Equal respect versus tolerance

One of the central ideas of modern leftism is that all human beings are entitled to equal concern and respect. This is why most leftists oppose racism, sexism, ethnocentrism and homophobia.

…leftists don’t automatically see difference as a matter of status. Some groups of people recognise one set of virtues while others recognise another. Leftists want to see a society where everyone can pursue their own ideals of excellence without being judged or looked down on. This is a vision they share with many libertarians.(emphasis added)

– Don Arthur at Club Troppo.

The sentence I bolded is not, in my view, 100% right. It is an area in which leftists and libertarians will often have shared social practices, but important if sometimes subtle differences in their underlying philosophy.

Libertarianism (or classical liberalism) does not require equal respect, or even any respect, of other people’s ‘ideals of excellence’. What it requires is tolerance, the virtue of putting up with the things that you don’t like. It isn’t so much equal respect as equal indifference.

For a liberal, equal respect demands too much and more than is necessary. For passionate religious believers (and liberal ideas of toleration began with the problems they cause) it is very hard to hold other faiths in ‘equal respect’ without calling into question their own beliefs. But all it requires to tolerate them is to hold off from intimidation and violence.

Indeed, the shift from liberal tolerance to leftist acceptance, the logical result of equal concern and respect, takes us back to where we started before the idea of tolerance took hold. Tolerance challenged the idea that everyone must fit in with a common set of norms, and replaced it with the idea that everyone must abstain from certain behaviours.

The practical differences between these two views came out in the reaction to the decision to allow The Peel hotel to exclude women and straight men. The left blogs I read came down against that decision, because they think that everyone should be accepted equally. But tolerance means letting gay men have their own venues without lesbians who frighten them or straight men who won’t be attracted to them.

As I noted, leftists and liberals/libertarians often have shared social practices. Few liberals/libertarians personally have any time for ‘racism, sexism, ethnocentrism and homophobia’. But when it goes beyond hardwired characteristics to beliefs and lifestyles, there is no inherent reason why liberals/libertarians should hold off criticising other people’s ‘ideals of excellence’. Religion? Superstition. Communism? Lunacy. Living off welfare rather than looking for a job? Dole bludger. Etc Etc.

In the Millian sense, it is criticism and debate that lead to better ways of living, so a doctrine of acceptance rather than tolerance leads to dysfunctional lives, as false beliefs and bad behaviours survive unchallenged. I suspect many liberals/libertarians see this as having happened in remote Indigenous communities, with the left following its doctrine of acceptance being reluctant to criticise Indigenous culture and autonomy, despite the disastrous social conditions in the settlements.

Don’s post was about status. Liberals/libertarians would, I think, generally have a more positive view of status differences than leftists. Status differences provide incentives to do things that others value and to not do things that are not valued (including being racist, sexist, homophobic etc). There ought to be endless debate about what should and should not be valued, but status differences can be a positive force in society. Another reason not to be overly concerned with eliminating ‘inequality’.

26 thoughts on “Equal respect versus tolerance

  1. “Leftists want to see a society where everyone can pursue their own ideals of excellence without being judged or looked down on.”

    No thanks. Tolerance is fine, and good manners the icing on the cake. But we can still make jokes about tasteless cashed-up bogans, as they no doubt joke about trendy, intellectual, latte-sipping elites.

    When you read about parents who tart up their 6-year-old daughters and start them on the modelling/beauty pageant circuit, you don’t just turn the page respecting their right to pursue their particular ideal of excellence. Do you?

    In the fondly remembered 70s we lived by the slogan “Do your own thing” … but we also knew that most people needed their consciousness raised (up to ours).

    A thread on this topic should end with the late great Mama Cass singing “Make your own kind of music” – go to YouTube and type in: Mama Cass Elliot Make Your Own Kind of Music. Be amazed that anyone that size could get to the top of popular culture – only in the wonderful 70s.


  2. Andrew Norton wrote:
    Another reason not to be overly concerned with eliminating ‘inequality’.
    Surely there must be concerns that in a society built around doing things that are valued (and being rewarded for them), not being able to participate in the game is a major issue – something that liberals ought to be genuinely concerned about. Where you might see racism as as something you can tolerate, your toleration looks to me like tacit acceptance that racist behaviour may well be valued. This is something I would reject. The playing field does not need to be level, but everyone should be handed a guernsey. Otherwise, we’ll never find out who the best players were.


