that these are not limited to religious believers. The bickering among atheists that you occasionally find, and that has come to greater prominence since the rise of the so-called 'New Atheism', is very often precisely an argument between those who hold an exclusivism with regard to religion (such as the New Atheists, or at least such as the New Atheists are accused of holding) and those who regard this exlusivism is poorly justified, and thus support an inclusivist or pluralist approach to religion, holding that at least some religionists are close enough to the right position that there's no point in fussing about the differences, or that some religious positions have valuable strengths that atheisms often lack, which need to be appreciated and perhaps applauded, whatever the fatal weaknesses.

Tolerance actually has nothing to do with exclusivism, inclusivism, or pluralism; you can be tolerant in all of these and you can be intolerant in all of these. You might be puzzled as to how an inclusivist could be intolerant, but there is no significant puzzle here. An inclusivist holds that of positions A, B, and C, they all are sufficiently true or good enough that it's not important to convert people; needless to say the holders of positions A, B, and C may not agree, and then the further question of how to handle their disagreement on this new issue arises; further, whether the inclusivist should be tolerant of, say, highly exclusivist and intolerant D, rises as another further question. Similarly, there is no puzzle about exclusivists being tolerant; exclusivists hold that only A is good enough, but that doesn't answer the question of what to do with people who hold B and C. That's a further question, requiring additional principles. If the principles of A require the use of only rational persuasion and generous good will as the means of converting people who hold B and C, nobody would say that A is intolerant, however exclusivist it might be. Tolerance is decided not on the basis of one's evaluation of other positions but on the basis of one's positive principles about how to act towards other people, including those in serious error; all exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism do is give us an analysis of which people, if any, are in serious error and in what ways.

Recognizing that there are plenty of forms of exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism that have nothing to do with religion might possibly require some subtle thinking, but the fact that questions of tolerance and intolerance can arise in many other areas of life than religious ones, and the fact that usually tolerance and intolerance are linked not to one's evaluation of others but to one's view of how people should be treated regardless of evaluation, should have been obvious tip-offs that the argument needed more critical examination.

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