A Tolerant Society Can't Mitigate Every Felt Harm: An Interview with Philosopher Andrew Jason Cohen
In a liberal society, dialogue is vital to building tolerance for diverse lifestyles
Listen at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or find it in your favorite podcast app.
Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to ReImagining Liberty, a project of The UnPopulist. I'm Aaron Ross Powell, and this is a show about the emancipatory and cosmopolitan case for radical social, political, and economic freedom.
A liberal society is a tolerant one. It's a society that allows for pluralism and preferences, lifestyles, religions, and approaches to life. How far does tolerance go? What are the exceptions, and how can we better cultivate it? To discuss these questions, I'm joined today by Andrew Jason Cohen. He's professor of philosophy and founding director of the Interdisciplinary Studies Program in philosophy, politics, and Economics at Georgia State University. He's the author most recently of Toleration and Freedom from Harm: Liberalism Reconceived and is working on a new book on civil discourse.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for flow and clarity.
Aaron: What is the role of tolerance in a liberal society?
Andrew: That's a big question. Well I think, what we want in a liberal society is a maximally tolerant society. One where people are free to do as they please without interference by pretty much anyone, government certainly, but also, private institutions and other individuals. We want to have a clear limit to when interference is permissible because there are going to be cases where you're going to want to interfere.
Nobody thinks that we should tolerate everything. We shouldn't tolerate murderers, obviously. We want to figure out what that limit is. A good part of my work on toleration has been defending a particular view of the harm principle that lays it out and says this is the only reason, the only justification for interference, especially from the government, but really from any institution or individual.
Aaron: Before we get too much further, I want to ask, is there a difference between tolerance, which is what I said in my opening question and toleration, which is what you just said?
Andrew: I use them somewhat differently. I think in common parlance, they're sometimes used interchangeably and sometimes not. I think just for clarity, I prefer to use toleration for the behavior and tolerance for the attitude. But we use them interchangeably in various cases. We certainly use tolerance as a name for the behavior as well sometimes. We never talk about toleration for the attitude. We talk about a tolerant attitude. We don't talk about tolerating attitude, even though that would be reasonable as well.
Aaron: Then if we tolerate everything, but that which is harmful, is the liberal ideal. Just taken that way seems like a statement that almost everybody would agree with, except for maybe some people on the very far fringes. Where the rubber would seem to meet the road is what counts as harm because we could say a harm is just like punching, it's just physical force and maybe fraud, theft if we're taking the hardcore libertarian position. I think most people would see harms in all sorts of other ways.
Andrew: I have a particular view about what harm is, and a particular view, and that results in a particular view of when interference is going to be permissible. I don't think it's just physical harm. I don't think anybody actually does think it's merely physical harm in the sense of being punched. If I steal from you, for example, is that a physical harm? I'm not sure it's really what we'd call it physical harm, but it's obviously a harm. I also think there are such things as psychological or emotional harms. I just think they're harder to prove. I think when you get into that territory, it's more difficult.
But I would actually doubt the claim that everybody, except those on the far side of the spectrum, think it's only harm that allows for interference. We have a system that allows for and encourages interference for all sorts of reasons that don't seem to have to do with harm.
We have a system of blue laws, for example. [We’d be] hard pressed to say that allowing somebody to buy alcohol Sunday morning is a harm or is preventing a harm. I suppose you might try, but it seems like it's a far-fetched thing. Similarly, when we provide welfare to others, certainly when you provide corporate welfare, it's hard to justify that in terms of harm. We do those things all the time in society. Similarly, I think providing morals education, which don't get me wrong, I think is very useful— again, I think it'd be hard-pressed to show that this is a matter of harm. In all these cases, you might be able to do it, but at a certain point, you look at the person and say, "Okay, you're not really talking about harm." In other cases, psychological harm is like, "Yes, okay, that is a harm, and maybe that's not a harm." In other cases, still, even physical things, like the boxer gets in the ring, and he gets punched, is that the sort of harm that we want to allow interference with? I would say no. I think there are lots of difficult questions. You're right that where the rubber hits the road is it where it's trying to figure out what harm is, but I wouldn't want to overstate that part. I do think there are lots of things that other people want to allow for interference with.
Aaron: I was thinking, as you were saying that about the way that someone might defend this being harm in these various ways that aren't immediate punching. You could say like welfare, that we are allowing interference because the harm is that people are starving on the streets, whatever. So we're going to have this interference in order to prevent harm to those people of this kind. You sometimes get from more right-wing directions an almost, we call a cultural harm that people have a right to a certain way of life, and other people behaving in certain ways is not immediate coercive violence, but it interferes with living your life in a certain way, which is then a harm to you.