  3. Finding the best players is a discovery process, and a better analogy is more like a coach selecting players and strategy, not giving every player and every strategy an equal chance. There are multiple ways of winning a game, but simple observation should be that there are some definite ways to lose a game. But then it doesn’t really matter to leftists whether you win or lose, so long as you feel good about yourself, hey?

    There is no tacit approval for racism or sexism in classical liberalism or libertarianism, but a recognition that in the marketplace of ideas, racists and sexists will lose, and deserve to lose, in the long run, because their ideas are self-defeating. Employers don’t hire workers for the worker’s benefit, they do it for their own benefit, and they hire people of different race or sex for the same reason, it is a selfish act to give someone a job, not a charitable act.

    Racists and sexists lose out because they self-select to only have dealings with a vastly smaller market than non-racists and non-sexists. Where they fail to seize an opportunity, someone else will, and they will either have to overcome their prejudice or go out of business.


  4. Brendan – “But then it doesn’t really matter to leftists whether you win or lose, so long as you feel good about yourself, hey?”
    It used to be said that it didn’t matter if you won or lost, it was how you played the game. Quaint, hey?


  5. Russell, that’s a metaphor too far. Playing fairly by the rules is needed whether you win or lose. The sum of winners and losers in life is not a zero sum game, but one heavily favoured in the direction of winners.


  6. Then what IS the game? How do we judge who wins?

    Sorry, that’s too far off-topic. Back to leftists not judging – I’m afraid for Don that the evidence is over at LP, where they regularly have a thread of nothing but condemnations – just to keep in practice.


  7. “the left following its doctrine of acceptance being reluctant to criticise Indigenous culture and autonomy”

    Could be some of that, but I think the reluctance has been because it would feel like kicking someone when they’re down.


  8. The classical liberal/libertarian state could not engage in racist practices. Generally, I think the processes Brendan mentions would be enough for the rest of society, but personally I would leave open the possibility that in some cases racist practices can be so entrenched and the minority so weak (because they are too few or too poor) that measures such as anti-discrimination law would be justified in speeding the process of change along.


  9. Don can speak for himself but it seems to me that you are misrepresenting his words. He said that ‘all human beings are entitled to equal concern and respect’, which is quite a different thing from ‘equal respect, or even any respect, of other people’s ‘ideals of excellence’.’

    Don’s reference to ‘ideals of excellence’ was that everyone should be free to pursue their own ‘without being judged or looked down on’.

    In other words he’s drawn a pretty clear distinction between the person and the ideals. People are deserving of equal respect. They should be free to pursue their ideals without being regarded as personally inferior on account of them. That doesn’t mean their ideals should be respected or even tolerated, just that they should not be confused with the moral worth of the individual who professes them.

    My reservation about the notion of ‘toleration’ is its implication that the tolerator is in a superior position to whatever/whomever is being tolerated and is therefore assuming a right to judge. It’s a stance that is inherently contingent, in that the tolerator tacitly reserves the right to impose conditions for their continued toleration.

    I strive to respect the individual while vigorously contesting the ideas. I’m frequently unsuccessful 🙂 but that’s my ambition … as seems to be the case with many other bloggers of course (present company included).


  10. Ken, Andrew’s quote is “Leftists want to see a society where everyone can pursue their own ideals of excellence without being judged or looked down on” and although ‘ideals’ are debated in some circles, it’s usually by the fruits of their actions that we know, and judge, others. Perhaps in a philosophical/religious way I can respect Brian Burke, but in an ordinary sort of way I feel quite comfortable passing a verdict on the man’s character as well as his actions.


  11. Ken – I appreciate that a distinction can be made between a person and any culture/beliefs/ideas of excellence they may have (though liberalism has often been criticised on just this ground, with the claim that culture/beliefs/ideas of excellence are ‘constitutive’ of personhood). I’d also agree that the less substantive content there is to our mental model of our fellow humans, the easier neutrality becomes and the weaker the justification for any adverse treatment.

