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The Table Video

Humanity as Common Ground: Tolerance and Respect as Ideals in Communicative Discourse - Robert Audi

The serious discourse needed for politics, education, and much of personal life is often marred by a failure to find common ground, a basis from which to reach agreement or at least clarity about where disagreement lies. This paper takes our humanity itself to provide elements that constitute an important common ground. These elements include birth, growth, and success and failure, but there is much more. Common ground does not erase differences, but it can provide a place from which mutual understanding and tolerance can grow. This paper argues that certain ethical standards should be more widely recognized than they are as part of our common ground; that they support both tolerance and humility as virtues important for both public and private discourse; and that they can enable us to deal civilly and rationally with much of the disagreement inevitable in a pluralistic democracy. The paper offers a partial account of both tolerance and humility, considers their bearing on disagreement, and offers formulates some ethical principles that can contribute to achieving civic virtue.


Thank you very much. It’s a real pleasure to be here, and I’d like to begin by expressing gratitude to Biola University and certainly to the Center for Christian Thought and its directors and its staff, prominently including Laura Pelser and Evan Rosa. You’ve already heard that I have the most challenging spot of the day, after lunch. We’ve been immersing ourselves in the study of humility, so I won’t take it too seriously. [audience laughing] What I will do is try to deliver as briefly as I can from the outline I hope you have, and maybe there will be more time than usual for discussion. We’ll see.

I start with the concept of humanity, which I take it indicates common ground from which we can build in ethics and political philosophy. I think of human beings like us as, of course, persons, but it’s hard to say just what constitutes a human being; harder still to say what constitutes a person. On human being, let me remind you of Shylock’s wonderful speech from “The Merchant of Venice”. “Hath not a Jew eyes? “Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, “senses, affections, passions; “fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, “subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, “warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, “as a Christian is? “If you prick us, do we not bleed? “If you tickle us, do we not laugh? “If you poison us, do we not die? “And if you wrong us, do we not revenge? “If we are like you in the rest, “we will resemble you in that.”

Well, leave aside the revenge and the rest speaks for itself. So in a certain way, you can proceed from the good and the bad, some of which is portrayed by Shylock, to the right and the wrong. That doesn’t take us to consequentialism, but it helps indicate why consequentialism is so attractive; roughly the view that what we ought to do is a matter of optimally contributing to the goodness of the consequences of one or another option.

Part Two: Some Foundations of Ethics, Values, Principles and Virtues. I’ll talk some about civic virtue, and try to indicate some elements that go into it and strengthen it. Civic virtue is roughly the social virtue appropriate to citizens. Now, let me go back to pain and pleasure in the narrative of human development, and remind you of another splendid text. “The Good Samaritan.” “A priest happened to be going down the same road, “and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. “So too a Levite. “But a Samaritan took pity on him and bandaged his wounds, “pouring on oil and wine. “Then he put the man on his own donkey, “brought him to an inn and took care of him.”

This is a responsiveness to a human condition that empathy brings very close to home. Now I’d like to go from here by a sort of ascent from cases to principles, and consider W. D. Ross’s well-known list of “prima facie duties”. These are from “The Right and the Good”, Oxford 1930, which I think is coming to be recognized as the best general ethics treatise of the 20th Century. Ross called these duties “prima facie”, because they don’t always override in situations in which one duty may conflict with one or more others.

But when no conflict occurs, then they indicate what we ought to do for a huge range of situations. So roughly what they do is point to a ground of obligation common in human life and indicate the moral reason, the prima facie obligation that comes from it. So, there are obligations of justice, including the positive duty of preventing and rectifying injustice. There are obligations of non-injury, of fidelity to promises, of veracity, which may be conceived as a kind of fidelity to one’s word. That’s how Ross conceived it. There are duties of reparation, to make amends for injuring someone, for instance.

There, of course, are obligations of beneficence, illustrated in the narrative of “The Good Samaritan”. There are obligations of self-improvement, to better oneself. And there are obligations of gratitude. So, Ross had a list of eight, and if you think about these in the context of moral education, you can see how pervasive they are and how well recognized they are. Now I have thought there might be two more. Liberty and respectfulness. Liberty seems to me to be a value that doesn’t reduce to the value of justice and beneficence combined, though you could argue that if we understand those broadly and integrate them, we get the duty of justice as roughly nothing more.

There are also obligations of respectfulness. I call these duties of manner, by contrast with duties of matter. There are things we ought to do, SO there’s an act type that we should instantiate. But there are also indefinitely many ways to do what we ought to do. You can give a performance report constructively, sympathetically, dryly. Think of the various ways that can be done where the same content is present. These are then adverbial duties. They correspond to the way of doing the thing and ethics calls on us to do, not just the right thing, but to do it in the right way; a right way, anyhow. Now, I think that moral virtues can be conceived as, at least in good part, an internalization of these 10 principles.

