Toleration, Book/Article Reviews

Toleration and Freedom From Harm

My new book, Toleration and Freedom From Harm: Liberalism Reconceived, is now available from Routledge and on Amazon.

Regular readers of this blog will recognize some of the views I defend in it, including my defense of parental licensing.  I also offer a refinement of my previous conceptual analysis of toleration and a detailed explanation of my (Feinbergian) account of harm as well as explanation as to how I think we ought to understand the harm principle.  That provides a basis for my view regarding the moral limits of toleration of cultural differences and toleration internationally as well as (of course) the limits of toleration of individual behavior.  Those limits, I think, are generally limits any libertarian should be happy with.

Here’s the advertisement:

Toleration matters to us all. It contributes both to individuals leading good lives and to societies that are simultaneously efficient and just. There are personal and social matters that would be improved by taking toleration to be a fundamental value. This book develops and defends a full account of toleration—what it is, why and when it matters, and how it should be manifested in a just society. Cohen defends a normative principle of toleration grounded in a new conception of freedom as freedom from harm. He goes on to argue that the moral limits of toleration have been reached only when freedom from harm is impinged. These arguments provide support for extensive toleration of a wide range of individual, familial, religious, cultural, and market activities. Toleration Matters will be of interest to political philosophers and theorists, legal scholars, and those interested in matters of social justice.  [I had toyed with calling the book Toleration Matters.]


  • Krinein_ev

    The issue seems to be the question of “what constitutes harm?” Take the example of gay rights.
    A progressive might say “the indignity of discrimination is harm,” so we need a robust enforcement of civil rights laws.
    A conservative might say that “the degradation of traditional institutions of marriage is harm,” so we need to discriminate between gay and straight relationships.
    A libertarian might say neither constitues genuine harm (or at least enough harm to justify state response), and advocate state neutrality on the issue.
    All three groups feel they are on the right side of the toleration/harm divide… proving the distinction fails to resolve anything at all.

    • Sean II

      The big one coming up is speech=harm. It’s a rapidly spreading trope on the left to say that dissenting opinions “enact harm” (or sometimes it’s “enact violence”).

      So we’re about a generation away from a consensus for limiting speech, on specifically harm grounds.

      Gosh, sometimes it feels like the liberty movement is drifting further out of touch, as the future we’ve chosen draws near.

      • Brooklyn Boricua

        The big one coming up is speech=harm. It’s a rapidly spreading trope on the left to say that dissenting opinions “enact harm”

        Ahem. I believe you mean “that any libertarian should be happy with.” Your concern that “the liberty movement is drifting further and further out of touch” has been more than adequately addressed by Cohen. Even the parental licensing thing is looking more and more like a savvy and prescient move, given recent changes in social and political culture.

      • King Goat

        “The big one coming up is speech=harm. It’s a rapidly spreading trope on the left ”

        Well, they’re not wrong, at least as to the basis of that premise if not what conclusion should be drawn from it. Oppressive regimes and policies start with the spread of ideas and ideologies. The Nazis, the Communists, the Fascists, they knew their first step to power was to make speeches, write books, distribute pamphlets, etc. And there’s a reason why once ensconced those regimes set up and place a heavy emphasis on propaganda institutions. They know the power of speech.

        The thing is, while there really are ‘dangerous’ ideas in that they lead to illiberal and oppressive policies and regimes, there is also a strong argument that other things, like ignorance for one, which tend go along with censorship are more likely to lead bad results. There’s also strong reasons to doubt whether government would do a good job at censoring and repressing truly dangerous ideas rather than using the power in a way that achieves negative results.

        • Krinein_ev

          I’m pretty absolutist about free speech. However, your point reveals how contingent the OP makes free speech on an empirical assessment of its effects. For example, India has a strong tradition of speech driving pogroms against religious minorities, as well as prohibitions against such speech.
          The pat liberal response is that such harms would be alleviated by eliminating such restrictions, but this is far from clear, especially in the short-term.
          It might be the case that religious toleration is a prerequisite to free sppech (that doesn’t lead to genocide) rather than the other way around.
          Either way, there are no easy answers here.

      • Krinein_ev

        There are radicals on the left who hold such views, just as there are radicals on the right who think we need to “loosen up libel laws” (e.g., Trump). The difference is that only the latter holds any institutional power, so panicking over left-wing anti-speech extremism is like wetting onself over the power projection capacity of the Cuban navy.

