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Sunday, November 22, 2015


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Hi Bill,

Thanks for this response. I should say that we have many points of agreement.

         "I pointed out that values could be universal without being universally recognized."

No argument there. And your ameoba example reinforces a very important point, namely that it is not necessary for a being to form a conscious representation or understanding of a value in order to -- what's the right word? instantiate? possess? -- it.

        "Is it also true that if there are universal values, then they are objective? I don't think so. It may well be that some values are universal despite their being non-objective."

Agreed. This is a good and clarifying distinction, and one I didn't think to make.

        "What I am going to argue is that, even if one were to concede what I don't concede, namely, that there are no objective values, it still would not follow that that there are no universal values."

In light of the distinction above, I have no disagreement with this.

        "I claim that there are some objective values. Malcolm claims that there are no objective values."

Just to be clear, I do not dispute that there are objective facts about values. In particular, I think it's objectively true that certain beings possess certain values. (That may be a trivial and obvious point, but I thought I should make it anyway.)

        "Open inquiry I take to be an example of a Western value. Inquiry is open to the extent that it is not interfered with by religious or political authorities. The value of open inquiry presupposes the values of knowledge and truth. Inquiry is a value because knowledge is a value, and knowledge is a value because truth is a value."

More on that shortly.

        "An axiological theory like this involves two steps. The first step relativizes value claims. The second step provides a naturalistic reduction of them.

First, sentences of the form 'X is good (evil)' are construed as elliptical for sentences of the form 'X is good (evil) for Y.' Accordingly, to say that X is good (evil) but X is not good (evil) for some Y would then be like saying that Tom is married but there is no one to whom Tom is married.

The second step is to cash out axiological predicates in naturalistic terms. Thus,

D1. X has value for Y =df X satisfies Y's actual wants (needs, desires)

D2. X has disvalue for Y =df X frustrates Y's actual wants (needs, desires).

It is clear that on this theory value and disvalue are not being made relative to what anyone says or opines, but to certain hard facts, objective facts, about the wants, needs, and desires of living beings. That we need water to live is an objective fact about us, a fact independent of what anyone says or believes. Water cannot have value except for beings who need or want it; but that it does have value for such beings is an objective fact.

The needs of fish and the needs of cats are objective facts about fish and cats respectively; but the value of being totally immersed in water at all times is a value only for fish, not for cats. It follows on the axiological theory we are considering that values are relative: they are relative to the needs and interests of evaluators."

Splendid clarity here. Thank you; this is exactly how I understand this.

        "Does it follow from this that no value is universal? No."

I must agree with this also. The point of my post, correctly stated, ought to have been that there are many values that are not universal. This is what the cat/fish example was intended to demonstrate. I did not intend to make the claim (nor did I make it, I think) that NO values are universal. (Indeed, I did, in the comments, offer a list of values that the anthropologist Donald Brown called "human universals", although of course those "universals" still might not cover fishes or cats).

        "As for truth, we presumably agree as to the first-order claim that truth has value."

Here I feel the need to apply the brakes a bit. I do agree that truth, ceteris paribus, has value, and of course we can easily imagine a thousand ways in which ignorance of the truth can harm us. We can also see with our own eyes the ongoing and extremely harmful effects of the denial of very important truths by Western leaders, and by the Left in general. (The Left, of course, says the same about the Right.) But does it follow that all truths always have value, under all circumstances, for all people? Might it not be that there are some things it is of value for humans to believe, and for human societies to foster belief in, regardless of their truth-value? Might it not be the case that there are some truths we are better off not knowing?

Finally, this:

        "The values of the West are universal values."

Are they? As my dear departed mum might have said, "I hae me doots." What are the Western "values" in ascendance today? What are the values Barack Obama might have had in mind when he spoke of "universal values that we all share"? Multiculturalism? Secularism? Radical non-discrimination? Bottomless self-definition that overrides even the most obvious natural categories? Same-sex marriage? The "right" to abort 55 million pregnancies since 1973? Do these foster human flourishing, or a brief interval of hedonistic anomie, followed by extinction?

Likewise for systems of government. Might it not be the case that human groups differ enough in their innate behavioral and cognitive qualities that some will flourish under democracy, while others live more happily or productively under monarchs or even despots?

The question, then, I think, is not whether some values may indeed be universal, but rather: for any value we choose to examine, what is its range? For what subset of beings is it, in fact, a positive value? For some values, such as having a source of energy, the range is all living things. For others, such as having online access to the complete works of Valerie Solanas, the range may be very limited indeed.

It seems to me that there are some serious criticisms of the view that all values are relative and non-objective. Below are a few (apologies for the long post):

First, if all values are relative to (mundane) beings with needs, desires, and interests, and are thus non-objective, then the state of affairs of a fish being immersed in water, or of a human person possessing truth, is not itself a matter of objective value. The flourishing of living beings (individually or collectively) is not a matter of objective value because there is no such thing. Further, the fish itself and the human himself have no objective value.

Second, if there is no objective value, then there is no objective way to rank or evaluate relative, non-objective values. No particular non-objective value can have any objective axiological priority over another non-objective value. The well-being of the fish is neither more nor less objectively valuable than the well-being of the human person. The well-being of the earthworm and of the cockroach have no objective value-priority relation to that of the fish and the human person. The well-being of each is a matter of merely relative, non-objective value.

Consider a culture which esteems truth, free inquiry, rationality, toleration, and benevolence. These values, if relative and non-objective, are no higher (objectively speaking) than are those of a culture that esteems falsehood, inquiry suppression, irrationality, intolerance, and malevolence. While it may be objectively true that human beings need truth, free inquiry, etc., there is no objective value in humans actually possessing these needed things.

