Contested Laws and Principles
Toleration is a defining aspect of liberal thought. Although it is quite difficult to give a definition of what set of characteristics is necessary and sufficient to describe a view as liberal, one can say that any view that completely rejects the idea of toleration is not liberal. A doctrine of toleration holds that there are times when it is morally right to refrain from attempting to put a stop to some action or state of affairs that one thinks is morally wrong. It holds that there are moral reasons not to do so even when discouraging the action is feasible. Liberalism thus requires a certain kind of “bracketing” where individuals decide not to act politically on certain principles and values that they believe to be true.
It is precisely this core aspect of liberal thought that has drawn criticism because it is clear that in many cases “bracketing” is the wrong response. Michael Sandel, for example, argues that we often cannot bracket controversial moral beliefs without begging the question against those who disagree with us. Sandel gives two stark examples: debates over slavery and abortion. Before the United States Civil War, Stephen Douglas claimed that we should bracket the question of whether slavery is right or wrong and, as a nation, be neutral on the question. Each state should decide for itself and tolerate other states that come to different conclusions. Lincoln replied that it was reasonable to bracket the question of slavery's morality only if one had already decided it was not abominable. In the case of abortion, prochoice advocates claim the government should tolerate abortion, allowing each person to choose for herself just as the government allows each person to choose what religion she will follow. “But if the Catholic church is right about the moral status of the fetus, if abortion is morally tantamount to murder, then it is not clear why the political values of toleration and women's equality, important though they are, should prevail.”1 Sandel's point is not to argue against abortion but to suggest that we cannot give a coherent answer to a difficult question like this without invoking controversial beliefs.
The problem Sandel identifies is not a new one. In fact, liberalism from its earliest formulations has drawn the criticism that it begs the crucial questions.2 The problem lies in the very idea of toleration itself, as
1 Michael J. Sandel, Democracy's Discontent (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard
University, 1996), p. 21.
2 As we will see in chapter 2, this was Proast's objection against Locke.