Tolerance, For Its Own Sake

Raghuram Rajan’s instrumental view isn’t as full a defence of tolerance as we need.

Written by Kranti Saran | Updated: November 4, 2015 4:26 am
RBI governor Raghuram Rajan during interview at RBI Head quarter on Wednesday. Express Photo by Prashant Nadkar. 03.06.2015. Mumbai. RBI governor Raghuram Rajan during interview at RBI Head quarter. (Express Photo by: Prashant Nadkar)

In a much discussed 2009 post-mortem of Pakistan’s defeat in the Kargil conflict, Air Commodore M. Kaiser Tufail (retired) of the Pakistan air force argued that, “Kargil… like ’65 and ’71 wars, was a case of not having enough dissenters [in the planning process]… If this point is understood well, remedial measures towards tolerance and liberalism can follow as a matter of course… and would go a long way in precluding Kargil-like disasters.” Tufail’s national security argument for tolerance goes like this:
If you want national security, then tolerate dissenting views.

On October 31, Raghuram Rajan, economist extraordinaire and governor of the RBI, also went to bat for tolerance, but on economic grounds. Without tolerance, he argued, the marketplace of ideas shrinks, robbing us of ones that may lead to total factor productivity growth. Rajan’s economic argument for tolerance goes like this: If you want economic development, then tolerate dissenting views.

Since most people are in favour of national security and economic development, Tufail and Rajan’s arguments have an undeniable rhetorical effectiveness and are fine as far as they go, but neither provides as full a defence of tolerance as we need. The rationales for tolerance offered by Tufail and Rajan have a means-end structure: If you want the end (national security/ economic development), then you should take the means (tolerate dissenting views). These arguments view tolerance as valuable insofar as it is a means to an end that is wholly distinct from tolerance. But such a merely instrumental defence of tolerance is too limited, in two ways.

First, suppose that you reject the end. If you don’t endorse the end, why should you endorse the means to it? For example, if you reject the aim of economic development in favour of protecting the environment, then what reason do you have for tolerating dissent? You may well have other grounds for tolerating dissent, but Rajan’s argument will have no claim on you. A better argument for tolerance would not be conditional on endorsing an end wholly distinct from tolerance in this way.

Second, suppose you reject the means. For example, you agree that we should aim at economic development, but don’t think that tolerance is a means to it. Instead, you think that the best means to the end of economic development is crushing all opposition to the profit-maximising deployment of capital. Then what reason do you have for tolerating dissent? Again, you may well have other grounds for tolerating dissent, but Rajan’s argument will have no claim on you. A better argument for tolerance would not be so dependent on the efficacy of tolerance as a means to an end wholly distinct from tolerance.

Can we provide a better defence of tolerance? Can we show that tolerance isn’t only valuable as a means to something wholly distinct from it, but valuable for its own sake? T.M. Scanlon’s now classic essay, “The Difficulty of Tolerance”, offers materials for an attractive affirmative answer: Tolerance is valuable for its own sake because of the attitude it allows us to bear towards our fellow citizens, an attitude of fraternity and solidarity that is deeper than the intractable disagreements that divide us. Tolerance makes it possible to view all our fellow citizens as equally entitled to participate in defining and determining the shape of society.

Intolerant individuals, Scanlon argues, don’t view their fellow citizens as so equally entitled. Intolerant individuals think that they have a special status as compared to others, and do not view the others as full members of society. For example, many rightwing Hindus do not view Muslims as full members of society, but as interlopers who ought to live in a subordinate position to the Hindu majority. Their intolerance, Scanlon argues, alienates them from their fellow citizens.

The role of Scanlon’s defence of tolerance differs from the role of the instrumental arguments of Tufail and Rajan: Their arguments give those outside the regime of tolerance a reason to join it — the Hindu rightwingers realise they want development and perhaps grudgingly accept tolerance as a means to it — but Scanlon’s argument shows the unconditional worth of tolerance, and so it expands and deepens the reach of tolerance in our lives.

The writer is assistant professor of philosophy, Ashoka University, Sonepat

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