Sensitivity isn’t enough

Peter Berkowitz

  • Virtue, Reason and Toleration: The Place of Toleration in Ethical and Political Philosophy by Glen Newey
    Edinburgh, 208 pp, £50.00, November 1999, ISBN 0 7486 1244 0

Once liberalism’s signature virtue, toleration has of late been superseded by other more fashionable ideals. Foremost among these is ‘sensitivity’, before which there was ‘neutrality’.

Like toleration, neutrality presupposes pluralism, or a world in which a multiplicity of beliefs and a variety of ways of life coexist. To its proponents, the doctrine of neutrality seemed clear cut, universal in scope and based on modest, uncontroversial ideas about the moral life. Neutrality was non-judgmental, the argument being that it was not the task of government or anyone else to decide what was right and wrong for people, but rather the right and responsibility of individuals to make their own decisions about how to live their lives, consistent with a like freedom for everyone else.

Critics countered with two principal objections, one which was formulaic and quickly grew obsolete, the other subtle and of lasting significance. According to the first objection, neutrality was a sham because there was no Archimedean point from which to view the world, no universal perspective, no impartial ethical ground. All moral judgments and political arrangements, it was said knowingly, and as if one could dispense with justice’s claims to universality in one fell swoop, are situated, value-laden and partial. The second, more penetrating objection was that the aspiration to devise laws and public policies that were neutral towards competing conceptions of the good life was itself not neutral but rather affirmed the good of individual choice. By seeking to remain neutral, the state (and teachers, parents, friends and so on) gave wide latitude to individual choice, thereby honouring it as the primary or greatest good. Moreover, if neutrality was the means and a life of choice the good served, how could the choices made by individuals not also be good? How could you respect choice and not the thing chosen? Failure to take this further step, which in truth is not compelled by either logical or moral necessity though thought by many to be required by both, came to be seen as a lack of ‘sensitivity’.

Sensitivity also resembles toleration in presupposing pluralism. But where toleration calls for restraint, or holding back in the face of what you disagree with or disapprove of, and neutrality requires a suspension of judgment, sensitivity involves an affirmative judgment, indeed the appreciation or embracing of beliefs and ways of life that differ, in some cases dramatically, from your own. Thus sensitivity could seem the more demanding option. In one respect it surely is. For whereas toleration leaves the individual free to form his judgments about right and wrong while enjoining him not to compel others to comply with his own moral opinions, and neutrality asks him to refrain from judging others, sensitivity compels him to judge others favourably.

In another respect sensitivity is less demanding, however, because it involves an abdication of judgment, or at least of independent judgment. It abandons fine distinctions: it means not merely discerning what is good in other beliefs, actions and persons, but seeing as good whatever beliefs, actions and persons enter your field of view. It may arise in order to encourage diversity, but it also provides the comforts of conformism by dictating that all should judge alike. It is forbidden to give offence, where offence is understood subjectively, as a violation not of general standards but of personal feelings. Requiring that we must all be made to feel at peace and happy with our choices, sensitivity leaves little room for criticism or disapproval, except in the case of the insensitive person, whose poor judgment renders him a fit target for public opprobrium.

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