Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Review: Toleration

Toleration Toleration by Andrew Jason Cohen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Andrew J. Cohen’s Toleration starts with the “aim to provide a clear and lively introduction to the issues surrounding toleration” (1). He successfully, in my view, achieves this aim. He grounds the concept of toleration historically in the history of western liberalism. Then, after a theoretical interlude, he presents several different principles that (might) ground and guide toleration. The most important of these is the Harm Principle. Cohen’s account of toleration, unsurprisingly, is rooted largely (and rightly in my view) in Mill’s On Liberty. He closes with an analysis of the general value and good of toleration. All in all, it is clear and it is lively; it is written, for the most part, in a direct and accessible way. So much so that this would make a great text for an introduction to political philosophy class.

I say “for the most part” above because there were a few sections that got bogged down in a bit. First, the theoretical section of chapter 2 seems to play more to a particular trend in professional political philosophy. The value of this chapter in relation to the rest of book was unclear to me. Second, Cohen’s discusses an argument for basing toleration on a principle of benefiting others (4B). This was the one section of the book I found hard to follow; the argument here being opaque. This might be much more to do with the difficulty of trying to articulate a view that is itself unclear than to a deficiency on Cohen’s part.

Cohen is careful to distinguish toleration from relativism, subjectivism, or non-judgmentalism. In fact, Cohen intends his view to be universal and it is based on a kind of objective morality. Moreover, the very idea or need for toleration depends on the prior fact of having judged someone (or his or her actions) to be objectionable.

The focus of the concept of toleration Cohen discusses is on non-interference. That is, we tolerate when have a principled reason for not interfering with someone else that we find in some way objectionable. This leaves open a question of whether or not toleration governs our interaction with others when it is not a matter of interference. That is, Shannon thinks that her co-worker Avi’s views about the treatment of animals to be deeply immoral. Assuming there is no issue of Shannon interfering with Avi, does toleration speak to how she might interact with Avi? Is she wrong to shun him? To refuse to participate in committees at work that Avi is a part of? I suspect Cohen’s answer on this front is that if it doesn’t involve a question of interfering with Avi, then it is a different kind of moral question than the one with which he is dealing. That seems right in a way, but at the same time, it makes sense to speak of Shannon not tolerating Avi.

Although relatively short (156 pp), Cohen’s book covers a lot of ground. It is a useful book for those interested in understand better the concept of toleration, its justification, its value, and its limits.

(Disclaimer of a sort: I organized and will be chairing an Author Meets Critics session for Cohen’s book at the 2016 Central APA meeting in Chicago, IL. More here:

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