Third, if all values are relative to (mundane) beings with needs, desires, and interests, and are thus non-objective, then there is no such thing as objective moral reform. Moral reformers are really just exchangers of non-objective values. They do not advocate objective moral improvement, but only non-objective value switching.

Fourth, if there are no objective values, then love (goodwill) and wisdom are not objective virtues and hatred and folly are not objective vices, and our moral intuitions on these matters (e.g., that they are objectively significant) are false.

Also, it seems to me, the belief that a being "needs" something (e.g., water, truth, freedom) rests on the assumption that there is a way that the being objectively ought to exist and to function, and that this objective oughtness is an objective value (i.e., a value fact, an objective fact about what ought to be).

You write:

"The message we need to convey to the Muslims and to the leftists who will listen is not that Western values are superior because they are Western but that they are best conducive to everyone's flourishing even that of Muslims and leftists. We have to convince them that we are not out to foist 'our' values on them, but to get them to recognize values that are valid for all."

Here it might be worth considering a point that you've made about the naive idea that we just need more dialogue: sometimes there simply is not enough common ground for any fruitful dialogue, and what we need instead is separation. Leftism and Islam are religions. We aren't going to convince these people. What we can do, and should do, is to say to them: "You guys want to live in a certain kind of world, and we just fundamentally reject that kind of world. We just don't want to live that way, and we don't want our kids to have to grow up in that kind of world. So we want to be left alone. We want a divorce."

Notice that they don't try to convince us. They ridicule, shame and demonize us. They use the courts and the schools and the media to indoctrinate our children and destroy any dissenter. And it gets ever worse. Nowadays, someone who is mildly critical of affirmative action or mass immigration -- views that were mainstream 'conservative' positions 20 years ago -- is treated like a neo-Nazi. Their end-game is to reduce all opposition to Nazism and -- though many of them don't yet see it -- the logic of this discourse is that all conservatives will in the end be dealt with the same way the real Nazis were dealt with. There is no "conversation", or only a one-sided one. Right now they have the power and we don't. They will keep fighting us by any means available, and we shouldn't be wasting our time trying to persuade them. Alinskyites or Black Lives Matter activists are just enemies, as much as Muslim fanatics. More so, perhaps. Our best strategy is to use whatever power we have, while we still have some, in order to get away from them. We aren't even going to convince them that we have a moral right to do that. They don't care about our rights, because in their eyes we are evil oppressors. But they might just fear us enough, for now, that they'd make a deal.

In other words, we should give up trying to convince them that 'our' values are universal -- even if some might well be -- and insist first of all that they really are *our* values, that *we* exist as a big human group with its own distinctive interests and the political will to pursue our interests. Sadly, many conservatives are still caught up in the delusion that there is a "western" civilization that they share with their Leftist peers. It's time to recognize that the "west" is now radically divided within itself. If the old west can be preserved, the first step is to acknowledge the division and distinguish between us and them. As they have been distinguishing for decades. If we could separate, then maybe we could have a real conversation. They would have to live with the consequences of their own perverted 'values', and they wouldn't be able to blame it on us anymore. We would be self-sufficient, and we wouldn't have to try so hard to frame our arguments in terms that they can accept. But separation of some kind comes first. Without separation, it's just a low-level civil war that we are losing badly.

Actually, the very first step is to convince *other conservatives* that this is our real situation, that they face an ultimate choice between separation and the destruction of everything they care about. If enough of us get the message, then *we* begin to exist as a real community and a real alternative to the Leftist community.


Most of your points I agree with, but you may be missing my 'dialectical strategy.'

If I want to convince somebody of something, my chance of success is greater if I put myself on his ground and argue from premises he accepts. Even then it is very difficult to get anyone to change his view. If I argue from premises my opponent rejects, then my chances of convincing him, though non-zero, are very close to zero.

>>Also, it seems to me, the belief that a being "needs" something (e.g., water, truth, freedom) rests on the assumption that there is a way that the being objectively ought to exist and to function, and that this objective oughtness is an objective value (i.e., a value fact, an objective fact about what ought to be).<<

This seems to beg the question. Why can't it just be a fact about us that we need such-and-such to exist?

If value consists in the satisfaction of need, then, as you clearly appreciate, neither the objects of need nor the needs themselves can be axiologically ordered as to more or less valuable.

You seem to take this as a reductio ad absurdum, but the opponent may just 'bite the bullet.' One man's modus ponens is another man's modus tollens.


That is a rich and fascinating response. While I agree with much of it, I really hope things are not as bad as you make them out to be. But what I hope is not really to the point, is it?

Is leftism a religion? If we are careful in our use of language as I believe we philosophers ought to be, then leftism is not a religion. See here:

>> Sadly, many conservatives are still caught up in the delusion that there is a "western" civilization that they share with their Leftist peers. It's time to recognize that the "west" is now radically divided within itself. If the old west can be preserved, the first step is to acknowledge the division and distinguish between us and them. As they have been distinguishing for decades. If we could separate, then maybe we could have a real conversation. They would have to live with the consequences of their own perverted 'values', and they wouldn't be able to blame it on us anymore. We would be self-sufficient, and we wouldn't have to try so hard to frame our arguments in terms that they can accept. But separation of some kind comes first. Without separation, it's just a low-level civil war that we are losing badly.<<

One issue here is severely practical. How implement separation? By secession of a state or a province such as Quebec? Secession, at least down here, is not going to happen. It's just talk. A return to what we call federalism? That is possible. Formation of parallel institutions such as our own schools (of course we already have some).

So what do you have in mind concretely?

The West has always been riven by tensions. One that especially fascinates me is that between Athens and Jerusalem. I have argued that this particular tension is a fruitful one that is in part responsible for the health of the West, and that the lack of any real philosophy in recent centuries in the Islamic world is partly to blame for its inanition.