    But Don did go further – though perhaps not so far as *equal* respect – and argue that subsantive beliefs should not be judged or looked down upon. At that point, I disagree, for the reasons outlined in the post.

    Tolerance is a means of limiting power; whether the power should exist in the first place is another question. It is a practical doctrine – behaviour change can be secured quickly, whereas attitudinal change can take generations.


  12. “One of the central ideas of modern leftism is that all human beings are entitled to equal concern and respect. This is why most leftists oppose racism, sexism, ethnocentrism and homophobia.”

    Actually I find this totally untrue. Leftists are actually homophobic when it comes to gays who are not leftist. In fact there is often evidence of leftists practicing those vices mentioned when attacking political opponents. Let’s not even discuss the racist undertone directed towards the US Sec. of State for example.

    The political left couldn’t survive unless it attracted a large portion of potentially disaffected minorities. In fact the left is a broad grouping of minority interests that are at times quite contradictory.

    The political left is very good at attracting, creating minority groups and then piling them up to at times obtain electoral majorities. It’s the only way they can survive otherwise the emperor would be seen not to have any clothes.

    The current pre-election maneuvering here is a good example of what I mean

    Is there one policy coming from the left that id in any way optimistic; that is not directed to a disaffected group? Has Julia Chavez (aka Gillard) said anything positive (leaving aside honesty). She was even reported to have said that she doesn’t consider economic growth worth having without “fairness”. Fairness of course is something only Julia Chavez and her coterie would be able to figure. What an astonishing, head turning comment.

    Whether it’s economics, social or racial the left can only survive by making groups feel as thought they are minorities in some way. An individual earning $75,000 in Australia is meant to feel hard done by with the introduction of work choices.

    Poor old fat people are going to end up copping it from the left if they get into power. Fat people are one group the left seems to have little tolerance for these days. I could well imagine Mork and Mindy (Kev and Julia Chavez) standing at the front of school only allowing in kids with a 16 BMI.

    If you’re pudgy, you had better vote conservative or LDP.


  13. Ken wrote: “I strive to respect the individual while vigorously contesting the ideas.”

    Well said – this is something I strive towards as well. It should be a prerequisite for anyone making a comment on the net!

    “…the shift from liberal tolerance to leftist acceptance…” interesting.

    In relation to the last comment, there would be disagreement about the extent to which a person’s beliefs constitute their personhood, and these disagreements may not be founded in rationality, thus leading to “liberal tolerance” or “leftist acceptance” attitudes.


  14. Andrew, I wasn’t aware that many left blogs had come down against the exemption given to the Peel hotel. Seems surprising.


  15. There were quite few ,Sacha, from what i read somewhere. But it shouldn’t be that surprising seeing the left has no real understanding of private property rights.

    Affirmative action proves how intellectually dishonest the concept of discrimination is. It’s referred to as positive discrimination by the left.


  16. jc wrote:
    Fairness of course is something only Julia Chavez and her coterie would be able to figure.
    And the new policy of a “fairness test” from the Liberal party isn’t?

    That Gillard says positive things and you don’t hear them (or choose not to) is hardly her fault. It is a position that is especially humorous given the coalitions unending election campaign based on fear of union control, or “L” plates or Brian Burke.


  17. David

    1.Vote for me and I will make sure you won’t get sacked unless the’re’s a decent ranson…… is not my idea of a positive message.

    2. Vote for me and I will protect you from rapcious monsters …….is the language one uses to scare the kids.

    The things I can fault the conservatives on was that labor market liberalization should ahve been a 1/2 pager at the most with the bulk of the work writing down labor market laws. I also fault them on degrading the refroms a few weeks ago. Mostly I would say they haven’t had a message about this other than saying that the govervenment ought to butt out of the labor market, which has been changed by the left to mean “the bogeman is after you”, so vote for me. Some positive message!

    I still can’t get over the “I don’t want growth if it is unfair” routine. How about you. Some gal they have on the front bench, right?


  18. “The classical liberal/libertarian state could not engage in racist practices”

    LOL! That is incredible naivety, Andrew.

    Firstly, we are born with an evolutionarily-derived and hardwired tendency to distrust, fear and despise those not of our tribe. It takes heavy socialisation, possibly backed up by heavy legislation, to overcome that.

