Intolerance of Religious Traditionalists Is NOT a Perversion of Liberalism

It is what liberalism was about right from the proto-liberals Hobbes and Locke on. Ed Feser notes:

"But it’s not just about sex.  It’s about egalitarianism itself, which, as Plato argued in The Republic, is inherently destructive of moral, legal, and rational standards, and has tyranny as its natural sequel.  The egalitarian regime insists, notionally, on tolerating every opinion and way of life, and refuses either to judge any one of them as morally or rationally superior to any other, or to favor any of them in its laws.  Yet no regime can tolerate what would subvert it.  And the very idea that some views and ways of life are simply objectively superior, rationally and morally, to others, is subversive of egalitarianism.  Hence egalitarian societies tend in practice to be intolerant of views which maintain that there are objective standards by which some views and ways of life might be judged better or worse.  That is to say, an egalitarian regime inevitably tolerates only those views which are egalitarian.  Which means, of course, that it tolerates only itself...

"Locke went so far in the direction of insisting that only those religions which accepted his doctrine of toleration ought to be tolerated that he held “toleration to be the chief characteristical mark of the true church.” In other words, a real religion is one which embraces Lockeanism. Hence the Lockean liberal regime tolerates only those views which accept the basic principles of Lockean liberalism. Which ultimately means, of course, that it too tolerates only itself..."

"Things are in no way different with the contemporary liberalism of John Rawls. Rawls famously holds that a liberal society is one which is neutral between, and can be accepted as just on the basis of premises held by, all of the competing 'comprehensive doctrines' -- that is to say, the religious, philosophical and moral worldviews -- that exist within a modern pluralistic society. Or at least, Rawls says, it is neutral between the 'reasonable' comprehensive doctrines. And what makes a doctrine 'reasonable,' as it turns out, is a willingness to endorse the principles of Rawls’s brand of liberalism. Which means that the Rawlsian regime tolerates only those views which endorse its underlying principles. And thus -- once again -- we have a form of egalitarianism which on analysis really only tolerates itself."


  1. One could perhaps invoke Oakeshott here on the distinction between enterprise association and civil association. If one believes the role of the state is to enforce egalitarianism, then Feser has a point. If one, on the other hand, adheres to equal protection of the law, then his point loses its force. A good divide on, for example, same-sex marriage is between the people who seek equal protection of the law and those who seek to enforce a wider regime of egalitarianism extending to restricting public debate.It is one thing to be outraged that some category of folk do not have equal protection of the law, another to be outraged that not everyone agrees with it. And a very different thing to hold that people should be punished for holding such views; or, indeed, to think that the state should enforce some particular notion of what is a superior way of life.

  2. Tolerance of intolerance is no virtue, and intolerance of intolerance no vice. Liberals would draw the distinction between views and actions though all actions have views behind them and determine acceptable actions through persuasion of views, egalitarian to the alternative of tyranny, all tyrants not being created equal.

  3. This is a Feser-as-church-apologist tu quoque. Liberalism does not encompass complete freedom of speech. None the less, modern America, like Canada or Sweden, or most of the liberal West, is more tolerant of ideas and their expression than pretty nearly any place NOT ruled by liberalism ever has been. Certainly freer than any place ruled by Thomists.

    1. "None the less, modern America, like Canada or Sweden, or most of the liberal West, is more tolerant of ideas and their expression than pretty nearly any place NOT ruled by liberalism ever has been."

      I think that is probably wrong. But in any case, it is very clearly irrelevant: no comparative institutional claim AT ALL was made by Feser, or is being made by me. So you've slapped a big red herring in the middle of the floor. Furthermore, other regimes have not gone around CLAIMING to be morally neutral. Only liberalism has done that. So the whole point is to show that it is not. And not just that it is hypocritically not what it claims to be: it CAN'T be what it claims to be and survive. So tu quoque that.

      Oh, and I don't think Thomists ever ruled anywhere. There are probably rulers with whom they were influential, but that's about the most "rule" they ever had.


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