Subjectivism and the Ethics of Tolerance

“Moral judgement and condemnation is the favourite
form of revenge of the spiritually limited on the less so.”
-Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

It seems that, these days, one of the most pressing concerns for any ethical person must be tolerance. More than anything else, this appears to be a way to distance oneself from the dogmatism, bigotry, and closed-mindedness which has characterized much of our intellectual past. (I shall purposefully leave that assertion as a vague generalization.)
This is certainly a promising development in its own right. It does seem obvious that tolerance should be a part of any comprehensive ethical philosophy. Strangely, however, this tendency towards tolerance has led many people towards one ethical philosophy in particular: subjectivism.

Ethical subjectivism, for those unfamiliar with the term, refers to the belief that no morally-connotative language actually refers to objective reality. Rather, in the view of subjectivists, moral statements are merely statements about our own opinions, and have no relevance to anyone but ourselves. Moreover, this means that, when it comes to ideas of what is good and bad, everyone is right and no one is wrong.

The notion of nobody being wrong certainly does seem like the very epitome of tolerance, at least at first glance. After all, if we accept ethical subjectivism, we are never put in the position of judging another person’s moral beliefs. This is what makes it attractive to those who wish to be tolerant: ethical subjectivism is fundamentally non-judgmental.

However, it is often the case in philosophy that the conclusion with the greatest prima facie appeal is not the one which stands up to deep examination. I believe that the equation of ethical subjectivism with tolerance — and, implicitly, of ethical realism with in-tolerance — is one of these cases.

In order to demonstrate why this is so, we must begin with a more detailed examination of what constitutes tolerance itself. Should a tolerant person really accept the proposition that everyone is always right, and nobody ever wrong, when it comes to morality?

This is where it becomes necessary to differentiate between two very different kinds of tolerance: tolerance of views, and tolerance of people. It is possible to tolerate a person, but not accept his or her beliefs. This kind of view is best, and perhaps most famously, summarized by a quote: “I do not believe a word you say, but will fight to the death for your right to say it.” One can validly recognize that another human being is intelligent and moral, and at the same time boldly state that their views are completely and utterly mistaken.

For this reason, tolerance does not necessitate subjectivism. We can accept that people may be right or wrong in their ideas of morality, and yet tolerate them as people in any case.

But ethical subjectivists do have a good point to make here. Under ethical realism, actions are (objectively) right or wrong — doesn’t this also make people objectively good or bad, depending on their actions? For example, if an ethical realist accepted the proposition “murder is wrong”, then wouldn’t he be forced to condemn murderers as people?

The answer is yes. This, however, just seems to raise a still more important issue: should there be a limit to tolerance? It certainly seems obvious that there should. Take any case where people have been truly and deeply evil — such as, say, the Nazis in World War II (ever a useful analogy in moral philosophy!). Ought we to be tolerant of those who would presume to exterminate millions? Ought one to say merely “well, that’s their opinion, so why should we argue”?

This is, in fact, one of the fundamental problems with accepting ethical subjectivism. Certainly, its apparent maxim of universal tolerance appeals to our moral intuitions — but at the same time, it takes this so far as to make us accept things which are extremely counter-intuitive. (I, for one, would have difficulty imagining a proposition more counter-intuitive than “Hitler was a good man who just had a different opinion about morality”!)

Of couse, a die-hard ethical subjectivist can always scoff at this. Perhaps, in condemning Hitler, I really am just being intolerant and closed-minded. Perhaps, in condemning other people based on their moral paradigms, ethical realists are really committing a supreme immorality themselves — as Nietzsche puts it, “the revenge of the spiritually limited on the less so.” Or so the subjectivist response might go.

But wait a moment. What on earth could such responses mean? How can ethical subjectivists say that people ought to be tolerant, when that position categorically denies that moral statements have any applicability to objective reality? This brings up my most important point against ethical subjectivism as a “tolerant” philosophy: under subjectivism, tolerance itself is not really a virtue!

Indeed, for anyone to consistently accept ethical subjectivism, they must deny that anybody ought to do anything. There is, in this moral philosophy, no reason to be tolerant in the first place — if a person is tolerant, it is just because that happens to be his or her arbitrary and meaningless personal opinion. A person who becomes an ethical subjectivist out of a desire to be tolerant, then, at the same time accepts that tolerance itself is ultimately valueless.

Hence, the argument that any tolerant person must accept subjectivism must be false, because the notion that people ought to be tolerant is itself inconsistent with subjectivism. Now, this does not disprove ethical subjectivism, per se. But it does remove one of the most popular motivations people have for choosing it as an ethical philosophy. What motivations might remain? That, I cannot say — and will not presume to speculate.

by Mike Hardie, 1998. All Rights Reserved.


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