Do you mean to say that we have nothing in common with leftists? Don't we all agree that slavery is morally repugnant? Don't we all agree on the value of equality before the law?

I was about to say: don't we all agree on the importance of freedom of expression? But here I hesitate: recent events suggest that lefties are willing to junk it for their agenda.

Should we really despair in the ability of so many of our fellow citizens to think straight?

I say the three main threats in order of nastiness are: Islamic terrorism, leftism, scientism. 'Climate change' doesn't make the cut.

Hi Bill,
In my view the biggest threat is not Islam, but Leftism. If the Left were not in control of pretty much everything, Islam would have no significant presence in the west. Leftists imported Islam in the hope that it would further undermine Christianity and all other traditional western values and institutions.

I'm sure that there are some highly abstract 'values' that we share with the Left (and Islam too). But when it comes down to any important questions about how these are to be implemented in practice, the disagreements are very deep. Consider your most striking example: the belief that slavery is wrong. Do Leftists *really* believe that it is? I don't think so. If they did, they would be just as morally indignant about slavery when practiced by Africans or Muslims or immigrants to the west -- or when tens of thousands of white Christian Europeans were enslaved by Muslims -- as they are when they get going for the zillionth time about American slavery. But in fact they seem not to care about any kind of slavery except the kind that was briefly practiced in some American states. Point out to them that it continues in other places right now, and they'll start rationalizing and excusing. A leftist friend once told me that historical African slavery was just totally different from the kind that white Europeans practiced -- the slaves were 'integrated' into the community, etc. And when I pointed out that in early American slavery many slaves were treated well, were able to get educations or buy their freedom, that did nothing to change her views.

Same goes for a host of other issues, such as women's rights. Why was it so terrible that in the past western women were expected to dress modestly and be chaste, while it's perfectly fine that nowadays Muslim women are held to gender norms that are far more demanding and brutally enforced? Why was it so terrible that white Christians conquered North America and taught their religion to the natives, but perfectly fine that Muslims did the same in the Middle East or North Africa? (The Middle East is 'theirs', but North America isn't really 'ours', even though all that real estate was acquired in the same way.) If you criticize the misogyny and patriarchy or imperialism of the Islamic world, Leftists will say you're a 'racist' or whatever. Likewise they champion free expression when its aim is to ridicule or demonize whites or Christians or European men, no matter how vile and stupid the expression may be, and they oppose it when its aim is to criticize others, even in the mildest terms. They appeal to 'equality before the law' if they think that will enable illegal immigrants to get the same benefits as citizens, and reject it when such equality would mean that fewer blacks or women would get special legal privileges.

Bottom line: it is _our_ slavery or patriarchy or racism or 'privilege' or whatever that they hate, because they hate us. Many of them are in denial about this, but if you look at their behavior and the positions they publicly take, it's the only explanation. You can always predict their position on any issue: Is X bad for us? They're in favor. Is X good for some other group? They're in favor. Is X good for us? They're against it. Is X bad for some other group? They're against it. Is X good for everyone? They're in favor to the extent that it's good for others, and against it to the extent that it's good for us.

You're a smart guy, Jacques, and I have to agree with a lot of this.

I didn't say that Islam is the greatest threat, but Islamic terrorism. They would nuke us if they could for the greater glory of Allah the Merciful. The Left is not likely to nuke us . . . .

I concede that you did a good job of beating back my slavery point.

But while we have little or nothing in common with the hard Left it seems we should try to find common ground with the liberals who haven't completely lost their minds, no?

Let me repeat my question: How concretely would you implement separation?

Thanks, Bill. I see your dialectical strategy, and I like it.

"Why can't it just be a fact about us that we need such-and-such to exist?"

I agree that it could be a fact about us that we "need" such-and-such to exist. But, if this were true, I think it would be more clear and precise to use some term other than "need" because that term appears to be value-laden -- even objectively so. Instead of saying "The fish needs water" or "The human needs freedom of inquiry", I'd prefer to say something purely descriptive like:

"The fish that exhibits the attributes of life is one that is environed in water, performs the act of breathing, and is self-moving. The fish that is abiotic (i.e., the fish carcass) is one that lacks these characteristics. Neither is of objective value."


"The human that has free inquiry is one that can freely seek truth by engaging in discursive reasoning with others without sociopolitical/cultural obstacle. The human that does not have free inquiry is one that cannot. Neither has objective value."

It's right that one man's MP is another's MT. But some bullets are really hard to bite, and then to live consistently with that bite. Sometimes it helps to articulate the consequences of a view to see just how difficult the bite is.

Right. Some views are very difficult or impossible to 'existentally appropriate.' And that can be part of an argumentative strategy against such views.

There are people who claim to believe that consciousness is an illusion. Imagine trying to 'live' that belief! Or the belief that no one is morally responsible for anything.

As for how separation might work, you're right that it seems impossible right now. The first step is mental and cultural. They are at war with us. They hate us and seek to dispossess us. Those in charge of the Left are aware of this. (Think of the despicable Tim Wise who publicly gloated over the dispossession of white Americans, for example.) The rest are being slowly moved in that direction; they're the 'useful idiots' who may in turn find themselves under the guillotine. So the first step is for 'conservatives' to realize this fact. Realizing it means no longer being a 'conservative' in the traditional sense: there's no shared civilization within which disagreements and reforms can be occur, nothing of that kind to conserve except ourselves. What we have to imagine, in the longer term, is the creation of a new society or civilization that -- if we're lucky -- may be possible once this whole thing collapses.

The west has always been riven, as you say; it's also worth noticing that in the past these fissures have very often led to separation. Catholic and Protestant states, for instance, or states based on ethnic identity and language. And the American south certainly came close to separating. Couldn't that happen again, in the longer term?