The difference between these and say the punching, or at least one difference is immediacy. Does harm have to be an immediate thing, or can it be multiple steps down the road? "If we don't interfere now, then this thing will happen, which is not harm and this thing will happen and this thing," but eventually we get to harmful stuff.
Andrew: Yes. I don't think it's about immediacy at the end of the day. For example, I think certain forms of pollution can be harmful. I'm not going to be good with the chemical stuff here, but if two parts of X in the atmosphere does no damage to anybody, but then everybody starts putting two particles there into the atmosphere, eventually, it's the point where there's so much in the atmosphere that it does do harm. I don't see any reason to deny that there's harm when there's significant pollution in the atmosphere or in a river or whatever it might be. So we might want to stop it before you get to the point where it's actually harmful. That seems reasonable to me.
It's not a matter of immediacy, but there is a question, again, I have a particular view about what harm is, and it's a moralized notion. So harm is a wrongful setting back of one's interests, and wrongfulness is really hard to cash out. I'm not going to deny any of that, but it doesn't seem to me that the first person who puts the first two molecules of whatever pollution is into the atmosphere, is doing anything wrong whatsoever. I think you'd be hard-pressed to defend that claim that they were doing harm. It doesn't seem to me that there's a problem there.
Similarly, to use a weird example from Action Theory, if you shoot me today, but I end up in the hospital, and I die two weeks later or three weeks later, there's a difficult question about when you murdered me, but I don't think we doubt that you murdered me. The immediacy issue isn't really what's at issue, it's really that you've done something wrongful to me. That I really want to push at. I don't think it's reasonable to say that somebody harmed somebody else if they didn't do anything to them.
The person who's starving through no fault of anybody else, but only because for whatever reason, they don't have access to food, or maybe they gambled away their money, or they used all their money for drugs or what have you, so, they now have no money to buy food. Nobody did anything to them to put them in that harmed situation. To say that they were harmed strikes me as a mistake. To say they're hurting strikes me as obvious, but nobody did anything to them, so, there's no harm involved.
Aaron: If interfering to prevent harm is the role of the state in a liberal society, would this then preclude, I guess, interference in, say that the drowning child—hypothetical that shows up all the time in moral philosophy. You're walking by, you see the child drowning, you could just reach in, but it might ruin your shoes, and so you don't want to ruin your shoes. I guess that the underlying question, and this is, I think, central to the way a lot of people approach politics is saying that there's the interference in the form of the state is not permissible in situation X, is that distinct from saying that situation X has no wrongful moral features? Could we say it is 100% wrong to not save the drowning child, but the state is prohibited from coercing you into doing it?
Andrew: I think that's exactly what we should say. It would be wrong for you not to save the child, but I assume you didn't throw the child in the water. I'm assuming for the moment that you're not the parent of this child. I'm also assuming you have no other obligation in particular to this child or to this child's parents. In that case, you haven't done anything to the child, so you haven't harmed them.
To say that you harm them would be a mistake, and so to say that there's interference that's permissible with you would strike me as a mistake. At the same time, of course, you should save them. A child drowning is just a bad thing, but to say that the child drowning is a bad thing, that it's being hurt by its drowning or something like that leads to the claim that you should be interfered with to force you to save the child. That strikes me as a big step, and that's the step I want to avoid.
Aaron: It does seem that one of the main points of contention in say, contemporary American politics, is about this notion that harm can be something that you didn't do directly. This seems to be like the basis of the culture wars, I suppose, is trans kids parents making decisions for their kids is both creating an environment I don't want my kids to be in or exposing my kids. I know someone who expressed, a hardcore libertarian who nonetheless expressed a fair amount of sympathy for Viktor Orbán because he was upset that his kids were attending a school where they had pride flags. Like during pride month they had posters up and saying like, "Look, I don't want my kids subjected to this."
This person, as a hardcore Catholic, saw this at a spiritual level actually harmful to be exposed to and to think like it was a moral wrong to think these lifestyles were right and so on and so forth. How do you make the case grounded in this harm principle of a liberal society to people like that who feel basically, "Yes, this isn't hitting me. Yes, they're not forcing my kid to be gay, but this is creating an environment that is ultimately intolerable to me"?
