Some Common Confusions and Clarifications

Doug McManaman
Fall 2003
Reproduced with Permission

The study of philosophy is supposed to help bring clarification to an otherwise confusing and confused world through a process of distinguishing. It seems, however, that more people are confused today than ever before. That is why more people need philosophy today than ever before. The irony, though, is that a great many philosophy departments have placed themselves almost entirely at the service of this institutionalized confusion and have helped perpetuate it. We'd like to return to the habit of making distinctions in order to bring clarification to some issues that have a bearing on human choices. This is the necessary condition for freedom; for a confused person is not a free person, because the truth alone sets us free (Jn 8, 32).

Confusing Freedom with License

Freedom is not, as Rousseau mistakenly believed, doing what you want to do. When a dog is unleashed, it goes as it pleases. Yet a dog is not a free agent. Freedom, on the contrary, means self-determination, that is, the ability to determine oneself, or to shape oneself. As such, it depends on knowledge. For the more knowledge we have, the more free we are, and consequently the more responsibility we have for the choices that we make. We don't hold dogs and cats responsible for what they do, because they are not self-determining creatures; they don't know what they are doing, but are governed by their instincts. And animal is not, therefore, a moral agent.

And so because freedom is so intimately linked with knowledge, freedom is really an achievement. In short, freedom is not doing what you want to do, but knowing what you ought to do and having the ability to do just that. Let me illustrate the point. Consider who it is that has more freedom: a young boy who gets to eat whatever he wants during the day, and so chooses to eat donuts for breakfast, donuts for lunch, and donuts for supper, or his older sister, who is a dedicated athlete and who has studied nutrition, and who thus limits herself to fruits and vegetables and avoids all sugars. The young boy would consider himself luckier than his older sister, and considering that most people think freedom means doing what you want to do, they would have to say that the young boy has more freedom than his older sister, if they are to be consistent. But the older sister alone has true freedom. The young boy has license, not freedom. She knows what she ought to eat, the boy really doesn't know what he's doing; he is going to be a diabetic by the time he's an adult and will be lucky to have any teeth left. But she knows what she's doing, and she has the ability, the self-discipline, to determine herself towards the healthier alternatives.

To repeat, freedom is knowing what you ought to do and having the ability to do what you ought to do. Hence, it follows that the more we study the moral life and the more we cultivate the virtues within ourselves, the more free we become. Freedom is not received, but achieved.

Confusing Bigotry with Moral Conviction

According to the Webster's Dictionary, a bigot is "someone obstinately and intolerantly devoted to his own beliefs, creed or party, and to be bigoted is to be "narrow-minded, prejudiced." In order for "bigot" to mean anything, it is necessary that the devotion of a person to his own beliefs be unreasonable. In other words, his devotion must be obstinate. Now obstinate means "stubbornly adhering to an opinion or purpose", or "stubbornly refusing to concede to reasonable arguments".

As Plato indicated, opinion exists mid-way between knowledge and ignorance. We have an opinion on an issue, for example, when we are not certain of the truth of it. It is not our opinion that ten multiplied by ten equals one hundred, but it might be our opinion that Robert Stanfield would have made a good Prime Minister. No one is absolutely certain of it, but anyone who knows him is not entirely ignorant of it either. Some opinions have more data to back them up, and others have little data; some opinions are entirely unfounded. Since bigotry refuses to concede to reasonable arguments, bigotry is contrary to reason and thus unreasonable.

But today the word "bigot" is thrown around quite liberally. For instance, some homosexual activists will quickly dismiss anyone who argues against them as a bigot. But this is only the case if the person arguing against him has no data or fails to put forth reasons for his opposition. The irony is that many of these activists stubbornly refuse to concede to reasonable arguments, and so they prove themselves to be far more bigoted than the persons they are arguing against, that is, the persons they are quick to label as "bigots".

If a group of us are discussing a very complex and ambiguous issue, one in which the truth of the matter is not entirely clear, one has a right to his opinion if it is evident that no other opinion is supported by enough data to render his less likely to be true. But the right to our opinion ends when someone puts forth an argument that turns out to be more than a mere opinion, but a conclusion based on true premises and sound reasoning.