Unfortunately I don't have a clear idea of how to implement this in practice. It might be enough to aim for regional or state-based independence within the US, but I doubt that the Left would ever leave us alone. (Would Eric Holder or Sonia Sotomayor tolerate even a single town in their country that doesn't celebrate transvestites or teach kids that a fetus is just a lump of cells?) But separation of some kind is the only realistic goal for us. If that's impossible, then it seems to me that there's no hope. Future generations of westerners will either be brainwashed culture-less halfwits in a Brave New World or they'll be converts to Islam or some other foreign culture that has the will to power that the west has lost.

But I don't see that 'need' is value-laden. Same with 'want' and 'desire.'

Maybe I'm being too rigid with my interpretation of 'need.' I can see how 'want' and 'desire' can be used in a non-value laden manner. I'll have to think about 'need.'

I agree with you that some views are very difficult or impossible to existentially appropriate. I couldn't imagine what it would be like to believe that consciousness is an illusion or that no one is morally responsible. It would be hard to know how or where to start adopting such views.

I can imagine what it would be like to be a bat, but how can one imagine that consciousness is an illusion?


"What we have to imagine, in the longer term, is the creation of a new society or civilization that -- if we're lucky -- may be possible once this whole thing collapses."

I think the grim assessment you've made in these comments is correct, as is Bill's objection that there seems to be no practical way to implement a "divorce"; the conflicting parties are too territorially intermingled. In recent years I've reluctantly come to believe that there will have to be a very painful collapse and disaggregation before anything new can form.

Bill, I hope that you aren't thinking that you and I have insufficient common ground for our conversation about values to continue productively.

Yes, we should reach out to liberals who haven't yet lost their minds. But, first, converting someone from Leftism is a long and painful process. I've been able to do it, to some extent, with the handful of people that I've known personally over a long time. They have to already trust you in order to be willing to consider what you're saying; otherwise it's just processed as 'hate' and dismissed. Second, I believe that the fundamental principles of liberalism lead inevitably to 'hard' Leftism. So in order to convince those liberals, you have to get them to seriously reconsider the liberal principles -- of 'equality' and 'freedom', for example -- that define their worldview. It's going to be very, very hard for us to reach enough people in time. Part of the problem is that the -isms you mention are 'common sense' now, e.g., scientism and materialism. First people have to realize that these are indeed -isms, ideological presuppositions or prejudices that have no real rational basis. Again, a hard sell! One way to think of our situation is to contrast liberals and Leftists, however moderate, with Muslims. On a vast range of issues, we 'conservatives' have more in common with Muslims than the liberals or Leftists. Muslims don't hate men, or the family; they don't want 'diversity' to displace truth and knowledge as the goals of education; they don't deny sex differences; they don't think abortion is just a 'choice'; they don't think that women should be able to sell children so that homosexual 'marriages' can be complete, and so on. And yet it's probably not a winning strategy to reach out to the (many) Muslims who don't want to kill and conquer us, in the hope that we can all just get along. Those who don't want to kill and conquer us seem to be either unable or unwilling to do much to stop those who do. Same for the 'moderate' liberals and Leftists, it seems to me.

I still don't know what, concretely, to propose. But here's a discussion of some possibilities that you might like:

Regarding unlivable and other highly suspect views, I am reminded of a point by Roderick Chisholm at the beginning of Person and Object:

"I assume that we should be guided in philosophy by those propositions we all do presuppose in our ordinary activity. In saying that we have a 'right to believe' these propositions, I mean that whether or not they are true, they are all such that they should be regarded as innocent, epistemically, until we have positive reason to prove them guilty ... for example: I am now thinking such and such; I have such and such feelings, attitudes, desires, beliefs ...; I am now intentionally bringing about such and such things which are such that I could have avoided bringing them about ... Such facts are more reasonable to accept than not ... Any philosophical theory which is inconsistent with any of these data is prima facie suspect. The burden of proof will be upon the man who accepts any such theory, and not upon you and me." (Person and Object, Introduction)

Very interesting, Jacques.

One of the fundamental, if not the most fundamental, principles of classical liberalism is the principle of toleration. How does this lead to hard leftism? Can you explain this to me?

I also don't see that conservatives have more in common with Muslims than we do with liberals or leftists. Of course, there is some common ground with Muslims. For example, the difference between men and women is not socially constructed. There is a deep biological and perhaps also a metaphysical difference between men and women. But that can be combined with a belief in equality of opportunity. Would you not agree that it would be deeply wrong to prevent women from studying philosophy on the ground that they belong in the home raising children and attending to their husbands?

On the other hand, the fact that women are 'underrepresented' in philosophy is no proof that they have been excluded for 'sexist' reasons. It reflects the fact that women as a group are not as good as mean as a group at philosophy in tandem with the fact that women are less interested in such high-flying theoretical pursuits.

See how balanced my position is? [grin] It is so balanced it will get me condemned by both paleo-conservatives and femi-nazis.

Don't you support equality of opportunity for all regardless of race and sex and creed? I do. But I also insist on the obvious: equality of opportunity does not entail equality of outcome/result, and that is is a howling non sequitur to argue that because blacks and females don't do very well in certain fields that racism or sexism is at work.

Mr. V.
"See how balanced my position is? [grin] It is so balanced it will get me condemned by both paleo-conservatives and femi-nazis.". Now that is good! Be sure you know how to reach the large rocks to hide behind when "they" come looking.

Regarding a divorce or separation, isn't that what is going on now with the ongoing suicide of "multiculturalism"? If left alone to continue to its end, we will have separated communities and neighborhoods. Even some states might become heavily dominated by one "culture" or another. This eventual Balkanization will be our divorce. Instead of lawyers enforcing divorce provisions, we might have walls and fences or even street signs and names signaling where one might be at any time.