Andrew: There are a lot of things to be said about this. I'll tell you about a recent conversation I had with another scholar who was talking about spiritual harm and spiritual reparations. I was really taken aback because I was like, "Okay, let me accept for the moment that there's this thing spiritual harm even though you haven't really told me what it is." How in the world do you make spiritual reparations? There's this other realm of stuff. My soul is wandering around in this realm, and your soul is wandering around in this realm, and it's somehow been wronged in a bad way, and it's hurting.
I don't really know what any of that means, but say that all makes sense somehow. How am I in this world going to do anything to rectify that? If it's me in the spiritual world, my soul then maybe, but what are we doing about it? How are we going to talk about this? I don't really know how to make sense out of that. When this person went on to talk about it, it really just seemed like he was assuming that there's a complete parallel in the soul world, the spiritual world to the physical world and so give them money and their spirits are better.
I don't know why you would think that but more importantly for this sort of question, I want to say, look, you are free to go start a community. If you can find enough people that want to have a community like that where nobody has any pride flags and nobody talks about trans kids or trans issues for adults, fine, go start a community that does that.
This is the idea from Chandran Kukathas’ Liberal Archipelago and I just find this completely satisfying, if you want to start a community like that, you're welcome to do it. Nobody in the ideal libertarian world would stop you from doing that. A bunch of us, I assume, would not join you. [chuckles] I have no desire to live in that world. My son goes to school with a lot of trans kids and other people from LGBTQ groups and I'm like, fine, he doesn't have a problem with it, and I don't have a problem with it. I think there are lots of benefits to the school. There is this live and let live attitude. I do want to tolerate these people living in whatever way they see fit. But I can imagine some people are going to be like, "This is a terrible world. I don't want my kids too exposed to this." Absolutely fine. You're free to move so long as the people that move with you, including your children have the right to exit. I'm fine with it.
Aaron: Let me flip it then a bit, if we're on this topic of spiritual harm, because this is—in law school I wrote a paper on, there's a whole string of court cases where basically it's about religious exceptions to laws, where someone wants to do something or doesn't want to do something, and they're prosecuted because of religious reasons, and they're prosecuted for it. What I wrote about in the paper is how an unstated theme of these cases or an unstated premise of the decisions is these people's religious beliefs are false.
The reason is that if you have—say one of the cases was about children who were handing out religious paperwork by the side of the road and the state prosecuted. If the parents believe that by not doing this, their children will go to hell for eternity—if that's true that's about as extreme of a harm as we can possibly imagine, then it would be monstrously unjust to say, "No, the interests of your child say attending school this afternoon outweigh burning in hell for eternity."
So the only way to make sense of this to say, "No, there's no harm being done that outweighs the law," is to say you are mistaken in your religious belief about God's judgment and the punishment that would follow from it. If we say that these spiritual harms aren't the kind of harms that need to count or that can be rectified or that we should take seriously as far as state coercion, does that mean that we're basically have to be telling these people their religious like metaphysical beliefs and moral beliefs are at some level mistaken?
"This is a terrible world. I don't want my kids too exposed to this." Absolutely fine. You're free to move so long as the people that move with you, including your children have the right to exit. I'm fine with it.
Andrew: I don't know the cases you're talking about, but if the state is making the case that they won't allow the exemption, then it sounds like the state is saying, your religious view is wrong. I don't think in the ideal libertarian society, that's what would happen. In the ideal libertarian society, I don't even think there'd be an exemption because I just don't think there'd be a law requiring the attendance at school. I think schooling is a good thing. I think actually prevention of harm to children probably requires that children have an education of some sort, but it doesn't require a particular sort of schooling. The state wouldn't have this question come up in the first place. In the society we live in, if the state says we can't have the exemption for these reasons, that does seem like it's imposing its view about— I'm not going to say its view about the correctness of any particular religion or spiritual view, but at least the falseness of the one that the people here have. That strikes me as a mistake like, we shouldn't do that.
Aaron: How do we sell this, I guess? Because you've got a profoundly pluralistic society with people with all sorts of interests that do not align, or are in direct opposition to each other. Preferences that vary wildly. Lifestyle choices that do come into conflict and all of them want, principles of justice matter but for many people it's, I want to live the life I want to live, and I want to be happy in the way that I define happiness.
It seems tough as committed liberals to say like, "No, you need to set all of that aside for one, the reason of principles of justice trump your tastes and preferences, and two, your tastes and preferences aren't necessarily more important than the guy next to you. He needs to have them too." But that just seems like an uphill battle.
