The Paradox of Toleration

I discovered a very interesting, and slightly disturbing article by Richard Garnett–a thoughtful legal scholar at Notre Dame. Assimilation, Toleration, And The State’s Interest in The Development of Religious Doctrine,</i> 51 UCLA L. Rev. 1645 (2004) argues that government has a legitimate interest in shaping the development of religious doctrine: a position which one tends to associate with social conservatism, but which, Garnett shows, is equally common among social liberals.

Now, we often talk about the concept of “indoctrination” in government schools–the charge is thrown by both sides of the evolution education debate–and of course I tend to be very wary of the idea that government may legitimately control the development of moral or religious ideas. This is because I am deeply concerned that government will exploit this power to unsavory ends. (Heaven knows it’s done that plenty times in the past.) But at the same time it’s undeniable that one of the purposes of education, particularly in a free society, is to teach students the values of freedom. You cannot have an open society that’s just a cluster of closed societies. There must be certain generally shared propositions of freedom. Oliver Wendell Holmes could not possibly have been more wrong when he said that Constitutions are “made for people of fundamentally differing views.” Lochner v. New York,</i> 198 U.S. 45, 76 (1905). In fact, they’re made for people who share a “perception of good and bad and right and wrong and the other moral qualities.” Aristotle, Politics 1253a.

The purpose of science education, I believe, is not merely to teach the facts discovered by scientists, but to inculcate the concept of science itself–skepticism, free debate, experimentation, and so forth. As I’ve noted before, courts have declared these things to be legitimate secular values which the government may teach without conflicting with the Establishment Clause. I’ve always been somewhat skeptical of that claim, because I think they’re clearly values, and as values, they’ll necessarily conflict with other values held by certain dogmas. Yet without teaching such values, republican government is bound to fail.* Thus we have a paradox, which resembles several other paradoxes in the law/religion intersection: among its primary jobs is to determine factual controversies in the courts of law, and yet a vast region of truth claims–religion–is declared off limits; a free society is supposed to tolerate wildly different views, yet there are people whose views don’t include toleration; government is expected to teach, yet at the same time, it violates my rights to spend tax dollars to teach certain things I disagree with. Karl Popper referred to one of these as the “Paradox of Toleration,” 1 The Open Society And Its Enemies 265 n. 4 (5th ed. 1971), but I think the term is good for all of these paradoxes: our government rests on certain principles, including “tolerance,” which conflict with some religious traditions. As Garnett puts it,<blockquote>[E]ven liberal, constitutional governments are not, and cannot be, indifferent to “matters of opinion.” Our government consciously and purposely articulates positions, stakes claims, and takes stands; it approves, endorses, and subsidizes some controversial and contestable ideas, and rejects others. Indeed, our government in particular was founded upon, and dedicated to, certain ideas and propositions.</blockquote>

51 UCLA L. Rev. at 1689.

The problem, of course, is not in establishing that government has an “interest” (an important word choice, I think) in supporting or propagating certain religious views. Government has all sorts of “interests.” Indeed, every person’s action affects some other person’s action in some way, however attenuated, and the government will therefore have some interest in just about everything. The question is how to avoid absolutism. One of the ways has been to declare that government simply has no interest in religion at all, or that the values of republican government that our schools teach are merely “secular.” Garnett finds that a pretty weak tactic. Another way I’ve tended to use is to recognize a distinction between an “interest” and a “right.” Government may have an interest in something, but may act on that interest only to defend individual rights, or at least, only where acting on that interest violates nobody’s rights. Garnett himself acknowledges that “the image of state officials and government policymakers gathered together and designing a strategy to induce changes in those religious teachings to which they object is unsettling,” id. at 1682, and“cannot emphasize enough that the conclusion toward this line of argument is not that…the state’s perceived social-reproduction and virtue-inculcation needs are normatively prior either to the integrity of religious traditions or to the expressive autonomy of mediating associations. Governments ought to steer clear of doctrinal disputes and ought to avoid excessive entanglement with…religions.” Id. at 1699. But he doesn’t provide us with tools for doing that. On one hand, we must respect people’s rights to hold and teach views that we find revolting, and which might even undermine our society. (Where would we be if the abolitionists had not been free to develop their then-subversive religious views?) But on the other hand, “one of the things that must be done to ‘keep’ a liberal democracy is to quite self-consciously create liberal democrats.” Id. at 1694.

Aside from raising very important points, Garnett’s article is important to us for two reasons. First, because, as I’ve said, enemies of science education routinely accuse us of trying to “propagandize” a secular world-view to students. This is usually an unfounded accusation, but there is a grain of truth to it, in the sense that we do not want to just teach the discoveries but teach discovery. An attempt at a hands-off, entirely value-neutral science education is doomed, either to fail, or to accomplish an entirely pointless success. Second, because this is a fascinating instance of the public-choice phenomenon playing itself out, not in economics, but in memetics: conservatives have long claimed that government “ha[s] an ‘interest’ in the content of associations’ messages, in the views of political parties’ nominees, in the views and attitudes parents impart to their children, and in the ‘developments of doctrine’ in religious communities.” Id. at 1692. This is, for example, a frequent argument in the debate over homosexual marriage. But liberals, too, “argue[ ] that a ‘more judgmental liberalism’ is needed, one that is wary of and aggressive in opposing ‘religious enthusiasm’ and that uses not only the public schools, but ‘all of the instruments of public policy’ to ‘shape [the] social norms and meanings that mold individual choices and character.’” Id. at 1696. The power to “shape social norms” and “mold individual character” is an extraordinarily dangerous power, particularly to a society that prides itself on dynamism and liberty. I have therefore always been extremely skeptical of such proposals. As Jacob Bronowski put it, no nation has died of dissent, but many have died of conformity, in our lifetimes. And yet my view is based on certain principles–dynamism and liberty–which are fundamental to the survival of a free society, and which must be taught if that society is to function. (Personally, I think the best solution is privatizing education, but that’s hardly a perfect solution.)

In teaching the scientific method, we are necessarily inculcating certain values in students. Doing so is essential to the survival of a free society. But in large doses, it can be deadly. I don’t know the solution to this problem, but it’s something we all must seriously confront.

*-This is why Thomas Jefferson advocated government-run education, and also why he argued for a careful mechanism for assimilating immigrants:<blockquote>Every species of government has its specific principles. Ours perhaps are more peculiar than those of any other in the universe. It is a composition of the freest principles of the English constitution, with others derived from natural right and natural reason. To these nothing can be more opposed than the maxims of absolute monarchies. Yet, from such, we are to expect the greatest number of emigrants. They will bring with them the principles of the governments they leave…. These principles, with their language, they will transmit to their children…. They will infuse into it their spirit, warp and bias its direction, and render it a heterogeneous, incoherent, distracted mass.</blockquote>