As far as the Leftist "mind" and its refusal to see clear evidence of his policy failures--even when the evidence is blood stained--with some of them I have come to believe that their college years rebellion against adult authority and reason have followed them well into adulthood. The Conservative, traditionalist or anything that reminds them of those people "who were wrong and always have to be wrong" are threatening. The committed Leftist can not be wrong. After all, he is committed. The Conservative can not be right. Dead bodies, dying institutions, and social dysfunction can only mean that not enough Leftism has been applied. Point out the clear facts and the Leftist explodes in rage.

Hi Bill,
Thanks for calling my ideas about this 'interesting'. That's not how people usually react :) and it means a lot coming from you.

I agree with you about the pseudo-problem of 'under-representation', and I also agree that it would be wrong to prevent women from studying philosophy. On the other hand, I'm not sure what to say about 'equality of opportunity' or 'equality under the law' and similar terms -- or 'toleration'.

There's a lot to say about this. Granted, equal opportunity in the abstract does not imply (or even make probable) equal outcomes. But there are many reasons why they tend to get run together in the ugly, stupid way that has ruined our institutions.

In the abstract, the concept doesn't indicate which kinds of opportunities are in question, or what would make them count as 'equal' for different people. If your performance and mine are judged by the same standards, then we had equal opportunities in one respect, and with respect to one thing. But what if you come from the ghetto and I had every advantage? In other respects, with respect to other things, our opportunities were not equal. So there is a natural tendency -- if not a logical requirement -- for the list of 'opportunities' and respects in which they must be 'equal' to expand constantly. And once we're locked into this (insane) dialectic, the reality that some groups or kinds of people just don't produce many philosophers or scientists or lawyers or CEOs will naturally be taken to indicate some further, as-yet-undetected inequality of opportunity. (Black moms don't read to their toddlers enough, because of the 'legacy of slavery', and so their kids don't have the same 'opportunities' to become literate. And so on, ad infinitum.)

Second problem: in order for A and B to have equal opportunities with respect to x, they may have to satisfy some precondition for opportunity with respect to x. In order to have any real shot at a tenure-track job in philosophy you need a PhD. If no deaf Ojibway lesbians have PhDs, but we'd like them to have 'equal opportunities' with respect to those jobs, why not just give them some extra help in getting PhDs? Why not judge their work more generously than that of others? Hell, why not create some whole new intellectually debased pseudo-subject so that people like her can be the luminaries and experts within that pseudo-subject, the Newtons and Einsteins of deaf-lesbian-Ojibway self-studies? And so on. Thus, the need to create equal opportunity in one respect puts pressure on us to equalize outcomes artificially in other respects.

So principles such as equal opportunity tend psychologically and culturally to hard Leftism, e.g., giving PhDs to mediocrities simply because they are deaf Ojibways. I am skeptical of these principles even in the abstract, though, because they seem to be either false or vacuous.

Should *everyone* have an equal opportunity with respect to *everything* regardless of race and sex and other such differences? Surely not. At least, it's not especially obvious that women should have the same opportunity to marry women that men have; or that gay couples should have the same opportunity to raise children that straight couples have; or that all people in the world, black or white, should have the same opportunity to be citizens of Finland. And if, as Leftists claim, women tend to be discouraged from studying philosophy or mixed martial arts, while men do not tend to be (and if that's a case of 'unequal opportunities') I don't care at all, so long as the discouragers are intelligent and sensitive to the particularities of particular women. Really a sensible person thinking of 'equality of opportunity' is thinking of some very limited range of opportunities and forms of equality; the range is limited by non-liberal assumptions about the Good; hence 'equality of opportunity' is not really functioning here as an ordering principle; rather, if the person is not on the path to insane Leftism, 'equality of opportunity' is just the *result* of some more basic and reasonable non-liberal worldview.

I suspect that any time we want to say something about 'equality' as a moral principle, the truth we are reaching for can be better expressed in some other way that won't tie us into Leftist stupidity. For example, 'equality under the law' seems to be simply the idea that the same laws should apply ('equally') to everyone. As far as I can tell, this is just the idea of universality or consistency. But then, nothing could even count as a legal system unless it were based ultimately on universal principles meant to be applied consistently. In fact, without the aim of some kind of universality (hence consistency) these wouldn't even be principles. So we might as well just say that we are in favor of law and order, or that we believe society should have authoritative principles. (And, of course, on this interpretation, 'equality under the law' is compatible with aristocracy or fascism or whatever.)

Toleration is another abstraction. What should we tolerate? The sensible answer is that we should tolerate things that are objectionable somehow but not *too* bad. But then we need some substantive view of the Good in order to apply the principle of toleration sensibly. Liberalism is founded (or is supposed to be founded) on the abstraction itself, as if that could be a practical principle. So we tolerate everything except intolerance. But liberals are intolerant (of intolerance) and so liberalism should not be tolerated. The Taliban tolerates some things that liberals don't tolerate, such as 'homophobia'. Every society tolerates some things and not other things. Thus, 'intolerance' in the abstract is not something we can reasonably oppose (and 'tolerance' in the abstract isn't something we can reasonably support).