Andrew: A couple of things. One, I say something about this in my post today on ProSocial Libertarians and basically, I do say, "Look, you have your views about the best way for you to live. It's perfectly normal for you to treat your neighbors, your friends, your family, your compatriots, et cetera, your co-nationals as more important than others. That's all perfectly normal and perfectly acceptable, but that doesn't mean that they are more important than others. That's where we make the distinction. I think we have to push that a lot. We have to make sure people realize a genuine-—I hate to try to talk about a purity test of some sort for libertarianism because I think that leads to all sorts of problems—but I think a real libertarian is going to be concerned with all individuals. At root, it's not just about me. It's not just about my family. It's not just about my co-nationals or my co-patriots or what have you. It's about everybody. It's about each of us as individuals. That's the first thing.
Second thing, I don't really think this is why I'm working on the book that I'm working on now, but it does lead into it. I'm working on a book now on civil discourse because I look out at society and I think—it seems to me worse by degree than it's ever been before, the level of discourse we have, but I'm not sure that's true because I think people have, for centuries, complained about the level of discourse in different ways. Nonetheless, I think there really is a problem out there and that we do it badly. So I'm writing this book, which is basically meant to be an instruction manual for civil discourse. I'm trying not to put my own libertarian view into it.
The only thing that I want to come out that I want to say this is correct is, one, you should engage in more discourse, not less, and, two, use this method, it might work. What is this method? It's recognizing basically that there are five reasons why people want to have interference. There's harm, there's harm to self, there's offense, there's immorality, and paternalistic reasons. Oh, sorry, and benefit to others reasons. Those are the reasons. You want to have people doing good acting morally, not doing harm to others, not doing harm to themself, and not offending others.
Now, what I want to encourage people to do is actually engage with the dialogue, with the people that they're disagreeing with about any particular case and say, "Okay, let me try to figure out why you think this is a reason for interference. Why do you think it's okay to have a blue law, for example, where you can't buy alcohol on Sunday morning? Do you really think that's about harm? Tell me about what the harm might be. Who's being harmed, and how do we interfere to prevent the harm? If you don't think it's about harm, do you think it's just about immorality because your religion says you shouldn't have alcohol?"
I don't even know if the religion actually says that, but let's assume the religion says you shouldn't have alcohol on Sunday morning. "Does that make it immoral? Can you tell me more about that?" Anyway, I think if we have dialogue in that way, we can convince people, maybe this is my own optimism coming through, but I think that's the way to go. Try to figure out what's that root at why people think we should interfere with others.
Figure out if it's a harm, if it's an immorality, if it's a matter of benefiting others, whatever it might be, and try to really get down into it and see what it is that they think is going on such that interference is warranted. I'm not saying that that's going to result in everybody coming to agreement, but I think it would improve things dramatically, and we'd be able to come to much more sensible conclusions about when interference is permissible and when it's not.
Aaron: Do you think that the problem that we see with the state of our political culture and political discourse is because people—maybe these are the same things as I think about saying this, but I'll say it anyway, because they are refusing to engage in that discourse or that that kind of discourse is in bad faith because it seems like a lot of people are willing to have the conversations about—if you ask them what is the harm, they'll list it, and they might give answers that those of us who are skeptical about it being a harm find wildly unpersuasive, but a lot of it seems to be bad faith or pretextual.
When the gay marriage debates, when those are going on, very rarely did people say the harm that I see in gay marriages that I personally find it yucky. Instead, they would point to all of these, we've seen the same thing in the anti-trans—it's not just trans people weird me out, which I think even they recognize would not be a good reason, but they'll concoct all of these, oh, it's social contagion and it's children and all these things that are transparently bad arguments. Everyone is dealing in discourse, but it all seems to be pretextual or in bad faith.
I think we live in a culture where dialogue is frowned upon, and we're taught from a very young age that we shouldn't engage in it.
Andrew: I think two things. I think there's certainly a lot of bad faith in the dialogue that we have, absolutely, but I don't think that's the reason that people don't want to do it. I really do think people refuse to engage in dialogue, but I don't even think that they refuse to engage in dialogue because they're thinking to themselves, "These people are terrible. I don't want to dialogue with them." I don't think that's what's going on. I think we live in a culture where dialogue is frowned upon, and we're taught from a very young age that we shouldn't engage in it.