Confusing Approval with Tolerance and Tolerance with Love

Another confusion very much akin to the confusion between bigotry and moral conviction is the confusion between approval and tolerance and tolerance and love. First, tolerance is not the same as approval. If I tolerate something, it means I do not approve of it but am choosing to put up with it in order to avoid a greater evil. Only if I am opposed to smoking can I choose to hold my nose and tolerate a smoker. And so being tolerant does not mean the refusal to pass judgment on personal or public behavior. If I tolerate smoking, I have already made the judgment that smoking in public is a bad thing. But I have chosen to tolerate it from students, for example, in order to avoid something more serious, such as an agitated student body that feels too restricted and possibly tempted to rebel, etc.

The distinction, in natural law ethics, between material and formal cooperation involves the very idea of tolerating evil in order to avoid greater evils. Formal cooperation in the morally wrong choice of another is never justified; for it involves intending the evil that is done and participating in the evil-doing by condoning, encouraging, exhorting, advising, or counseling it. For example, counseling a student to abort her child is formal cooperation in abortion. In such counseling, I intend or will that the student destroy her offspring as a means to some further end. But the evil in abortion lies precisely in intending the destruction of developing human life for whatever end one might have in mind.

Material cooperation, on the other hand, can at times be justified. In this type of cooperation one does not intend the evil that others are doing but permits or tolerates this evil for the sake of avoiding even more serious evils. Material cooperation can only be justified on the basis of the principle of double effect. One of the conditions of double effect is that one must not intend the evil effect (otherwise we are into formal cooperation), but only permit it. Another condition is that the good effect be sufficiently desirable to compensate for the allowing of the evil effect. If it is not, one may not tolerate or accept the evil affect; for doing so would be unreasonable.

The point is that tolerance can be reasonable at times. St. Thomas speaks of the possibility of a state temporarily tolerating prostitution in order to avoid greater evils, such as the prospect of many rapes (ST II II, Q. 10, a 11). Augustine knew that slavery was wrong (Cf. City of God, XIX, 25), but he did not see much prospect of eliminating it. But there are many things that one must not permit or tolerate, and tolerating them cannot be justified under double effect. That is why tolerance is not always loving. A school principal might be justified in tolerating cigarette smoking in a particular area of the school, but under normal circumstances he is not justified in tolerating the smoking of marijuana. A wife might be right to tolerate some of her husband's annoying habits, depending on the situation, but under normal circumstances she is not justified in tolerating his adulterous relationship with one of his colleagues. The fact is, only committed people can be tolerant. As F. F. Centore writes: "People who do not strongly hold a firm position to the exclusion of contradictory positions lose the option of being tolerant. The most they can be is indifferent." Hence, our morally relativistic culture has lost the option of being tolerant. Let's not be deceived; our tolerance is little more than indifference.

"Intolerant", along with "bigot", is now one of the labels that some gay activists will slap on those who are opposed to the homosexual life-style. But the use of the word "intolerant" suggests that the homosexual life style is morally wrong, for only moral wrongs can be tolerated. That is why, incidentally, it is incorrect to suggest that we tolerate cultural differences. For such differences are a good thing and are to be celebrated joyously, not tolerated. But it is not the intention of gay activists to suggest that the gay life style is morally wrong. That is why in employing the word "tolerance", they really mean approval. But to approve of such a life style, one must be morally indifferent, that is, a complete moral relativist, at least when it comes to sexual issues. And yet moral indifference is not a loving posture. Jesus, for example, was not morally indifferent. There is a great deal in the New Testament that he did not approve of. In this light, we could argue that Jesus was pretty "intolerant". He did not accept the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, for example, nor did he tolerate adultery by forgiving the woman caught in adultery. On the contrary, he said to her "sin no more". (Jn 8, 11).

Jesus was "intolerant" because he loved perfectly, and there is much that love refuses to tolerate. Whatever he did tolerate, it is clear from the context that his tolerance did not amount to approval: "Oh faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you?" (Mt 17, 17). Many people are tolerant today not because they have big hearts full of great charity, but rather because they are indifferent to virtue and believe that freedom is doing whatever you want to do, and that the most fundamental right is to be free, and that our primary duty is to respect people's "freedom" (desire to do whatever they want to do). But if freedom is not "doing what you want to do", then the right to be free and the duty to respect one's freedom will mean something entirely different.