As Edward Feser has observed, classical liberalism is all about toleration, but in the end, the only thing it will tolerate is itself. It is a bit of a long argument, but the short version is that the Paradox of Tolerance means that liberalism needs to be intolerant of whatever will threaten its toleration, and that turns out to be, approximately, everything else.
Classical liberalism, as it morphed into contemporary liberalism—more often called “progressivism” or “woke”, though none of these are well-defined terms—has increasingly discovered what it can tolerate and what it can’t. It can tolerate fornication, divorce, adultery (with a few qualifications), drug abuse, all manner of sex-like acts which have no relationship of any kind to procreation, and quite a few other things, though it cannot tolerate slavery, rape, or murder (if the victim has been born more than a few minutes ago). It can tolerate telling other people how to be happy as long as they have asked and the answer is a generally acceptable one.
If one casts one’s eye over the things that modern liberalism will tolerate, there are clearly no principles involved. People occasionally make an attempt at “as long as it doesn’t harm anyone” but abortion clearly harms people. (It’s no answer to say “but we define the victims as not people” since the victims of slavery were defined as not-people too, and liberals don’t excuse that for a second.) Divorce harms people, though some liberals do try to get around this via pretending that it doesn’t. Adultery obviously harms people. For that matter drug abuse clearly harms the one abusing the drugs, but the principle is generally “so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone but the person doing it”. Something that points in the right direction, I think, is that liberals who live in low-crime areas are often tolerant of crime, even including violent crime. This is especially true of white liberals and black-on-black crime. And that last part, I think, gives it away.
Modern liberalism tolerates whatever does not inconvenience the liberal. I don’t mean that liberals are inconsistent and suspend their principles whenever they are personally inconvenienced. I mean that this is their principle, to the degree that they have a principle. Many of them do not even pretend to have principles anymore; at best they have slogans which everyone recognizes that they don’t mean literally or figuratively. They do not pretend to aim for a common good; rather their entire criteria for what can be tolerated is “what does it matter if it doesn’t hurt you?” These purely selfish individuals do need to negotiate with each other because no man is an island, so they must cooperate in banning things that the people they need demand be banned; they are particularly willing to do this if they have no interest in doing the things their allies want banned. All of this makes sense as long as you realize that their principle is unenlightened short-term self interest.
I can’t stress enough that I am not accusing contemporary liberals of being hypocrites. My whole point is that they are not hypocrites.
One thought on “What Toleration Will Tolerate”
“abortion clearly harms people.”
There is a fire at a fertility clinic. You can save either a baby or a container holding 2,000 frozen embryos. Which do you choose? In any case, forcing women to remain pregnant against their wishes is clearly not a viable alternative, as can be readily observed by the high rates of illegal abortion in Catholic countries.
“(It’s no answer to say “but we define the victims as not people” since the victims of slavery were defined as not-people too, and liberals don’t excuse that for a second.)”
But wait! The Old Testament justifies the enslavement of the “heathens that surround you” by defining them as non-people.
“Divorce harms people, though some liberals do try to get around this via pretending that it doesn’t.”
Forcing couples to stay together also harms people, especially if a relationship is abusive. Have you not heard of domestic violence?
“Adultery obviously harms people.”
It can do, but what would you do to prevent adultery – stone people to death? That might cause some harm.
“For that matter drug abuse clearly harms the one abusing the drugs,”
Alcohol is arguably the most harmful drug but it’s tolerated by Christianity. Jesus was a supplier, wasn’t he?
Drugs can cause harm, but criminalising drugs causes more harm by driving the drug trade into the hands of criminal cartels who can be more powerful than governments. Incidentally, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the most powerful criminal cartels are all based in Catholic countries. But then, Catholicism itself is little more than a protection racket: “Nice soul you’ve got there. Be a shame if something were to happen to it.”