        • Brooklyn Boricua

          “Holding any institutional power” =/= occupying the office of the Presidency.

          • Sean II

            Indeed one of the big lessons from last year is how impotent the White House can suddenly be when it’s occupant does not have a long term political base.

            Which means, among other interesting things, that the standard libertarian analysis of executive power – the Cult of The Presidency narrative – was just wrong.

            America is ruled by factions and trends, not by strong men.

            To the extent that Trump has any faction at all, it’s hastily improvised, poorly coordinated, and ineffective.

            And he himself doesn’t represent a trend, just a too-little-too-late reaction against one.

            Which is why he hasn’t done much of anything, and won’t.

        • Sean II

          As if the media, the academy, the bureaucracy, Google, Facebook, etc. aren’t powerful institutions.

          • Bill Othon

            It isn’t just the “radicals on the left” that prioritize harm over speech:
   The sentiment is becoming mainstream-left, and disturbing. And I don’t hear many voices of tolerance on the left in opposition.

            And it has everything to do with security, right? Free speech is only reasonable in an environment where there is security. Then there is safety (from harm) to be tolerant. The left believes if Milos speaks at Berkeley, enough of his listeners will be radicalized, and will impose harm that cannot be contained, so they can justify shutting him down. And in doing so, they become the arbiters of what harm and free speech are (censors).

            Safety doesn’t guarantee tolerance at all! There are still folks who know they are not personally in danger, but still feel enough harm hearing things they disagree with to want to stop it. So the issue of governance is two-fold: providing safety and teaching civics.

          • Bill Othon

            Yes, there is also the “physiological harm” issue (different from safety), but that is so subjective it would be difficult to manage from a governance point of view. Although some may try…

          • Krinein_ev

            The example is drawn from the academy. Conservatives are in a constant state of moral panic over the ivory tower.
            BUT WHO THE FUCK CARES??? The academy is often silly, but is hardly a threat to larger society.
            There are plenty of real threats to liberty in this world. Milos not being able to speak at Berkley barely registers, and certainly doesn’t justify the amount of outrage you seem to have invested in the incident.

          • Krinein_ev

            The “speech = harm” people are mostly in the academy. Silicon Valley and the media are very pro-free speech.
            The academy basically only has power over itself. If you’re in it, this could be oppressive. To everyone else, you sound like a raving lunatic.

          • Sean II

            Yeah, I’m like a lone maniac over here worrying about the future of free speech in the academy and the information tech business.

            Who else is talking about that?

          • Krinein_ev

            The ivory tower just isn’t that important. They believe all manner of inane things, but they have less ability to threaten the republic than the Shriners.
            Silicon Valley has a very strong free-speech orientation. There have been exactly two examples of people being fired for expressing political views. Forgive me if I don’t retreat to the fainting couch.
            If you want to call out the excesses of these institutions, that’s justified. However, you seem convinced they are the thin wedge of liberal fascism, which is just another moral panic.

          • Brooklyn Boricua

            Don’t worry; Trump’s institutional power is riding to the rescue!

          • Sean II

            Yes, we can expect him to pardon James Damore and the Weinsteins, Bret and Harvey, any day now.

            By law, that means they all get their jobs back. It’s just how our system works.

          • King Goat

            How can anyone deny all the awesome power in these institutions what with the party they ostensibly support holding all three branches of the federal government, the SCOTUS, most state governments, etc?

            Wait, I’ll come in again…

    • Tedd

      Perhaps I’ve misunderstood, but you seem to be arguing that, because there’s disagreement about what constitutes ‘harm,’ then ‘harm’ isn’t a useful distinction. That seems like the wrong conclusion (and I apologize if I’ve misunderstood). The correct conclusion would seem to be that we need to have a debate about what constitutes ‘harm’ and some method — however temporary — of agreeing on a working definition. Civil courts do this all the time. If we’re making a mistake, it’s probably in attempting to fix by statute what should be fixed by civil society.

      Of course that, itself, is a libertarian perspective that many would probably disagree with. But that doesn’t mean it’s not correct.

      • Bill Othon

        It’s not just a matter of defining harm, which I agree would be valuable. And part of that discussion is about objective harm (physical pain, lack of freedom) and subjective harm (I feel bad you said that, I am afraid of you).