When you're a kid and your parent says to you, "Don't bring up such and such a topic at dinner when the guests are over." What is that teaching you? It's teaching you that there's some things that are off-limits that you shouldn't engage with. Why? Somebody's going to get upset about it or it's going to lead to an argument and God forbid we have an argument over dinner. I think that's the problem. We raise kids thinking that discourse is bad.
We raise kids to think they shouldn't disagree with their elders. We raise kids to think that they shouldn't ask what we think of as embarrassing questions, all of that. When you do all of that over and over again, you can't be surprised when these kids grow up to be adults who think that it's bad to ask questions and criticize others. Like every class, I start out with trying to encourage my students to challenge me.
I don't want them to think that what I say they have to accept. I think that's a really bad way to go, and I think that's true in general. We have to get people to a point where they're willing to ask questions. I think our society is one that discourages, and I don't think it's just our society, I think it's really a bigger issue. I do think our society really discourages people from asking questions so that they feel like it's rude to do so, it's rude to disagree.
Again, I try to encourage people to recognize that if you're refusing to disagree with somebody, you're basically saying to them, "I don't think you're capable of understanding me. I don't think you're capable of changing your mind. There's no point in me having a discussion with you." That's the disrespect. I think that's the really big problem. I think even when we're talking about the pretextual issues, like if my son meets a gay man, he's going to turn gay, like it's going to catch or something like that.
Even when you're dealing with those things just face up to it and say, what reason do you have to believe that's the way things work? Because we have a whole lot of reason to think it doesn't work. There are children of gay people who aren't gay. I assume most gay people weren't children of gay people. Some might have been if they were adopted or something, but most aren't. There's a whole lot of reason to think it doesn't work that way. Again, I would want to encourage people to actually engage even when they think the other side is using a pretext.
Aaron: It seems though that getting to that point where people are willing to have more frequent dialogues of the kind that you're advocating for, that requires a baseline level of tolerance in society. There are some views that we should not really be tolerant of. I am very sympathetic to say my friends, like transgender rights, trans friends who feel they are basically these—Why would I argue? Why would I sit down and have a dialogue with someone who basically doesn't think I should exist?
They feel like there's a issue of danger. There's a issue of hierarchy and oppression. Like all of these things are very, very real. Without that baseline level of tolerance, it's hard to have these conversations in the first place. How do we cultivate that? Because it's not something where—you can make your arguments and they can be very persuasive arguments, but people don't tend to develop traits of character based on an argument that they found persuasive.
Andrew: First, if a particular person feels it's unsafe for them to engage in the dialogue, they don't have to engage in the dialogue. That's perfectly reasonable. To expect a transperson to engage with a transphobic intellectual who's giving arguments good or bad where they think they're unsafe, either in the purely psychological sense that they think it's going to be really detrimental to their mental health or in a physical sense for whatever reason.
They don't have to do that. This isn't an insistence that you're obligated to engage in discourse with everybody. There are people, I don't engage with discourse. I don't have a problem with talking to trans folks or anti-trans folk or trans advocates either way. There should be people out there who are willing to do it. Like I would do it, totally fine. You’re a trans person and you don't want to have the dialogue with a transphobic person. If I'm there, I'll step in (assuming various things). There are lots of other reasons why we're not going to engage in dialogue. I have a very hard time engaging in dialogue with anybody that lies to my face. Once you start lying to my face, I'm like, "Okay, there's no point in dialogue because I don't know that you're going to be committed to anything you say. Why would I say anything back?"
It does require a level of tolerance, but it's not a requirement that each of us have to tolerate the other. Again, I think what we want to do is change, we want to have a cultural shift so that people are more willing and able to engage in dialogue from the get-go. I think if we did that, we'd have a) a much more tolerant society from the get-go, and b) much fewer people feeling unsafe about engaging in the dialogue for the reason I just gave that we'd have more tolerance.
I think we have to figure out ways to encourage this from an earlier age. I think really, our society has been set up in completely the reverse fashion. Think about our houses. We buy bigger and bigger houses. What does that mean? It means our children have their own bedrooms. Think about time 50 or 60 years ago, children didn't have their own bedrooms. That's a relatively modern thing. Even 15 years ago, children certainly didn't have their own bathrooms.
All of these things get in the way of our learning to have good dialogue. If I had multiple kids, I only have the one, but if I had more than one kid, I would absolutely not allow them to have separate bathrooms. I'm not sure if I allowed them that separate bedrooms, but I definitely would not allow them to have separate bathrooms. We have to put people in situations that they are going to engage in dialogue trying to figure out ways to improve their lives together.
