Discourse Ethics, and a possible solution to the Paradox of Tolerance

Discussions, debates, and arguments, are among the most ancient and most useful ways in which people sharpen their intellectual skills and learn from each other. Yet many debates quickly become useless shouting matches or festivals of hate. Online debates are especially vulnerable to this problem, because online debaters need not face each other directly and so need not see, nor bear the consequences of, the effects of verbally harming others.

Some philosophers have therefore proposed principles of discourse ethics, the purpose of which is to keep debates productive and gainful for everyone. Paul Grice’s principles of implicature are one such group of principles. Another is Jurgen Habermas’ theory of discourse ethics; Habermas said that such rules are “necessary for a search for truth organized in the form of a competition”. Speaking personally, I think the search for truth does not need to be competitive. Still, I do see the need for a few basic guidelines, lest the most aggressive or angriest voices dominate a conversation, or other speakers feel compelled to go along with the views of the aggressors for fear of being sidelined or punished. Rather like the rules of the road, where every driver obeys traffic lights and speed limits and so more people reach their destinations safely, the rules of discourse ethics allow everyone’s voice to receive a fair hearing, and to allow the best ideas to rise.

So here’s a proposed set of rules for your next discussion circle, whether it’s in your classroom, your religious community, your online chat room, your political forum, or wherever you find yourself discussing ideas important to you.

  • Everyone who comes to the discussion may speak. The circle may not disband until everyone who wants to speak has had a chance to do so.
  • Everyone who speaks must also listen.
  • Everyone shall assume that all participants are rational, and shall interpret each other’s words in the very best possible way.
  • Everyone shall debate for the sake of progress and knowledge, not for the sake of domination and victory.
  • Speak clearly, consistently, and rationally.
  • Speak only what you actually believe.
  • Speak what understand to be true.
  • Speak from the heart.
  • (These rules are a revision of those which first appeared in my book, Circles of Meaning, Labyrinths of Fear (Moon Books, 2012), pp. 357-365.)

    I also like to light three candles and put them in the centre of the circle, in honour of Ireland’s first three druids, Fios, Eolus, and Fochmarc, whose names mean Intelligence, Knowledge, and Inquiry; also in honour of the old Irish triad: “Three candles that illuminate every darkness: truth, nature, and knowledge.

    What should you do about people who break those rules? In my experience, the most useful thing to do is to give offenders a warning after their first offence. Those who break the rules too often may have to be excluded from the discussion, and perhaps invited to return after giving an appropriate apology. This may seem to contradict the basic principle of creating a space for discourse which is open and welcoming to everyone. Philosopher Karl Popper called this contradiction the paradox of tolerance:

    If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.

    Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, (Routledge, 1945), chapter 7, note 4.

    Popper published this in 1945, and so it’s likely he was thinking of Europe’s experience fighting the Nazis– a political movement which, during its rise to power in the 1930s, took advantage of other people’s tolerance to popularise intolerant (militaristic, murderous, hateful) political views. The paradox of tolerance leaves us in the logically difficult position of having to exclude certain (intolerant) people in the name of preserving an open and inclusive society. The enemies of the open society sometimes point to this paradox as evidence that the open society is full of hypocrisy. They might then suggest that some value program should replace it: a program which, while it might be elitist or even violent, at least has the virtue of being logically consistent.

    There are several ways to try and resolve this paradox. One is utilitarian: it might be argued that an open society, haunted as it may be by this paradox, is still better than the alternatives. Another is to do with justice: for instance, Rawls said that an open society requires its members to defend the practices and institutions which are necessary for the preservation of its openness: “While an intolerant sect does not itself have title to complain of intolerance, its freedom should be restricted only when the tolerant sincerely and with reason believe that their own security and that of the institutions of liberty are in danger.” (Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Harvard University Press, 1971), pg. 220.) This is not much different than asking drivers on public roads to obey speed limits and stop signs: our observance of such rules makes it easier for everyone to drive. (I’m getting lots of milage from that metaphor, eh?)

    Virtue ethics offers another possible resolution to the paradox: a model of discourse ethics which includes the possibility, however small, that an excluded person could some day be welcomed back. In such a model, intolerant people would remain outside the conversation for as long as they remain a danger to it. But those inside the conversation move to exclude them in the manner of an educator, rather than as a jailor. They should preserve the hope, however faint the hope may be, that some day the intolerant will learn that intolerance is no path to any kind of good and worthwhile life. If and when the intolerant demonstrate that they’ve learned that lesson, then we might have a reconciliation with them. This is virtue-ethics because it presupposes that everyone, even the very worst people, can change their habits of character, and become better people; that optimistic view of human nature is arguably necessary for a good and worthwhile life. Now, I think it’s undeniably un-virtuous to enjoy the sight of someone being excluded: that would be shadenfreude, not virtue, however deserved the exclusion might be. Yet like every other ethics theory we’ve looked at so far, some critical questions can arise. Whose job is it to educate the excluded person? Might the safety of those inside the conversation matter more than the effort to include as many people as possible? What if the excluded person remains intolerant– should he be excluded forever, and if so, would that only strengthen the paradox instead of solve it? And what if the view of human nature presupposed here is not supported by enough evidence in human behaviour?

    I leave these questions in your capable hands.


    Revised 4th December 2017.

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