Toleration is a virtue. But it is a puzzling one, because the whole point of it lies in putting up with some things that are immoral, offensive, erroneous, in poor taste, or in some other sense bad.
In the end the various rationales for toleration boil down to just two. The classical rationale grounds toleration on a paradox. The liberal rationale grounds it on an incoherency. One can live with paradoxes; they merely take some getting used to. But incoherency is intolerable. Let’s start there.
We owe the liberal theory, the incoherent one, to early modern thinkers who were wearied by wars of religion and ready to grasp at straws, and to contemporary thinkers who think it is unnecessary to choose among competing views of how to live. On their view, the reason we put up with some bad and false things is that we suspend judgment about what is good and true. We don’t have to know what is good to make good laws.
And there is the incoherency. Liberalism tries to get something from nothing. If we really suspended judgment about the good, then it would be hard to see what is good about toleration itself. In fact, we wouldn’t even grasp it means to practice toleration, because we couldn’t locate the mean. We would have no basis for drawing the line between bad things we should tolerate and bad things we shouldn’t.
Along with the incoherence comes something even worse. If neutrality is impossible, then no matter how it preens itself on the illusion, liberalism will never really be neutral. It will enforce its own biases, sparing itself the necessity of having to defend them by pretending that they aren’t biases at all.
Some of the results are almost comical. In matters of religious liberty, for example, liberalism follows rules concerning religions which admit that they are religions, which it does not follow concerning religions which deny that they are religions. Does this claim seem implausible? Then consider contemporary Establishment Clause jurisprudence.
According to the U.S. Supreme Court, governmental action must be thoroughly neutral, not only among different religions, but even between religion and irreligion (which isn’t what the Clause really says, but never mind). In order to promote this so-called neutrality, the Court imposes a three-pronged test. (1) The law must have a "secular" legislative purpose. (2) It must not have the principal or primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting "religion." (3) It must not foster an excessive government entanglement with "religion."
Yet because the Court denies that so-called secular systems of life and belief are religions, the way the three-pronged test actually plays out is like this: (1) A statute may not be motivated by concerns originating in the Jewish or Christian systems of life and belief, but it may be motivated by concerns arising in, say, the Queer Nation system of life and belief. (2) It must not have the principal or primary effect of advancing things that Jews and Christians believe, but it may have the principal and primary effect of advancing things that, say, Marxists believe. (3) It must not foster an excessive involvement with the institutions of Church or Synagogue, but it may foster any degree of involvement whatsoever with the institutions of, say, Planned Parenthood.
To put the problem another way, liberalism discriminates against transparency and honesty. My second grade public school teacher, who probably read the Bible, led us at lunch in giving thanks for our food. My fifth grade public school teacher, who probably read Jeremy Bentham, taught us in civics class to believe in the Greatest Happiness of the Greatest Number, which at that age, God forgive me, sounded plausible. These two pieties, biblical and utilitarian, were equally reflective of supreme commitments; they merely reflected different ones, and each one excluded the other.
To mention but a single point of difference, utilitarian morality denies that there is such a thing as an intrinsically evil act, holding that the end justifies the means; but biblical morality insists that there is such a thing as an intrinsically evil act, proclaiming that we must not do evil so that good will result. Yet what do liberals say? That the second grade teacher's piety is "religious" and has no place in the classroom, while the fifth grade teacher's piety is "non-religious" or "secular" and may stay.
If neutrality is impossible, then bias is inevitable. So what am I saying? Should laws and rules and policies embrace bias? Is bias good? Stay tuned; all will be answered next time.