Aaron: This makes me think of the conversations about public schools that came up during COVID because public schools are a place where most kids are forced together with a whole bunch of people they didn't choose into this one building, and they’ve got to talk to each other, lots of talking to each other and some of it is really bad. There were a lot of people on the one hand arguing the school shutdowns during COVID were harmful in part because the kids weren't getting that socialization.
Then there were a lot of people on the other side of it saying like, school is this unbelievably toxic place. It was horrible for me. Kids are so mean to each other. Being able to separate and the forced association that doesn't exist outside in the real world because you can get out of situations. It seems like you're saying we should force people together more, but if the people think schooling is bad, like public schooling is bad, that brings its own problems.
Andrew: Let me qualify. We should force our children, but they're our children and part of that is trying to figure out what's going to lead them to have the best life. Again, if I had multiple kids, I would not allow them to have a bathroom apiece. Maybe one bathroom is okay for two, but it's definitely not okay for one. Maybe if I had four kids, I'd have two bathrooms for them. Maybe. I'm not really sure.
I might just say, "No y'all have to share the same bathroom. I think that's even better." What we're talking about when we're talking about schooling is a little bit different. We're not talking about parents forcing their kids to engage in dialogue with others. We're talking about the state forcing the parents to force their children to do that. Here, I just come down very clearly on the side of those who think, "Look, schools are toxic." They don't have to be, but they often are.
I used to really worry about charter schools because I basically—I don't want to make generalizations here. I had experiences with charter schools that were basically ways for very wealthy people to use state funding and then add to the state funding to make really good—basically private schools for their own kids. That strikes me as a really bad way to go.
If the state funding is going to be used for schooling, it shouldn't be used in a way that just benefits the richer people. That seems to me, obviously wrong. I could go into that, but I won't. I think the benefit to charter schools is it allows you to take your child out of—assuming they're in a bad school or a school that's not necessarily bad, but just toxic for them and take them out of that and put them into another school. That strikes me as exactly what we want to do. We might want to do that with a charter school, which makes it more affordable for a bunch of people. We might want to do it with private schools. We might want to do it with homeschooling, and the evidence is really quite good, homeschooled children not only come out and do better in terms of how they succeed in college, they turned out to be better socially adjusted, better emotionally adjusted, and in a way, this shouldn't be surprising because the claim that we have to send them to school to get socialized is really silly.
If we don't send them to school to get socialized, what are we doing with them? Are we putting them in a room by themselves for 24/7 or something? No, of course not. They're getting socialized in a different way. Maybe they're just getting socialized with mom or dad. Maybe they're getting socialized with mom and dad and siblings. More likely, in fact, they're getting socialized with another sibling or several other children in some sort of co-op. There's always going to be the socialization going on. It's not zero socialization or the socialization of school.
We have to put people in situations that they are going to engage in dialogue trying to figure out ways to improve their lives together.
Aaron: It also is the case that part of the reason we think they're not going to get socialized if they don't go to school is because we force all the kids into school and so there's fewer people for them to socialize with if they're not—we don't tend to say, oh no, during their summer vacation, our kids aren't going to get socialized because they're hanging out with their friends.
Although it does bring me back to the question of what has changed because you say that things have gotten worse, and you mentioned larger houses. There also seems to be like, I look at when I was—I saw some little meme going around about millennials and Gen X, and it was describing the Gen X childhood of I disappear at dawn and my parents would've no idea where I was. If we got thirsty, we'd find a random garden house to drink out of, and we got hungry, we'd knock on doors until someone gave us a sandwich, and then we'd show up at dusk and everyone who is Gen X had avoided at least one kidnapping at some point, whereas now it's all managed. Adults seem to intervene in discourse more than they used to. That it's mediated a lot more than it used to be because we're not out, but all of those are like, those are things that change, but they're not reasons why it changed. If the situation is worse now than it used to be, bracketing that there are, we can point to times in history when discourse was very, very bad, what has changed culturally to get us there?
Andrew: I don't know if I know the answer to this question. I think there are various factors. I think part of that likely is social media, but I think of these things as all coming in degrees. It's not like a sharp contrast because anything that people say about social media today, they would've said about cable news before, or then television news before that, or newspapers before that, or even books. People complained about every new technology of communication that we've ever had. Maybe in each case, there were problems. I was actually talking to my mother about this. My mother is in her 80s and she has a very hard time using technology. She's looking at her smartphone, which she has and uses for some things, but she has a hard time with, and she's like, "It seems like they try to make everything easy, and it just gets harder and harder."