Arguably, by the way, the 10 are implicit in the Decalogue, taken in the light of Jesus’ reflections and example. But I won’t argue that now. I will certainly indicate, without arguing the point, that intuition is required as an element in practical wisdom. I think practical wisdom is also assisted by the “Do unto others” principle, which can be put in less religious language in terms of reciprocity. And I’m going to suggest, without developing the point now, that a way to understand obligation in many cases, is to take the victim’s point of view. We too often think of what we ought to do and we think of normal relationships and the normal press of daily life. But if one puts oneself in the victim’s position or on the disadvantaged end of the stick, it’s a little easier to see what morality demands. Let me go to Part Three, “A Framework for Tolerance and Respect for Persons”.

The Rossian principles, the 10 I’ve cited, are in a certain way theory neutral. You can respect them if you are a virtue theorist, thinking of them as discoveries from the study of the behavior and parlance of the phronimos. You can be a consequentialist and think that internalizing them optimizes the proportion of the good to the bad in human life. You can be a Kantian and think of them as Categorical Imperatives, with a small c, rationalizable under the master principle, the categorical imperative. So in a certain way, the framework I propose for tolerance and respect for persons is theory neutral. It’s, of course, theoretical in one sense. It isn’t just descriptive and the terms need analysis. But they don’t presuppose any particular theory and they’re compatible of course, as I’ve already suggested, with Christian theology.

Now, respect for persons may be expressed in tolerance. Tolerance is an important and somewhat elusive notion. The term can designate action, as when one person tolerates another’s misbehavior. It can designate an attitude, a forebearant kind of attitude, or a trait of character. Now, as a trait of character of course, tolerance tends to manifest itself in attitudes and actions. But sometimes the trait of tolerance is balanced in such a way and developed in such a way that it counts as a virtue. I want to say that mere tolerance, even as a trait, is not automatically a virtue.

Tolerance can occur where one simply forebears from interfering with what one dislikes. No particular moral or normative standard has to figure. So the trait of tolerance doesn’t imply any moral virtue. But there is tolerance as a virtue, and we would like it to be morally guided as well. So we don’t want tolerance for the wrong kinds of thing, and we don’t want to have intolerance where there should tolerance. So just to fill out the picture, and locate tolerance in a category I have introduced, I think of tolerance as an adjunctive virtue. It’s an adjunct to moral virtue, but it’s not itself a moral virtue. It can be guided by the wrong sorts of values and habits.

Guided by the rights sorts of values and habits, it’s a virtue. But notice, you could have tolerance that reflects a certain balance between, say dislike on the one side and forbearance on the other. But the balance needn’t be morally guided, so you have something virtuous, and yet the moral doesn’t come in. Compare courage, which can be guided by the wrong sorts of values, so that although there is a balancing that’s normative, you don’t have a moral virtue the way with veracity and justice you do.

So I won’t develop that further, but it may be something you’ll want to discuss. Very roughly I’m thinking of tolerance as filtered through preferences, in a way moral virtues are not. They have more of objectivity in their constitution, on my view. This bring me to Part Four, and I know I’m going rather quickly. We can talk of aretaic tolerance then, versus tolerance simply as a trait in a person, and I have already suggested that you can have principled aretaic tolerance, ideally this is virtuous tolerance, combined with moral standards. Now I think of the Rossian principles as useful guides. If those are internalized, they will bear on how a virtue is expressed, and on balancing tensions between the direction one would go, given one virtue, and the direction one would go given another. So you can have fidelity and veracity pulling you in different directions, as where your loyalty to someone forces you into temptation to lie to someone who is intrusively asking about the person.

When it comes to conflicts between prima facie obligations, we need practical wisdom, and there is no formula here. This is something Aristotle saw, but he put the notion differently than I would. I think though, that even if you think of the virtues as unified, in the way Aristotle did, you can see how a virtuous person can suffer moral conflict, and how practical wisdom must come in. Now, humility is, in my view, an adjunctive virtue, somewhat in the way tolerance is, and it is highly pertinent to tolerance and both are highly pertinent to civic discourse. Humility carries commonly, and certainly in the mature, a sense of fallibility and willingness to change. So, humility will tend to move one in the direction of tolerance, where there’s any question about the tolerability of what is at issue.

A lack of humility may support intolerance, and retards the learning that ought to take place in human experience. Now we’ve already heard this morning about disagreements of various sorts, and disagreement is an area where intellectual humility is certainly called for. Here tolerance figures, as it does where there’s nothing intellectually at stake. There are ways to be intellectually intolerant that go with dominance behavior. There are ways that simply go with turning one’s back and doing something like writing incompatible tracts that take no account of the view one is not tolerating. So, I’m interested in the character of disagreement and in various ways of dealing with it in the civic case and in my history, both in ethics and in matters of politics and religion. I think that there can be rational disagreement, even on the self-evident.

