Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Tolerance and Theocracy: How Liberal States Should Think of Religious States

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Tolerance and Theocracy: How Liberal States Should Think of Religious States

Article excerpt

Liberal democracies think of themselves as morally bound to respect the rights of their individual citizens. The decisions these states make, however, affect the interests of both citizens and foreigners. It is difficult to determine how the interests of foreigners might be integrated into the moral calculus constraining what a liberal state may legitimately do. The task, however, is a necessary one. In all areas of international political philosophy--from global distributive justice to the analysis of territorial sovereignty--we stand in need of more thinking about the appropriate moral status of foreign communities and persons.

The present paper is an attempt to understand what moral constraints exist on the foreign policy of a liberal state. In particular, it is an attempt to determine how considerations of toleration may constrain the policies of a liberal government towards a non-liberal--in particular, a theocratic--form of government. The foreign policy of a liberal state may support or undermine the government structure of foreign societies; it may enable or make more difficult political decisions made abroad. It is therefore appropriate for a liberal state to determine whether there are moral reasons to regard certain non-liberal states as having rights to non-interference in the perpetuation of their particular forms of government. It is appropriate, that is, to ask whether there are at least some non-liberal states that deserve to be treated with the distinctive moral attitude known as tolerance.

Before we answer this question, it is important to be clear about what is meant here by tolerance. We might distinguish between two sorts of moral reasons to avoid interference in the affairs of another state, even when that state's form of government violates rights we ourselves regard as valid and important. The first stems from such simple home truths as the need for international stability and the value of avoiding costly and fruitless international confrontation. (1) It is important to note that this sort of consideration, while it may seem at first merely a set of prudential worries, is a source of moral reasons in its own right. Undermining the stability of the international system for comparatively minor moral wrongs is not just a bad idea, but a deeply immoral one. To engage the mechanisms of international coercion--through economic sanctions or warfare--is to use tools that inevitably cause enormous human damage, in both the short and long runs. To use these tools badly, without adequate cause, is both morally and prudentially wrong. (2)

This sort of moral reason, however, should be distinguished from tolerance itself. I understand tolerance, in this paper, as a moral reason to restrain from intervening in the affairs of another party, even when that interference would be neither useless nor counterproductive. The distinctive attitude expressed by tolerance begins with the idea that we ought to forbear from interference even when we might effectively correct what we view as that other party's deep moral error. In this, what is important about tolerance is that it is compatible with a judgment that the other party truly has made an error, and that this error might be at the least made less egregious through some action on our part. Tolerance, on this view, combines a negative judgment about the other party's view with a moral reason to allow that party to continue their mistaken way; it is an expression neither of moral skepticism nor of nihilism. The attitude is found, we might think, in the case of religious believers who would refuse to coercively convert non-believers, even if such coercion might be both politically and theologically effective. (3) Tolerant religious believers, on this account, regard even mistaken religious views as generating certain rights to non-interference. The attitude of tolerance is found, more generally, wherever individuals or a political system argue that some questions--and some forms of human activity--are important enough that even the mistaken answers deserve principled respect. …

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