It's hard to understand this liberal dialectic, because it's so irrational. It has a kind of logic, but it's the logic of insanity. Still, it seems to work like this: (1) The liberals always in fact operate with some unconscious non-liberal worldview that temporarily determines the scope of 'tolerance'. They aren't really allowed to do this, under their own principles. But then (2) someone further to the Left points out some specific feature of this unacknowledged worldview, e.g., the fact that liberals 20 years tended to assume that heterosexuality was normal and preferable to homosexuality, or the fact that liberals 50 years ago knew that blacks were more inclined to violent crime than whites and took sensible precautions against black criminality. Now (3) the non-liberal belief that has been identified is taken to indicate insufficient 'tolerance', and efforts must now be made to fight against this lingering 'intolerance'. But if any notion of 'tolerance' is workable, and society is not to collapse into total chaos, there must be still *other* non-liberal beliefs that determine its scope. Soon enough, (4) someone further to the Left identifies one of those other beliefs -- the belief that it's not good to have mutilating surgery in order to pretend to be a woman, say -- and that belief is now targeted as 'intolerant'. Repeat this process until all substantive, action-guiding beliefs about reality that might impose sensible limits on 'toleration' have been destroyed. We're not there yet, but the result of this dialectic must be the abolition of all norms and ends and values for the sake of 'tolerance'.

Long story :) But my point is that if 'tolerance' is taken to be a principle, we end up with Hard Leftism. But if we deny that it's a principle, we aren't liberals.

P.S. On this topic, of the logic of liberalism, here is an excellent discussion on the role of the 'unprincipled exception' to liberal principles:

Good comments, Jacques.

>>So principles such as equal opportunity tend psychologically and culturally to hard Leftism, e.g., giving PhDs to mediocrities simply because they are deaf Ojibways. I am skeptical of these principles even in the abstract, though, because they seem to be either false or vacuous.<<

Let's take an example. On Thanksgiving morning I will 'compete' in a road race. I have no chance of winning, not even in my age group. But I have an equal opportunity of winning in the following thin sense: I was not barred from entering the race on the ground of race or sex or religion, etc. and no encumbrances will be placed upon me: no weights will be attached to my legs, no one will shoot at me, and I will not be forced to transport crazed monkeys on my back.

Similarly with entering law school, etc. I fail to see how this notion of equality of opportunity is "vacuous" as you say. It is 'thin' but it has a definite content, albeit a negative one. Nor is it "false" whatever that might mean.

Hi Bill,
Suppose that you were forced to transport crazed monkeys on your back, and other competitors were not. Then, to be sure, there would be a sense in which your 'opportunity' to win would not be 'equal' to theirs. But it would still be 'equal' in other respects. For example, unlike Bertrand Russell you are alive at the time that the race is happening; your opportunity to win the race is equal in that respect to the opportunity that anyone else alive at that time has, and Russell's is less than equal in that respect.

Suppose that no competitor is forced to carry monkeys on his back, but it so happens that one has a genetic predisposition to shin splints that the other does not have. Wouldn't you agree that, in a certain sense, their 'opportunities' are unequal? Suppose that one has spent six months training and the other has only spent six weeks training. What principled reason is there for saying that this is not a kind of inequality of 'opportunity' with respect to winning?

It's not that 'equality of opportunity' can never be given a definite meaning. We do that all the time. You give a definite (sensible) meaning in applying the concept to the race. But when you do that, you are relying on certain (sensible) non-liberal beliefs and principles which limit the scopes of equality and opportunity. So equality of opportunity is not in itself an action guiding principle. (To see this, consider the principle of 'inequality of opportunity'. Why not accept that one? Don't we believe, after all, that there are some specific opportunities that should not be equal in some specific ways -- e.g., some of those who speak German should have the opportunity to translate Heidegger, but not others? I say that neither equality nor inequality is a value, neither tolerance nor intolerance, neither discrimination nor indiscrimination, etc.) There is nothing in the content of the claim "People should have equal opportunities" that compels us to interpret this claim in your way rather than some crazy Hard Leftist way, e.g., "Runners in the race don't have equal opportunities to win unless their ethnic self-esteem was equally encouraged when they were in kindergarten". So (I claim) we should not appeal to equality of opportunity as a principle. We should instead articulate the specific goods, and the Good, that enables us to wisely decide which kinds of opportunities should be made equal, and in which respects.


I suppose I don't understand why someone who champions toleration must take it to be a practical principle that is all-sufficient and not in need of any substantive value judgments. One of my posts begins as follows. Tell me if you disagree with it:


1. Toleration is the touchstone of classical liberalism, and there is no denying its value. Our doxastic predicament requires it of us. We have beliefs galore but precious little knowledge, especially as regards the large and enduring questions. Lacking knowledge, we must inquire. For that we need freedom of inquiry, and a social and political environment in which inquiry is, if not encouraged, at least allowed. But people who are convinced that they have the truth would stop us. "Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies." (Human All-Too-Human #483) This is typical Nietzschean exaggeration, but there is a sound point at its core: People who are convinced that they have the truth will not inquire whether it really is the truth. Worse, they will tend to impose their 'truth' on us and prevent our inquiry into truth. Many of them will not hesitate to suppress and murder their opponents.

My first point, then, is that toleration is a good because truth is a good. We must tolerate a diversity of views, and the people who maintain them, because we lack the truth and must find it, and to do so we must search. But we cannot search if we are under threat from fanatics and the intolerant. Freedom of inquiry and freedom of expression are important because truth is important.


In the above I am not using the principle of toleration to generate the value of truth; I am presupposing this value.

You will press me to specify what, besides intolerance, we ought not tolerate. I won't have any trouble doing this although some of my specifications will be controversial. We ought not tolerate crucifixion as a form of capital punishment. We ought not tolerate the destruction of libraries. And so on.


Your comments are the best I've received in a long time. You say:

>> But my point is that if 'tolerance' is taken to be a principle, we end up with Hard Leftism. But if we deny that it's a principle, we aren't liberals.<<

Well, you realize that slippery slope arguments are all of them invalid, right? So if one takes tolerance to be a principle -- I would say a value -- it certainly does not follow that one ends up in Hard Leftism.

