Tolerance is only possible with true principles

The uproar from Oxford over the scholarship of John Finnis could be called a “canary in the coal mine” for philosophers who defend a more traditional morality, if that canary were not already just the taxidermied one which we keep around just for show.

You can read about the events at Oxford here. Students are calling for the removal of John Finnis, one of the foremost scholars who defends the “new” natural law theory, because of his views about homosexuality. (Evidently, we “old” natural lawyers are even more irrelevant that we think.) Margot Cleveland defends John Finnis in a piece written for The Federalist, and also criticizes Justin Weinberg, a philosophy professor at the University of South Carolina, for his analysis of the affair:

“We could ask,” Weinberg wrote, whether “a Jewish student [should] have to take a course from a professor who has publicly argued that the Nazis were right in believing that there should be no Jews? Or, should an African-American have to take a course from a professor who has publicly argued that it would be advisable for the U.S. to return to legalized slavery?”

The mere equating of natural law jurisprudence to Nazism and slavery suggests the future is already here, and it is bleak indeed.

To be precise, as Cleveland’s own quote indicates, Weinberg is “equating” natural law jurisprudence with the intellectual defense with moral approbation of Nazism or American institutional slavery. This is a necessary, if fine-grained, distinction, as Finnis himself argues in the essay which has him in trouble with the denizens of Oxford:

[Finnis] argues that “just as a cowardly weakling who would never try to kill anyone, yet deliberately approves of the killings of innocent people in a terrorist massacre, has a will which violates the good of life, so even a person of exclusively and irreversibly homosexual inclination violates the good of marriage by consenting to (and deliberately approving) non-marital sex acts such as solitary masturbation”.

Here we can see why there might be great confusion: Finnis is contrasting internal and external moral acts. Conflating those two types of action would conflate acts that do not necessarily have the same moral weight, although they could be quite close (recall: adultery of the heart vs. actual adultery; Matthew 5:27–28). Even at the level of pubic profession of such approbation, which is itself grave, this is nonetheless different in severe gravity from carrying out such action or attempting to implement such plans. A sign of this: the criminal punishments for directly calling for violence are not as severe as actual perpetration of that violence.

Muddling the difference between internal acts of the will with external acts is a confusion bested only by identifying my own acts with me as an individual. This is true whether identity is read more weakly (using virtue ethics and habituation: for one act does not a habit make), or more strongly (something more existential: my character, built up by my actions, is all that matters to being a person and replaces considerations of human nature or teleology).

Consequently, the focus of critique here should be the operative notion of “identity” which underlies the moral discourse of not only the petition but every similar debate of this type today. Later on in the comment thread, Weinberg clarified what he meant by “identity”:

The notion of identity I have in mind here is indeed something like practical identity, but the identity language isn’t really crucial. I used the phrase “part of their identity” to mean a certain kind of trait. What kind of trait? Roughly, the kind you’d include in a description of yourself that is relevant to how typical interactors with you in typical circumstances do or should treat you or think about you, besides in ways that are typical of the background class of which you’re a member.

In our social world, having a freckle on your left knee wouldn’t be that kind of trait (it fails the relevance condition), nor would being human (it’s typical of your background class). One’s sexual orientation or race would be those kinds of traits. What about one’s political views? Perhaps, if you’ve made a substantial part of your life about your political opinions—or if others have made your political opinions a substantial part of your life by how they treat you.

Note that this notion of identity (or whatever we’d like to call it) is different from the sense conveyed in statements such as your “I think my most fundamental moral beliefs are more important to who I am than my race.” The kinds of traits I’ve identified aren’t necessarily the ones that inform my own view of “who I am.”

Nonetheless, I agree with what I take to be one of your underlying points: that demarcating which of a students’ traits are ones we should be concerned about a professor condemning is no easy task.

My comments towards the end of my original post were intended to capture the moral remainder of the case; even if we think that as a matter of policy no action at all should be taken against Finnis, the students’ complaints aren’t based on nothing. It is not as if they were complaining about mere disagreement or being challenged by a professor. Being a gay student and having to take a course from someone who thinks the world would be a better place if people like you didn’t exist is importantly different from being a student who has to take a course with a professor who disagrees with her about the justifiability of the death penalty. The precise nature of that difference, and whether it has any policy implications, I’m not taking a stand on.

Note that last paragraph, which Weinberg added as an update to his original article. Note how the argument requires that we construe Finnis’ arguments for traditional natural law morality as necessarily including his moral approbation of what it commands. A fair enough assumption. However, the acts which go against this morality are not the same as the actors. Despite this, Weinberg’s defense equates the acts with the actors, because the relevant moral agents take or choose certain traits to constitute their identity (as he says, “The kinds of traits I’ve identified aren’t necessarily the ones that inform my own view of “who I am.””—they must be chosen and thus inform me as who I am). Thus, to be against the existence of the acts is to be against the existence of the actors. (Hence his contrast in the last paragraph between a professor who merely disagrees with your opinion vs. one who thinks you shouldn’t exist.)

This is the view of traits and agents doing all the work for Weinberg (whether he approves of this worldview or not). However, this sort of identification that constitutes “personal identity” cuts both ways. We can illustrate this from another of the comments to Weinberg’s article:

While I expect that the notion of “an important part of” a person’s “identity” is meant to do a lot of work in [Weinberg’s] way of putting the question, it still seems to worthwhile to reflect on whether:

A deeply religious student should have to take a course from a professor who has publicly argued that religious belief is irrational and evil.
A wealthy student should have to take a course from a professor who has publicly argued that the rich should be violently deprived of their unjust gains.
A student with a number of children should have to take a course from a professor who has publicly argued that it is seriously wrong to have children.
A student of Armenian heritage should have to take a course from a professor who has argued that there was no Armenian genocide.
A student with significant disabilities should have to take a course from a professor who has argued that the lives of those with significant disabilities are less worth living.

I could go on and on, but I would think the answer, so long as the professor is not reasonably thought to have engaged in unjust educational discrimination against students who are members of the relevant group, is often “Yes.”

This is why identity politics must end in a pure ‘ontology’ of will to power. Which particular identities will you select for protection and which will you not? Weinberg admitted as much above, saying that “demarcating which of a students’ traits are ones we should be concerned about a professor condemning is no easy task.” However, to select the protected traits, mustn’t you say why it is those traits and not some others? And who gets to select them? Once they are determined, who determines the proportionate response or punishment?

Because there are no true principles outside themselves and in the order of things by which the purveyors of identity politics can answer these questions, or make a selection to begin with, they are left with mere preference as their principle. It is not chosen because it is already good, but it is good because we choose it.

This is why tolerance is impossible for the ideology of identity politics. The very existence of an opposing view is intolerable, because it contradicts (as a alien choice outside of me) my own choice. It is an attack on the ontology I have set up by fiat. Because there is no common realm of reality to investigate and see how we ought to act, there can be no discourse with such a supposed “interlocutor.” Any tolerance that does exist is of its nature unstable on such terms, because such tolerance depends only upon an agreed upon grounds for mutual “respect.”

Addendum: Note that, without a distinction between “the act” and “the agent,” it becomes incoherent to attempt to love the sinner and hate the sin: you would be loving and hating the same thing at the same time and in the same respect. Hence, Christian apologetics, Christian evangelization, and Christian charity itself are seen as a bizarre feat of moral and mental gymnastics by identity ideology. Consider, if Christian charity is true, what effects in the real lives of both Christians and non-Christians alike such a belief would have. It makes it an impossibility to merely invite someone to “Come and see” what it means to know Christ (John 1:39).

Categories: Current Reading

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