I said, "Well, they say that about every technology that comes about." My guess is that frankly for every technology that comes out, if it succeeds, at least that's a reason to think it actually was helpful for a lot of people, but that doesn't mean that it was helpful for everybody, and that doesn't mean it wasn't even bad for some people. Probably it was. When you're used to a different technology and something new comes along, it might be hard for you to switch, and you might have a lot of difficulty with it. It might make your life even worse. I suspect in all cases, again, where the technology succeeds, it made the life better more than worse. I think that's important.
I think all of those things go into it, but I think also, we have—this might sound just like libertarian craziness, but I'll say it anyway because I think it's probably true, over the years, over the last century or so, we've given the government more and more power to do things. At first, it was government created schools. Then it was government forced you to send your kids to school, those weren't the same. First there was the schools were created, but you didn't necessarily send your kids to school. I dated somebody 20 or 30 years ago who never went to school as a child. It wasn't illegal at the time where she grew up. The second step was you're forced to send your child there, then there's another step. Not only are you forced to send your child there, but if you don't provide them a lunch, that lunch will be provided for them. Then it was if you don't provide them breakfast that will be provided for them. Then it was, if you don't take care of their health care, we're going to take care of them. All of these things that have just been added one after the other it's basically a way of more or less the government saying, "Don't worry about your kids, we'll take care of them." The message comes through. I don't think people think it that way, but the message comes through. I don't have to worry about it, they'll take care of it.
That's just allowing a distant bureaucracy and not federal in the case of schools, but still, usually, it's not the state even, it's the local school board's allowed to control this, but that's distant in the important sense. Take care of these things. Again, it's not going to be surprising when people are no longer engaging themselves the way they had to before. If you wanted your child to get an education of any sort, you had to do it. You had to either educate them yourself or enroll them in the school that you chose.
Then it became that you just go to the local school. If you wanted to get your child to eat interesting food, you gave it to them, and you had to figure out ways to get them to eat it. If you wanted to get the child to go to the doctor, you had all these things. The things that the parent had to do with the child, and now we've gotten to a point where it's less and less that the parent has to do these things, and more and more that there's somebody else that does these things.
We're discouraging parents from engaging with their children, and we're discouraging parents from having their children engaged with others. Superficially, it looks like we're forcing more discourse but I think in reality, it's not.
Aaron: I want to ask you, I guess, to be self-indulgent, because you've written extensively about tolerance. I want to ask you about this argument that I have made on this podcast and in writings elsewhere about the sufficiency of tolerance for a liberal society or to sustain a liberal society because I have come to increasingly view, and a lot of this is motivated by just watching the culture war play out in particularly the reactionary elements on the right—is that tolerance by itself is almost a negative moral judgment of behavior. Behavior that you like, you don't have to tolerate because you like it.
Tolerance is saying, "I think there is something wrong with what this person's doing, but I'm going to hold my tongue." It seems increasingly to me that that is not enough for a liberal society because at some point a dynamic and robustly free society is going to be one that changes very quickly. There's going to be a lot of different people doing all sorts of things, all sorts of experimenting with lifestyles, having all sorts of preferences that are evolving quickly and going in all directions.
All of us do have a line beyond which, either we just for principled reasons are unwilling to tolerate, or it just becomes increasingly hard. We just are so uncomfortable that it's hard to even if we know it would be best to tolerate this behavior, it just becomes difficult. It seems to me that instead what we need to be doing is tolerance is a baseline but for a liberal society to sustain itself and be healthy, we actually need to cultivate a joy in others self-expression.
Even if call it said, in ancient Indian philosophy, there's the idea of Mudita or sympathetic joy which is, "I'm not taking joy in your actions, I might even not really like the actions but I am taking sympathetic joy in the fact that you are feeling fulfillment that you are happy in them, even if it's a different way." That, to me, increasingly seems like a necessary component of a healthy liberal society is cultivating basically a love of others' happiness and self-expression.
We're discouraging parents from engaging with their children, and we're discouraging parents from having their children engaged with others.
