This is Part IV in a series from a chapter of Rocco Buttiglione's book Exiting a Dead End Road: a GPS for Christians in Public Discourse, published by Kairos Publications in Vienna, and edited by Gudrun and Martin Kugler. The book can be ordered here. Part I is here. Part II is here and Part III is here.
Freedom and tolerance
The idea of tolerance is directly connected to the idea of freedom. Man must seek truth in order to be a man but must be free from external coercion in order to be able to search for truth. The lesser freedom is an unavoidable presupposition for the greater freedom. If I am compelled to act according to freedom, because of the pressure brought to bear on me by an external power, then I am not a free subject but a slave.
A world in which people obey the objective truth because of fear and not because of intelligence and love, would not resemble paradise but rather hell. I am bound to act, moreover, according to the truth I have freely recognized. This means that I must obey my conscience, even in case that it be wrong. What is typical of our age is not the fact that we hold as true a lot of false presuppositions. This happens more or less in all historical epochs. What characterizes our current crisis is rather the fact that many of us use their lesser freedom in order to disengage from the moral duty of searching for truth. We think that there is no truth and it is not worth the while to search for something that does not exist. We cannot, of course, coerce the lesser freedom of others in order to compel them to be free according to the greater freedom. The only way open for a recovery of our civilization is the way of witness.
This means that we must tolerate error in order not to destroy freedom. Tolerance is the simple recognition of the fact that I cannot think truth in the place of another. I can help another to discover truth through argumentation, example and witness but I cannot recognize truth in her or his stead.
In an age, however, in which the idea of truth seems to have been abolished, some may argue that this is not enough. We are required not to be judgmental, that is not to pass any judgment since the distinction of good and evil seems to have been obliterated and has lost its firm foundation in the nature of things. This leads to a kind of tolerance that is different from the one I have explained on the basis of the nature of truth. One is not satisfied with the fact that I recognize his right to error. He does not recognize the right of someone else to think and say that he is wrong. Any judgment based on the presumption of the existence of an objective truth must be excluded from the public square and those who uphold such judgments are labeled as enemies of democracy.
It is apparent that this pretension is self-defeating. If there is no objective truth I have the right to my private truth but since there is only one world in which we all live I have also the right to impose this truth on others, if I have a chance to do it and if the balance of power is in my favor.
The very expression “right” is misplaced in this context. The lion does not have a “right” to kill a gazelle. It just does it. A world without truth is a world where the words right and wrong have become devoid of meaning. It never occurs, however, that a supporter of moral relativism really thinks his or her intellectual stands coherently up to the last consequences, since this is really untenable in real life.
In current cultural and philosophical discussion the aggressive side of moral relativism is usually set aside to concentrate on the pretension that the non-relativist has an inner drive towards the repression of the freedom of those who do not stand in agreement with him/her. We have already explained why this is not the case. The respect for the freedom of the other is a consequence of the reverence for the dignity of the person. I do not need to doubt my convictions to recognize your right to hold a dissenting opinion. It is enough to know that God wants you to come to truth through a free act of your conscience. If I do not have the right to compel, to coerce, to threaten the dissenters, I nevertheless have the right to argue with them and to try to convince them.
In the new mood of moral relativism this is not allowed and is considered as an intolerable offence. I am ready to accept, for example, that nobody has a right to compel gay people to change their sexual preferences or to mistreat them for this reason but I am also convinced that I have a right to think that homosexuality is intrinsically wrong and to argue this conviction in the public debate.
Two visions of tolerance
We therefore have two visions of tolerance. One concerns a tolerance without truth. We have already seen how contradictory this concept is. In one possible formulation this may exclude tolerance, in another it implies a prohibition to discuss the behavior of others. A new categorical imperative substitutes the old Kantian ones: the norm of your action must be to collude with the pretension of the other of being not what she or he is but what he fancies to be. There is a bridge between the two possible versions of the principle of tolerance in a society without truth. This bridge is the principle of self preservation and the desire to avoid conflicts that might expose this self preservation to danger. The imperative of the new science of morals is changed thus: collude with the pretension of those who hold enough power to impose their view of things and their interests.
The opinion of a grown up who pretends the unborn baby is just a piece of flesh colludes with the position of the child who pretends (although he cannot articulate this thought) to be a human being. If there is no objective truth then force takes the place of truth and those who are more powerful also possess a larger share of truth.
If we connect the idea of tolerance with the idea of truth we have a completely different outcome. Truth exists although I do not possess it and can see it only “as in a mirror”. I have the duty to tell the truth I have seen in order to help others to live in the truth. I must always be open to the possibility that others have seen sides and aspects of truth that I have not seen and must be ready to incorporate them in my vision of truth. I must never forget that truth is one but that there are many avenues leading to truth and, in one sense, each human being has her or his personal alley of truth. I must respect the conscience in good faith of the other even in case that she/he errs. And I must always remember that I can judge only facts but not persons and their conscience.
I can say: this action is good and this action is bad. I can never say: this man is (absolutely) good or this man is (absolutely) bad. Action has an exterior side that I can judge but also an interior side in the conscience of the person that only God can judge. But I have a right and a duty to pass a judgment on actions.
If we deprive the human being of this right we perform an amputation of the moral dimension of his life. We dehumanize her or him.
Gay activists do not grant me the right to think that homosexuality is intrinsically wrong and to argue this conviction in the public debate. They are not tolerant because they are not motivated by reason in search of the truth. They attempt to aggressively amputate what they term "homophobia" but which is more often moral conviction.