    Secondly, you should know enough of models of segregation to understand that systematic, widespread and socially suboptimal racism or caste systems will arise even in a society of perfectly rational optimising individuals.

    Now none of this necessarily justifies particular instances of anti-discrimination law (you have to take a case-by-case consequentialist examination), but it does mean that laissez-faire in these matters is most unlikely to lead to a tolerant liberal utopia.


  19. DD
    After the war there was a massive influx of southern Euros to Australia. There were no anti-discrimination laws to speak of then. There certainly wasn’t anything resembling Bracks blasphemy laws. We didn’t need racial protection laws to produce a successful society with an intermarriage rate of 75% we have now. We are not hard wired to distrust, fear and despise others not of our tribe if economic and political conditions are ok. If people are aware the legal system works to redress wrongs and the political system is generally free of corruption we don’t end up with the Hobbesian world you’re trying to portray.

    “Secondly, you should know enough of models of segregation to understand that systematic, widespread and socially suboptimal racism or caste systems will arise even in a society of perfectly rational optimising individuals.

    To a large extent we have a caste system primarily based on merticracy these days and not the family blue blood ties of the past. It’s based on IQ. That doesn’t change under any system.


  20. Un, no, JC.

    I won’t address the bit about hardwired fear of the “other”, because the whole history of the human race (not to mention carefully studied behaviour amongst our nearest evolutionary relatives) refutes it. But I do suggest you read Gary Becker on segregation.

    If blue-eyed people have a significantly higher crime rate and/or less education than the average, then a rational employer (who has imperfect knowledge of individual job applicants because information costs), will prefer non blue-eyes. But that discrimination changes the payoff to differing behaviours for the blue-eyed – crime pays more relative to honest jobs, and (above all) the payoff to investment in human capital becomes lower. Which leads to more crime and less education for blue-eyes, which leads to more discrimination …. etc. The consequent segregated society is less rich (not to mention much nastier) than one without segregation, but it has come about with every person in it rationally pursuing their self-interest.

    Economics, JC, has developed a little beyond Adam Smith’s invisible hand (in fact, of course, Adam Smith developed a bit beyond that too).


  21. DD,

    In a rational world, a blued eyed person would simply be paid less because of the higher risk they represent. Current minimum wage and anti-discrimination laws simply mean that this person remains unemployed (or underemployed) because an employer can’t pay them a fair market rate (which is below that for non-blue eyed people) and sanction for discrimination in the workplace against the blue eyed provides a disincentive. As a group, the blue eyed would remain under-employed and they would be unable to overcome the discrimination (fair or otherwise) against them by demonstrating their worth.

    Ok, the legislation is not the reason, a mixture of the irrational aversion to blue-eyed people and the rational fear of crime (properly weighted for risk), combined the cycle of reinforcement that you describe got us to where we are. However, the legislation does provide an additional barrier to overcome, one that is counter-productive in acheiving the goals it seeks.

    Minimum wage seeks to protect employed people from exploitation. It does nothing to protect unemployed people from idleness.

    Anti-discrimination legislation provides sanctions against legislation, providing disincentives to employers from employing minorities lest they expose themselves to the risk that their current employees are prejudiced and themselves to the sanction as employers for the prejudice of their employees or customers.


  22. Even accepting your argument about the disemployment effects of the minimum wage, Brendan, it doesn’t change the argument one whit. Whether decisions about the relative payoffs of crime and education to honest work are made on the basis of the risk of unemployment or on the basis of the certainty of lower wages doesn’t change things at all (the expected utilities come out the same).

    I used, long ago, to be an opponent of antidiscrimination laws (I thought they’d be easily evaded and therefore useless, and if hard to evade they’d be counterproductive in the way you said). Exposure to the real world in a hiring agency changed that.

    They are indeed easy to evade (contrary to right-wing myth you’d have to be a very stupid employer to have a successful case brought against you), but the simple effort of avoiding overtly racist language or finding a pretext to avoid interviewing a woman for the job had a surprisingly powerful educative effect – it caused employers to ask themselves “well, why not a woman?”.

    You can certainly overdo antidiscrimination laws, but I reckon they have a useful role to play in helping to break the vicious cycle I just referred to.


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