I borrow the first part of this post’s title from a book of Alphonso Lingis (save for the fact that I have pluralized “community”). But my use of the phrase has nothing to do – has nothing in common, you might say – with Lingis’s book (which is a series of reflections on his travels in south Asia). And, to be honest, I don’t particularly like Lingis’s work. But let me get on with what I do want to talk about…
Unity is a transcendental, that is, it is convertible with being. This means that to exist is to be unified and vice-versa. The degree to which something tends to disintegrate, to the same degree it tends toward nothingness. This seems obvious: a vase that falls and is smashed to pieces on the floor ceases to exist; there is no longer a vase but a thousand pieces of what used to be a vase.
There are different forms of unity; unity is not necessarily homogeneity. The vase is fairly homogeneous but the human body, say, is not. But there does have to be something in common among the constituent members of the thing in question.
Liberal societies – societies that emphasize freedom and equality as the fundamental goods – are designed to hold together groups of people who have diverse beliefs and lifestyles. Of course, a liberal society need not, in fact, be composed of such diversity; the point is that it is meant to permit such diversity and still continue in existence. Liberal societies are designed to sustain becoming, as it were, communities of those who have nothing in common although any given society that is de jure liberal may be composed of citizens whose beliefs and lifestyles do not differ radically.
But how diverse can liberal societies become before they fall apart? After all, liberal societies, no matter how much they may desire it, are not exempt from the laws of being.
Let’s ask a more particular question along these same lines. How diverse can the beliefs of the citizens of a liberal society (or, I guess, any society) become before they can no longer peaceably live together?
Thomas Jefferson, at least in some remarks in his Notes on the State of Virginia, seems to think that this is not a serious question. He appears to feel that this is the genius of a liberal society, namely, it does not matter what my fellow citizens believe; everyone is free to believe what he or she wishes. “But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg,” writes Jefferson (Notes, Query XVII). What he says in the sequel to this statement makes it evident that he is not only thinking of freedom of religious belief but freedom of opinion in general.
Galileo was sent to the inquisition for affirming that the earth was a sphere: the government had declared it to be as flat as a trencher, and Galileo was obliged to abjure his error. This error however at length prevailed, the earth became a globe, and Descartes declared it was whirled round its axis by a vortex. The government in which he lived was wise enough to see that this was no question of civil jurisdiction, or we should all have been involved by authority in vortices. In fact, the vortices have been exploded, and the Newtonian principle of gravitation is now more firmly established, on the basis of reason, than it would be were the government to step in, and to make it an article of necessary faith. Reason and experiment have been indulged, and error has fled before them. It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself. Subject opinion to coercion: whom will you make your inquisitors? Fallible men; men governed by bad passions, by private as well as public reasons. And why subject it to coercion? To produce uniformity. But is uniformity of opinion desireable? No more than of face and stature. Introduce the bed of Procrustes then, and as there is danger that the large men may beat the small, make us all of a size, by lopping the former and stretching the latter (Query XVII).
I was unaware that Galileo’s problems with the Inquisition had anything to do with the shape of the earth. I think Jefferson’s history is a little off. But his point is evident: government should not be in the business of regulating the inquiries of reason. Whether he is right about that, it is equally evident that, in his judgment, the free market of opinions will regulate itself. Thus, in connection with religion, he observes:
Difference of opinion is advantageous in religion. The several sects perform the office of a Censor morum over each other. Is uniformity attainable? Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth. Let us reflect that it is inhabited by a thousand millions of people. That these profess probably a thousand different systems of religion. That ours is but one of that thousand. That if there be but one right, and ours that one, we should wish to see the 999 wandering sects gathered into the fold of truth. But against such a majority we cannot effect this by force. Reason and persuasion are the only practicable instruments. To make way for these, free enquiry must be indulged; and how can we wish others to indulge it while we refuse it ourselves (Query XVII).
While it is undoubtedly true that civil (and sometimes uncivil) discourse does normally function as an arbiter of the true and the false and that many people adjust their beliefs according to evidence and rational persuasion, there is still the question of how long a society can survive as diversity of belief in it grows. Again, this question seems to be a non-starter for Jefferson.
Let’s consider a different point of view. In his Saggio Teoretico di Dritto Naturale the famous Jesuit critic of the Italian Risorgimento, Luigi Taparelli, writes:
No one can deny that man’s moral action is guided by his beliefs; that, as a consequence, diversity in beliefs leads to diversity in action; that this diversity, when it develops to a certain degree, damages and ruins a society (I, §890).
Taparelli’s claim would seem almost too obvious to require articulation. Don’t my beliefs always guide my actions? It is not just a matter of my beliefs about important things. If I believe that I have some gin left for a martini I will open the liquor cabinet to get it. If I believe that my car is low on oil, I will get it changed. As for more important things – if I believe that the Ten Commandments set down moral truths, I will live according to them.
But, it will be objected, I don’t always act according to my beliefs. I may announce or imply that I hold the Ten Commandments to be normative, but in my practice this may not be borne out.
Well, I don’t think Taparelli is talking about what we profess to believe but what we really believe. And surely we do act according to the latter.
It might be further be objected that I don’t always act on beliefs but just as often, and perhaps more often, I act on knowledge. I see that there is gin in the liquor cabinet, so I get it for the martini.
In the above quote Taparelli uses the term credere, which we would normally translate as “to believe” or “believing.” But he is using credere in a very broad sense since in the above remarks there is a parenthetical reference (which I left out) back to an earlier part of the Saggio (§100) where he uses the term conoscere (“to know” or “knowing”) in place of credere as that which guides our action. I believe that we can conclude, then, that what Taparelli is saying is that we act according to our understanding of things, whatever term you want to use for “understanding” (“belief,” “knowledge,” “grasp,” etc.) He is not here concerned with an epistemological distinction between what is known and what is merely believed. And this is how I am using “belief” in this post, and I think Jefferson would go along with this too.
We could continue with the objections, but I don’t want to get too far off course. What Taparelli is proposing is simply this: since our beliefs guide our actions, what we believe will not be an indifferent matter, socially speaking. We know that people believed different things about slavery, for instance, in the U.S. in the nineteenth century and this was not without consequence.
Is Jefferson not naive, therefore, when he supposes that the beliefs of his fellow citizens will have no ill effect on him? Indeed, it depends on what those beliefs are. But to assume that belief – our understanding of things – will not affect how we live, what we do (to others and ourselves), seems quite stupid.
So, to answer our question – How long can liberal societies survive diversity of belief? – I would suggest that they can survive for as long as the citizens’ beliefs don’t lead to lifestyles that are too radically different. To put this another way, I don’t think it is practically possible for liberal societies to realize the dream of surviving as communities of those who have nothing in common. There is a breaking point. People will, intelligently, not wish to live together with others whose lifestyles are so antithetical to their own.
This is not a refutation of liberal political theory (although I am, admittedly, very skeptical of it). Much more than this elementary reflection would be needed for that. Nor is it an argument against social and political toleration of erroneous beliefs or morally questionable lifestyles. No human community could survive without a sufficient amount of such tolerance. You might say that what I am engaged in here is merely an “exploration” of the limits of liberalism.