        The other discussion is how much harm we would be willing to tolerate for the sake of free speech. Given that free expression is a good (and that might be an issue), then how much risk of harm should anyone accept for this good? Can we say “I hate what you say, but I’ll fight for your right to say it?”

        Then finally, could we tolerate a difference of opinion on harm and let state laws differ on this point? (So California can codify keeping Milos out) When must a disagreement in harm be arbitrated as violating a Consitutional right?

        • Bill Othon

          Sorry, a lot of questions there. My naive opinion is that we should be brave as a society, and allow voices to be heard. We should err on the side of freedom not censorship. In other words, accept the possibility of harm against the danger of government-sponsored censorship.

          Where you are on this point will depend on how close to the likelihood of harm you are. Immigrants and homosexuals will likely feel the need for more protection. So once again, the degree of security you have impacts your tolerance to harm.

      • Krinein_ev

        People don’t agree on the meaning of harm. Or perhaps more often, they disagree on what sort of harm justifies governmental action.
        Leaving this to civil society presupposes the libertarian answer, so is completely usesless in resolving the debate.

        • Bill Othon

          as you say the debate may be resolved indirectly by Washington judges, who force bakers to make wedding cakes for homosexuals to avoid “harm”. Would that be the ruling in Texas? Maybe not. The debate will be resolved, incrementally. Don’t think this issue is confined to academia at all.

          Look, we are at a societal tipping point and people are uncomfortable. Society imposed restrictions on marijuana use and gay marriage (in a non libertarian way) for a long time. Now restrictions on these “harms” are being rolled back. Those that were repressed (harmed by the restrictions) are energized and want to fight for clarity, and those that cling to tradition are fighting hard to keep the old way (citing harm to their “religious freedom”). We need to see when the new normal will take hold peacefully, and a new level of tolerance reached. You can avoid the debate, but it is upon us. And I think a re-emphasis on American civics is in order.

          Taught of course by Academia…

          • Brooklyn Boricua

            This does bring up an interesting thought. Perhaps Cohen’s view of harm (including, perhaps, his parental licensing idea), so bizarre to doctrinaire liberals, really is a good close approximation of the ersatz “folk liberalism” that Americans actually subscribe to. It would explain a lot of their behavior.

          • Krinein_ev

            Your comment about judges* indicates an emphasis on majoritarianism that is unbecoming to anyone who values the essential role of an independent judiciary as a guarantor of freedom and equality.
            We are hardly at any tipping point. Most people don’t care a great deal about gay rights or religious liberty, except to the extent that they want the busybodies on both sides to leave them alone. If the religious right insists on asserting its right to discriminate against gay people, it will alienate the public. If the left insists on asserting anti-discrimination law in a fashion perceived as suppressing dissent, it will alienate the public.
            In the meanwhile, most of the public is gradually moving towards a tolerance for gay people that will make the right’s stance increasingly untenable.
            Either way, there will be no Gotterdammerumg…. only a a series of hops with two steps forwards and one step back, just like with the attitudes towards racial discrimination.
            If you think that that the gradual shifts in public opinion that condemn discrimination against gay people is oppressing you, then you are neither “bleeding heart” nor libertarian.

            *BTW, the CO baker case was based on CO anti-discrimination law, and the company is appealing to the federal judiciary on 1st amendment grounds. If you support federalism, you should side with the gay couple.

  • Peter from Oz

    All this talk of toleration reminds me of 17th century Britain where there was a constant battle over the toleration of religious non-conformists. In those days of course this meant removing disqualifications from those who did not subscibe to the state religion.
    What makes anyone think that there isn’t toleration of social non-conformists now? I would have thought that in many ways twe have moved past toleration and onto forced acceptance.
    Toleration merely means that society will not sanction people for being other than the norm. It doesn’t mean that we can’t ctiticise certain lifestyles or subcultures. It doesn’t mean that we can’t be racist, sexist or what other silly is or phobia that the left dreams up to cover their lack of debating skils.
    I tolerate people who engage in line dancing, dogging or cheap cruise holidays. It doesn’t mean that I can’t say openly that I think those activities are totally naff. By expressing such an opinion I am not calling for those activities to be banned, but suggesting to people that it is better for their psychological well being if they take to tango, do their swinging indoors or spend their holidays expanding their minds and not their waistlines. But for some reason our friends of the left can’t seem to grasp such distinctions. They are simple souls.