And if your argument is any good, why can't I just as well argue that if toleration is rejected as a value, then we end up with the abominations of Islam including genital mutilation of females, stoning of adulterers, crucifixion and beheading of Christians . . . .?

I don't see how you can deny that toleration is a good thing, if that is what you are denying. Take religion. Don't you agree that it ought to be subject to philosophical scrutiny? If yes, then such examination must be tolerated despite offending many people.

Thanks for a thoughtful exchange.

I do agree with some of the reasoning in the quoted passage. You are arguing that 'inquiry' has to be allowed because it is necessary for knowledge. So we should tolerate whatever is needed for inquiry. For example, inquiry may sometimes require that we openly question the settled beliefs of our society. Even if we don't like this, we should tolerate it. So far I agree. But does it follow that 'toleration is good'?

I say it doesn't really follow, unless 'toleration' here abbreviates 'toleration of that which is necessary for inquiry'. From the fact that we should tolerate that which is necessary for inquiry, it doesn't follow that being tolerant is always or typically the best attitude. Just as we should not tolerate the destruction of libraries -- and in part because their non-destruction will often be necessary for inquiry -- but it doesn't follow that 'intolerance' is good.

If one makes substantive value judgments those value judgments will imply that tolerance and intolerance can both be good and bad, depending on a zillion other factors. Therefore, anyone who makes substantive value judgments can have action-guiding beliefs but cannot reasonably believe that 'tolerance' in general is a good thing or an ideal or a principle. On the other hand, someone who thinks that 'tolerance' in general is good or better than 'intolerance' cannot coherently hold to any substantive value judgments. (And in that case, he is on the path to Hard Leftism, and ultimately to the 'nihilism of destruction' that Seraphim Rose wrote about.)

Now if you want to say that, given certain non-liberal value judgments taken to be more basic and important than any principles of 'toleration' or 'equality', we may go on to *interpret* these abstract principles in sensible ways and avoid Leftism... Then I think I agree! But then these abstract principles are not playing any real role in our thinking. After all, in the abstract they are equally compatible with Hard Leftism -- in fact, they are equally compatible with everything, including Hard Rightism -- and they only matter once they've been filtered through our highly specific cultural-historical-personal systems of values. It's important to think of them in this way; otherwise, you are susceptible to the 'principled' arguments from freedom, equality and tolerance that serve to move us ever Leftward, year after year after decade after century.

Almost anything can have some kind of instrumental value under the right circumstances. I value finding bombs on the subway before they go off, so under some conceivable circumstances I would say that torture is 'a good thing'. I value keeping my teeth, so under some circumstances painful tooth extraction is 'a good thing'. Same goes for tolerance. But these things aren't values or principles; they aren't like Truth or Justice or Beauty. Tolerance is contingently instrumentally valuable sometimes, and so is intolerance. Liberals put things that are really more like tooth extractions on the same level as Truth and Justice and Beauty. This is a big mistake!

>> But does it follow that 'toleration is good'? <<

Yes, it follows by Existential Generalization: if x is such that its toleration is good, then something is such that its toleration is good.

When I say that toleration is good, I don't mean that tolerating everything is good. That would be crazy. I mean some or much toleration is good.

This is why I disagree when you say that conservatives have more in common with Muslims than with liberals. It's the other way around.

You strike me as a kind of extremist. You appreciate the lunatic extremism of contemporary liberals, but oppose it with an opposite extremism. Same pattern as with your take on patriotism. You appreciate the extremism of the liberal who tries to reduce patriotism to jingoism but oppose it by taking the absurd view that the mere fact that one's country is one's own justifies one's patriotism.

Please answer this: Does the mere fact that your views are your views justify you in holding them in the teeth of people who oppose them?

The fact that my views are mine does (in my view :)) make some difference to my overall epistemic situation with respect to disagreeing others. It has some epistemic significance, although its epistemic significance may be swamped in some cases relative to other considerations. (If I learn that every physicist in the world sincerely denies some physics proposition p, I will feel obliged to stop believing p.) Of course it is not the third-person fact that some opinion is mine that confers some modest degree of justification, though, but rather the first-person phenomenology of holding the opinion which vividly seems true to me. (Likewise, it is the first-person fact of experiencing my belonging to a nation or community that justifies me to some degree in being loyal to it, not the third-person fact that it is mine. I guess these are different aspects of the same fact, but you probably see what I mean.)

I agree with you that some or much toleration is good; but I add that some or much intolerance is also good. So why should we say we value tolerance, or even that we value some or much of it? Why not say we value it when it's good or not too bad, but not otherwise, and say the same for intolerance? In my view it is the liberal or proponent of tolerance who is the extremist. The modern world is extreme.

It would be a mistake to identify toleration with toleration of what is necessary for inquiry. Suppose you like a kind of music I find irritating. I may tolerate your listening to it, even in my presence. That is not toleration for inquiry, but toleration for comity, let us call it.

Suppose you are having dinner at a large family gathering. Chances are good that some of the table manners of those present (the children, say) are suboptimal. You tolerate them. That's good! That's not for the sake of inquiry. Same goes for some of the views expressed by your crazy uncle. In these situations we tolerate for the sake of social harmony, and to be tolerated ourselves.

Toleration is in general a value. 'General' as you know does not mean 'universal.'

Suppose it is only an instrumental value. It is still a value, right? 'Instrumental' is not an alienans adjective, is it?

So perhaps we can agree on the following:

1. One cannot tolerate everything.
2. One who holds that toleration is good is not committed to holding that it is good in itself.
3. One who holds that toleration is good is not committed to holding that substantive value judgments can be derived from the principle of toleration.

