Do you believe that tolerance and civility, not love, will heal our society?

In “Love Your Enemies,” author and American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks offers a formula for healing a country divided: “Go find someone with whom you disagree; listen reflectively, and take care of him or her with respect and love. The rest will flow naturally from there.”

We build a good society; Brooks states, the way we build a great marriage: through love.

Brooks is right that how we speak to one another concerns. The language of contempt dissolves the trust. Contempt drives out any impulse we might have toward empathy and understanding, and it replaces reasoned argument with litmus tests for ideological purity.

Moving toward greater empathy, understanding, and intellectual openness will improve the quality of our public discourse and make us healthier, happier plus better human beings.

However, the shift that Brooks is championing will not be inspired by the exalted virtue of really like. It will be the fruit of the less-exalted tempered virtues of civility and tolerance.

A defender of Brooks’ thesis might say that I am splitting hairs – that it does not matter if we use the vocabulary of love or the language of civility and tolerance. However, words make a difference.

If we uncritically accept as the appropriate standard for the good society and toss aside civility and tolerance as “garbage standards,” we set ourselves up for failure.

To begin, as an expectation for the broader society, love is too tall an order. We learned this long ago from moral philosophers like David Hume and Adam Smith, who observed that there are cognitive limits to how far we can extend our sympathy.

Genuine love requires close-in local knowledge that we cannot cultivate beyond a relatively small circle of family and friends.

The good news, though, is that love is not needed to achieve the good society. On this point, Nobel Laureate F.The. Hayek offered a significant distinction between the social norms that are essential to the small intimate purchase of known friends and family and the norms essential to the extended order of the broader community.

The right standard for the small band may very well be love. It is in this sphere that we have enough local knowledge to attend to particular needs in nuanced ways. However, as Hayek argued, if we apply this regular to society as a whole, we will destroy it.

Brooks tells us that expectations of civility and tolerance are too low of a bar; that if we want “true unity” in America, we must find our “shared whys.” However, unity is the wrong goal.

A country of self-governing citizens is not one of the shared ends; it is among shared rules: individual liberty, equality before the law, property rights and impersonal rules of contract, for example.

The cultural norms that correspond to such rules are those like civility and tolerance, norms that can be applied generally, without a great deal of close-in, local knowledge.

Expectations of civility and tolerance are usually admittedly cold and impersonal. That is why they are not sufficient standards for, say, a happy family life. However, it is their impersonal quality that makes them appropriate requirements for the broader modern society.

As cultural norms, civility and tolerance allow us to pursue our different ends without checking in with one another, without any expectation that people are aligning our beliefs and actions with some shared purpose.

Once we commit to unity – even as a direction and aspiration – the individual who diverges from the pack will always be seen as impeding progress toward the ideal. Moreover, therein is situated a formula for cruelty.

Though it may seem counterintuitive, it is the requirement of civility and tolerance that sets the foundation for the civil society, one characterized by pluralism and human thriving.

By not expecting more than we can offer, by not insisting on enjoying and unity of purpose, we leave the social space contestable, open to countless conversations, out of which we have the best chance of forging bonds of mutual respect and trust.

Brooks is correct that if we are going to overcome the culture of contempt, we need better conversational ethics, such as a commitment to humility, regard and knowledge-seeking curiosity in the face of disagreement. However, we do not need love to cultivate these practices. We need the tempered virtues of civility and tolerance.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s