Now to see this, one must not conceive the self-evident as simply the obvious, or what compels assent the moment it is comprehended at all. Ross thought his principles self-evident, but he said that it takes a certain mental maturity to see their truth. Consider the principle of promissory fidelity. If you promise to do something, you have a prima facie reason to do it, so you have some obligation to do it, and that will be a final obligation if there’s simply no reason not to perform. Well, lots of people think that isn’t even true, much less self-evident.

But why do they think that? Are the in the grip of an opposing theory that forces them to think it? Is it rational to think it? Well I think it can be rational to think it, but only because we can be minimally rational without being justified. So what is the self-evident that allows me to say that? I think of self-evident propositions as those truths such that comprehending them adequately implies justification for believing them.

It doesn’t entail believing them, but it implies justification for believing them. Second, if you believe them on the basis of adequate justification, then you know them. So I connect self-evidence with both justification and knowledge, but if you have a good enough argument from, say a skeptical theory against the truth of something, you might be rationally denying it, but just wrong. We can be rational and still unjustified. That anyway is the view many of us take of intelligent colleagues who disagree with us. [audience laughing]

I never consider my colleagues irrational if they disagree, at least within reason, but I might consider them unjustified. However, humility requires not being dogmatic about that, and being willing to form such second ordered beliefs that one might be mistaken, one might not have all the evidence, one might have better reasons than one does that might result in refining the view, even if not backing away from it entirely. Okay, so there can be, I think, disagreement on just about anything, but even on the self-evident.

Now, that brings me to Part Six on Toleration and Rational Disagreement. An ideal case that has attracted the attention of epistemologists is that of epistemic parity. This is a somewhat artificial notion, but let’s say that two people are at epistemic parity on a proposition, such as that we should outlaw assisted suicide, where they have the same relevant evidence, they’re equally rational with respect to evaluating that evidence in relation to the proposition in dispute, and Three, they’re equally conscientious in considering the evidence. Now it’s very hard to know that someone is an epistemic peer on a complicated issue. Very hard to get even good justification for believing it.

But it can be salutary to ask if even a hypothetical person could be a peer on the other side, so that you have to look at the evidence from another point of view. So, if you like, intellectual humility encourages one to posit epistemic parity on the part of a hypothetical extension of your actual opponent. Now you can go skeptical if you think that there are disagreements between epistemic peers on important issues, especially if you think the disagreements are irresoluble by rational means. I don’t think we need to go skeptical here. I think respectful disagreement is possible. Humility facilitates fallibilism and it encourages openness, reappraisal and more. Now I suggest a principle for disagreement and coercion that operates in civic discourse, particularly as directed toward law and public policy. I call it the Principle of Toleration.

I think I published this in Democratic Authority and the Separation of Church and State, OUP, 2011. “If it is not reasonable for proponents of coercion “in a given matter, like assisted suicide, “to consider themselves epistemic superior in that matter “to supporters of the corresponding liberty, “then in that matter, the former have a prima facie “obligation to tolerate rather than coerce.” This seems to me to be morally sound. It goes with the Principle of Liberty I proposed. It goes with the idea that liberty is the default position in a well-founded democracy. That is, a case has to be made to restrict liberty, not to accord liberty to citizens. So, if you include hypothetical opponents, you get a pretty strong principle.

Your best hypothetical opponent had better be such that you’re epistemically superior if you really want to justify coercion. Some people will too easily think, of course, that they are superior in the relevant ways to the opposition; but there’s no realistic principle we can hope for here that will work with the unconscientious. We have to try to get people to internalize principles in a conscientious way. What supports a principle like this? Well there’s reciprocity, “Do unto others”. If we were in the disadvantaged or victim’s position, this is how we would want to be treated. Liberty, I have said, is the default standard.

And of course, remember that tolerance does not entail approval and commonly carries disapproval. So where we don’t coerce, we don’t have to tolerate attitudinally, we tolerate behaviorally by not interfering, but we can try to dissuade, we can express disapproval, we can marshal the forces of civilized argument. Okay, I think I can go to Part Seven, “Some Pathways to Common Ground”.

By starting with literary examples, I’ve implied a bottom-up approach, which favors intuition and presumes that we all have in our frame some empathy. We could also proceed from the top-down, using the high-minded powerful rhetoric we find in some of Kant. Kant can, of course, sometimes go too far, as where he says, “You couldn’t do a worse disservice “to morality than to derive it from examples.” Well, of course he means derive wholesale I suppose. I don’t think really he’s dismissing the value of intuitions that arise with examples.