>>I agree with you that some or much toleration is good; but I add that some or much intolerance is also good. So why should we say we value tolerance, or even that we value some or much of it? Why not say we value it when it's good or not too bad, but not otherwise, and say the same for intolerance? In my view it is the liberal or proponent of tolerance who is the extremist. The modern world is extreme.<<

I agree with you that some intolerance is good. We should not tolerate terrorists. We should blow their heads off. We should not tolerate 'safe space' crybullies when they become destructive and disruptive, as opposed to merely crying and whining. We should not tolerate the intentional killing of innocent human beings, whence it follows that we should not tolerate abortion (subject to certain qualifications). Would you agree? We should not tolerate the lying of our politicians. And so on.

Should we tolerate those who oppose capital punishment in principle? I have said repeatedly on my site that those who oppose C.P. in principle are morally obtuse. But there are intelligent, sincere, and apparently morally decent people who oppose me on this with arguments that are not obviously unsound. That gives me pause. And so I say we should tolerate the opponents of C. P. Why? Because we don't KNOW that C. P. is morally permissible. I am subjectively certain that it is, but subjective certainty does not get the length of objective certainty.

There is common ground between us. To say of a person that he is tolerant is not necessarily praise, and to say the opposite is not necessarily blame. How few people realize this today!

You present me with a nice challenge: Why do I say that tolerance is an important (even if only instrumental) Western value? Why do I privilege tolerance when, as is obvious, one really ought to be highly intolerant of all sorts of people and things (rapists, mafiosi, Obama and his underminers of the rule of law, race-baiting gun-grabbers, et al).

I suppose it is by contrast to the intolerance of the Islamic world. I champion tolerance because of the dire threat emanating from the intolerant including the Islamists and leftists. We need to defend tolerance, especially at this historical juncture. And note: by defending it we oppose political correctness, which is a form of intolerance.

Right, there is a lot of common ground between us, and I'm very glad for the rare experience of debating these things with someone whose views are so close to mine. (And also glad to realize that there still are some people with working minds out there, such as the many excellent commenters on this thread.) Though I agree with you about most of the specific things we ought to tolerate, and those we ought not to tolerate, I am still reluctant to say that we need to defend tolerance in any respect. Rather, I'm reluctant to say that tolerance needs defending more than intolerance.

The Muslim world is intolerant of many things that should be tolerated, such as 'paganism' and atheism. But then, the Muslim world is also rightly intolerant of all the worst things about our culture. They don't tolerate blasphemy-for-the-sake-of-blasphemy. If halfwits with 'education' degrees want to teach their young children that it's great to be 'gay' or 'trans', and maybe they should try it out, Muslims will not stand for it. They don't tolerate rape and murder just because stopping it would have 'disparate impact' across races. Don't we want to defend their intolerance in these respects?

The Left attacks our intolerance of bad things -- vast numbers of low-quality, unassimilable immigrants or gay 'marriage' or mutilating surgery for people with mental illnesses -- and they attack our tolerance of good or indifferent things -- traditional gender roles or 'Eurocentrism', rational public discussion of immigration, business owners deciding for themselves who their customers will be, or the fact that some kinds of people are 'over-represented' here and there. It is not tolerance per se that is under attack, since the Left is radically tolerant with respect to everything that weakens and harms and undermines us. We need to defend good tolerance and good intolerance, since both are under attack, and we need to attack bad tolerance and bad intolerance, since both are being aggressively promoted by the elites.

"I suppose it is by contrast to the intolerance of the Islamic world. I champion tolerance because of the dire threat emanating from the intolerant including the Islamists and leftists. We need to defend tolerance, especially at this historical juncture. And note: by defending it we oppose political correctness, which is a form of intolerance."

But don't Jacques' insightful points on this show that you aren't championing "tolerance" any more than the left or even Islamists are? None of you really endorses unqualified tolerance. And if it is a highly qualified form of tolerance that you endorse, which it presumably is, why would you appeal to the general notion of tolerance to stake out your position in distinction from the left's and Islamist's?

I fully agree that there are hugely important battles here about what specific kinds of things should be tolerated. But the details of these things and the specific, diverging value systems that generate the disputes about what should be tolerated are presumably what matter and should be the focus of the disputes. All sides can say "it is important that the right kinds of things are tolerated and important that the wrong kinds of things are not tolerated". Isn't that the only sense in which you, or anyone, is a proponent of "tolerance"?

Is what makes political correctness a problem is that it is a "form of intolerance"? The problem is presumably that it is an attempt to remove tolerance for specific traditions, activities, and values that are important to many of us. But is political correctness an enemy of tolerance itself? Political correctness forces people to tolerate activities and values that, in many cases, weren't tolerated before (e.g., men pretending to be women and using the women's bathroom). So, again, the disputes here seem really to be about the specific things that should be tolerated or not tolerated, not tolerance itself.

Anon writes >>All sides can say "it is important that the right kinds of things are tolerated and important that the wrong kinds of things are not tolerated". Isn't that the only sense in which you, or anyone, is a proponent of "tolerance"?<<

No. In order to determine what is tolerable and what is not we must inquire. For this we need each others help. We ought to tolerate a wide variety of views in order to understand the issues and possibly arrive at the truth about them.

For example, why do I tolerate you two guys given that you are disagreeing with me? I'm older, wiser, and better educated. Why don't I just delete your comments? Because I hold open the possibility that my view can be refined and improved by dialog with you. I even hold open the possibility that my view is fundamentally wrong.

So, even to get clear about what toleration is and is not, to get clear about its limits, to get clear about how it gears into other values, to get clear about what our first-order moral commitments ought to be, I need a space in which there is the free exchange of ideas, a space that is possible only under the aegis of toleration, and not in the precincts of Islamic fundamentalism or Leftism.

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