The Difficulty of Tolerance: Essays in Political Philosophy

By T. M. Scanlon | Go to book overview

Introduction

The essays collected here are concerned with the standards by which political, legal, and economic institutions should be assessed. One obvious standard is the degree to which these institutions promote human well-being. But it is also relevant to ask whether institutions are just and whether they respect the rights of individuals. The tension between these two forms of assessment is a central theme in these essays. In order to understand this tension, and decide how to respond to it, several things are required. The first is a better understanding of the idea of well-being and of the ways in which it comes to have moral significance. The second is a deeper understanding of notions such as rights, justice, liberty, and equality, which seem to be, at least potentially, in conflict with the goal of well-being. To what degree are these notions themselves best understood and justified in terms of well-being? Insofar as they are not to be understood in this way, how is their moral force to be explained? The following essays are devoted to these tasks. My aim is not to eliminate this tension—that would be impossible— but to make it less puzzling by placing the notions it involves within a common moral framework. In the case of rights, I believe that the tension is best understood not as arising between rights and well-being, seen as entirely independent and potentially conflicting moral ideas, but rather as a tension that arises within our understanding of rights themselves.

Freedom of expression provides a good example of this tension. The right of free expression would be easy to defend, but pointless, if it applied only to expression that has no serious consequences. It does its work, and our commitment to it is put to the test, by expression that threatens to cause serious harm by, for example, fomenting political unrest or by revealing information that is deemed crucial to national security. So some explanation needs to be given of how it can be wrong for governments to prevent these harms by barring the expression that will lead to them. In “A Theory of Freedom of Expression” (essay 1), I attempted to respond to this challenge. The central component of that article is what I called the

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