But certainly Kant, as a master principle theorist, par excellence, could be thought to exemplify a top-down approach. Now Ross, with Aristotle in mind, talked about intuitive induction. He said that one gets the sense of promissory obligation from appreciating the generalizable kind of obligation that goes with committing yourself to another human being when you give your solemn assurance that you will A, some important act the other is counting on, let’s suppose. I think that in moral education, we proceed both from the bottom-up, using examples that we tell the child must be avoided. “Don’t hit,” we say. “Share,” we say. “Be more positive.”

We are taking advantage of a concrete situation and linking that to a principle. So if you think about moral education, you can see the Rossian principles as midway between master principles, like the Categorical Imperative and individual cases, such as those we so often find in Scripture. Virtues may also be regarded as mid-level normative elements in a certain way. A virtue lends itself to generalizing when we’ve seen exemplary behavior on the part of the person of virtue. On the other hand, virtues point us toward individual cases and have their most vivid realization in those concrete cases, I think.

Now I’d like to go on to a mid-level principle of civic virtue, one that I formulated a long time ago and has been much argued over in the past 20, 25 years. I call it the Principle of Secular Rationale, but more recently I’ve thought it may be better to call it the Principle of Natural Reason, which is very fair from the point of view, I think, of Thomistic thinking and natural law theory generally. It says that citizens in a democracy have a prima facie obligation not to advocate or support any law or public policy that restricts human conduct, unless they have and are willing to offer, adequate secular reason, natural reason, for this advocacy or support. So consider voting for assisted suicide.

You might have religious reasons for a vote here. You might have secular reasons. I think that both tolerance and humility point to there being a case for wishing to have reasons that can appeal to any rational citizen who thinks about the relevant facts in an appropriate way. There is no devaluing, however, of religious considerations in this principle. It differentially requires having adequate natural reasons, but it doesn’t say that religious reasons are evidentially deficient, or that they are less important, or that they should be regarded as less important, or be less motivating for religious citizens.

The principle also posits a prima facie obligation, that is an overridable obligation, and as I see it, it is certainly compatible with a right to do otherwise. So this is not a principle limiting voting rights, or even rights of conscience, as they may be loosely described. Rather, it sets a sort of involuntary ideal for civic virtue. That’s the way I’m thinking of the position. Now I’ll just take a couple of minutes on some concluding points. In civic discourse where there’s disagreement, one can make use of what I call leveraging. The metaphor is double-edged, and intended to be so. Leveraging can be abused, but it can also be used to good purpose.

It consists in getting inside somebody’s point of view, indeed inside the person’s arguments and thinking and articulating reasons, as well as conclusions. And to leverage in favor of the view one is arguing for with an opponent, is to find considerations the opponent accepts or would accept, and to show that they entail or support the position you want to persuade the opponent to hold. So if I don’t claim to believe something I don’t, I’m not deceiving you. And if I, in the right neutral way, say, “Well you believe p, q and r,” and they support s, which is the point of view I want you to accept, that I think needn’t be manipulative. But it can be.

So leveraging is something that must be done with a sense of respect for others. And it can bespeak tolerance, and being open to it when someone practices it upon oneself can be a good indication of humility. So leveraging should be understood as an addition to the principle of natural reason, because that principle can be used whatever one’s motivation. And the reasons that one provides as adequate natural reasons can be reasons that are accepted by the opposition and only taken to be possible arguments on one’s own side. I’d like to conclude with something that goes with the obligations of manner, and is not, I think, quite sufficiently discussed in ethics. It has to do with how in a democracy we voice what we say.

Content is one thing and voicing is another. And I like the example here of an orchestra tuning up to A440. If you have a full-scale orchestra, you have all these radically different voices that are converging on a single musical content. Well, there are different ways to voice what we think and to voice our reasons and to voice our disagreement or disapproval. So I think there’s such a thing as aretaic voicing, and it’s an element in civic virtue. Motivation is important to it. Motivation has a great deal to do with how what we say sounds, regardless of what it is that we say. And I can’t forebear in this context from noting that if we love our neighbors as ourselves, that will show both in our deeds, as the content of what we do, and in our voicing, as the expression distinctive of us that goes with what we do.

So here I’m calling on, not only the Second Love Commandment, but on a rich interpretation of Kant’s humanity formula, the less discussed part of the Categorical Imperative. We are to treat persons as ends in themselves, and never merely as means. Well, I said we should have some discussion time, and I think I’ve now sketched, but only sketched, an ethical and political philosophy that is an integration of principles, virtues, and intuitions. Thank you. [audience applauding] [whirring noise]