Andrew: Let me say two things. One, my libertarian view is based on the harm principle, which is a principle that requires a great deal of toleration, but I think also allows for interference. In particular, if you do harm to somebody there's a possibility that we can interfere. Not necessarily going to interfere. It's only a pro tanto reason, but at least interference might be permissible if you do harm to somebody. One of the things that has to be recognized is because we want institutions that are present to do the interfering, I think the harm principle itself also allows for a minimal form of taxation to guarantee that those institutions can exist. Basically a policing and court system sort of system, not like what we have now because I think what we have now violates the harm principle all the time, but I won't go into that. That's the first thing. There's a sense in which I want to say, merely tolerating is insufficient on those grounds because we have to have the means to interfere when necessary.
Secondly, and most importantly, though, I think what you're pushing toward is not an ideal liberal society. I think what you're pushing toward is something more than the ideal liberal society. I think the ideal liberal society is the society that has broad toleration, it doesn't eliminate conflict, and it doesn't result in a society where we all love each other.
I think this society where we all love each other, as much as my own view might be pie in the sky, that view is even more pie in the sky. I don't think it's a realistic thing that we can come to. I'm not even sure I would like it. Do I really want to live in a society where I find joy in everybody else is doing whatever they're wanting to do? I don't think so. There are all sorts of crazy views out there. I look at homosexual people and I’m like, "You're happy? Great, fine, I don't care."
I look at trans people and I’m like, "You're happy? Great, fine. I don't care. It doesn't have any effect on me." There are points in which I think I don't know, you want to have an affair with your dog? I don't know if I think that's okay. I might end up saying, "Go for it as long as you're happy and the dog is happy. I don't really care, but I don't think I want to associate with you any longer." I'm not going to be joyful in your participation in that sort of activity. For me, the liberal society does include continual tension and disagreement that doesn't go away.
I think that's not a bad thing because the continual disagreement and tension allows us to grow and allows us to keep asking questions about the way we live. I think that's for the better, it makes us better as humans.
Aaron: I don't think I'm advocating or believe that we can achieve the society where everybody loves each other, I think it is more a cultivating a general attitude of other people's happiness is good and that their happiness is coming in ways that are not the ways that I would personally choose, is there can be exceptions, but on the whole, we should be happy that people are finding happiness in diverse ways, and that they are able to achieve the kind of life that they want. It feels like a lot of what happens, a lot of what you see in our society is almost like there's the Mencken line about puritanism. “Puritanism is the fear that someone somewhere is having a good time. That shows up that it's like that they are enjoying themselves, that these people are happy in ways that I wouldn't choose, is like a threat to me, is something that I'm angry about. I want them to stop it. This isn't we should force everyone to love everyone but more that we should just see it as part of being a virtuous person is a capacity to gain joy from others' joy.
Andrew: I'm almost with you, given the way you said it, but I would change it a little bit, I would say the following. I do think toleration is a second best, but the best is not the joy because a) think it's unreasonable and b) there's certainly religious traditions where they say we should all love one another. I'm sorry, like, "Aaron, I like you a lot, but I don't love you the way I love my wife or my son or my parents, et cetera." That's a mistake in the way we think about these things.
What I think would be the best sort of society, what might be the ideal liberal society would be a society where we're really concerned with a few people, our family, and friends, and we're completely and utterly indifferent to everybody else. That means we don't get joy from them but we also have no desire to interfere with them, we have no desire to stop them, we don't get angry with them we don't think that what they're doing is gross, we just don't think about it at all. I think the problem with our society, and maybe this is a problem with humanity is we get really concerned with what other people are doing.
I find this fascinating because it's not something that I do. I just don't care about most other people. People get upset with me when I say that, like why don't you care about them? Because their life it has nothing to do with me. I think it would be better if that's the way we were.
Aaron: Thank you for listening to ReImagining Liberty. If you enjoy the show, please take a moment to rate and review it on Apple podcasts. You can also join our Discord listener community and book club by following the link in the show notes. ReImagining Liberty is a project for The UnPopulist and is produced by Landry Ayres.
Great Article. Yes, "MUDITA" (the PALI word for Sympathetic Joy) is much more powerful and active than mere "Tolerance" which implies a kind of condescension. It is so sadly revealing that our English language has borrowed the term "Schadenfreude" and not its positive opposite. It is time we introduce the term and the concept of "sympathetic joy" into our frame of understanding. Because this term is so far outside our conventional way of thinking, it may seem "sloppy" to some readers. But it refers to something profound and vital if we hope to get beyond our all-pervasive divise-ness. Thanks for this great article and insight!!!
Sorry. Couldn't handle the sloppy language, logic, examples, omissions of obvious parallels. Read closely for a while, then skimmed, then clicked down to the comments. Not a serious thinker, this Libertarian.