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Harald Schöndorf SJ

Is Truth Intolerant?


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 1/2009, P. 125-135
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    Starting from the question of whether truth can be intolerant, HARALD SCHÖNDORF, professor of epistemology and history of philosophy at the University for Philosophy Munich, deals with the terms tolerance and truth under the primacy of human dignity and faith in God. He reaches the conclusion that just the highest truth creates the greatest possible tolerance.


After the speech of Pope Benedict XVI at the University of Rome La Sapienza had been cancelled because of the protests of professors and students critical of the church, Johan Schloemann wrote in the Süddeutsche Zeitung (18 January 2008), "The academic speech of the Pope, which was prevented through 'intolerance', on its part proclaims, in an agreeably covering up way, a conception of truth that is intolerant in its core."

Similar remarks are by no means infrequently to be heard. But what does the term 'intolerant truth' mean? The one who reflects on the meaning of the words "tolerant" and "tolerance" should notice that it is wrong to speak of 'intolerant truth', because only people can be tolerant or intolerant in their behaviour. In an analogous sense you can then also call the respective ways of proceeding or behaving as tolerant or intolerant, but truth can as little be tolerant or intolerant as science or human dignity.

To speak of 'intolerant truth' is exactly the same category mistake, as philosophers say, as in Karl Valentin's "Dream of a Duck" his tale about an earthworm that was 30 centimetres yellow. That one does apparently not notice that this formulation linguistically goes wrong seems as such already to be an indicator for the fact that this assertion is rather shaped by resentments and emotions than by rational thought.

Strictly speaking, the speech of 'intolerant truth' is therefore linguistic nonsense. The title of this article has nevertheless deliberately been chosen by taking up that linguistic slip and by speaking of the intolerance of truth. What does this phrase mean? It would linguistically be correct to say that the conviction of absolute truth makes people intolerant. Those who feel obliged to an absolute truth, so the reproach runs, would not tolerate any behaviour standing in the way of that absolute truth. But since in a pluralistic society no universally recognized absolute truth existed, in a pluralistic society behaviour patterns that are in conflict with absolute truth must be allowed. But this was not tolerated by those who believe in an absolute truth. The accusation here under discussion has probably to be formulated and substantiated more in detail.



What is Tolerance?

In order to clarify that allegation first the question be asked: What is tolerance? Tolerance means - literally translated - toleration. But it is not tolerance when I tolerate something although I do not like it for some reason. In case I do, for merely subjective reasons, not like something with others, so I have not the least right to stop it for that reason. For in a free society everybody has first the freedom to act according to his will, as long as he does not impede the freedom of others or harm them. That's why I can not yet speak of tolerance when it is simply about tolerating something that irritates or bothers me. For the question, "What do I like or not like?" is no standard for my fellow human beings' freedom. That a certain subjective behaviour goes against the grain with me, that alone gives me not any right to forbid others to do it.

In case the opposite was true, then I had already to call everybody tolerant who does not behave like a despot; and that is obviously not what we mean by tolerance. Tolerance was initially considered to be the toleration of other religions, which one did admittedly not regard as right but the confession and practices of which were tolerated. We can therefore only speak of tolerance when it is about tolerating a behaviour that I for good reasons regard as objectively wrong. If I am indifferent to some behaviour, there is no question of tolerance at all. And if I approve of a behaviour then I do not tolerate it but I think it is good and I support it. Tolerance therefore differs from approval. Only of a thing I do not approve of and that I regard as wrong can I meaningfully say that I nevertheless tolerate it. Tolerance proves thus to be the toleration of a behaviour that you regard as objectively wrong. But you can only then regard something as objectively wrong if you are convinced that objective truth exists. A more precise analysis of 'What does tolerance mean?' already shows that there is no tolerance at all without the conviction of truth, but only the question of how different subjective interests can get along with each other.


Tolerance is not Approval

Now there is today a new trend that does not only call for tolerance but for approval. It is proved by the fact that one does not only demand to enable the practising of certain behaviour patterns but also wants to ban any criticism of that behaviour or actually prohibits it. As is well known, the magic word for this is "prohibition of discrimination".



Of course, it is legitimate to prohibit social and legal discriminations which take place without any justified reasons. But this prohibition of discrimination must not be extended to the effect that from it a ban on critique is made. Now I can admittedly demand loyalty from members of an organization or institution and in this respect restrict the right to public criticism of the line of the respective institution or of its leadership, as this is, for instance, demanded from officials or from members of a company, a party, a church and suchlike. But generally within the state I can't of anyone demand that she not only tolerates a certain behaviour pattern but declares it to be good. Those who demand that are no longer liberal democrats but behave in a totalitarian way. Nobody has the right to demand of me that I had to accept his behaviour. For that is nothing else but muzzling others and robbing them of their right to freedom of expression. For that right is, of course, only interesting insofar as it is the right to criticize others.

The fact that in the past authorities of all kinds have not granted such freedom of expression is mainly due to the fact that they did not want any criticism; and for that reason they called from the outset every criticism discriminatory. That today certain groups try to stop any criticism of them by using the same arguments is a fundamental attack on the fundamental right of freedom of expression and must very clearly be rejected. In an individual case it is certainly not always easy to draw the borderline between an objective and therefore legitimate criticism and an insulting and degrading one. But there is no question that in a liberal democracy it must always be allowed to present an actually well-founded criticism of the conduct of others.

A factual substantiation can only be that I call for good reasons a particular behaviour unwise, pointless, unjustified, immoral, etc. That is of course a disqualification of the respective behaviour. But another way objectively to substantiate a criticism does not exist. If criticism is to be allowed at all, it must also be allowed to characterize a certain behaviour pattern unfavourably. Those who immediately call all such characterizations discrimination and for this reason want to stop them, are in fact those who declare with regard to definition every criticism to be an insult and a discrimination. With it, however, the right to criticism is questioned in general. But the right to criticism belongs to the central matters of the fundamental right to freedom of expression, which in turn is a basic precondition for any democracy worthy of that name.



Looking for Truth instead of Finding Truth?

Now, however, it is often maintained that referring to truth would cause people to place themselves on a higher level above others, and that they wanted to dictate to others how they are to behave. Only those who refrain from laying claim to their ability to recognize or to have the truth could also be tolerant towards others. Does that mean that one, in the style of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, was to replace truth with the search for truth? This would, as it seems, have the advantage that then nobody could any longer maintain he had truth at his disposal and could accordingly decree which behaviour patterns are allowed and which not.

What are we to think of the assertion that the search for truth was better than truth itself? Let's take this assertion at its word and ask about its exact meaning: What do we understand by search? When I am looking for something it means nothing else but that I am trying to find something. Those who do not want to find something are also not looking for it. But if it is the purpose of searching to find what I'm looking for, I cannot say that the search is better than the knowledge of the truth. He who disqualifies the goal of his action, i.e. the finding of truth, disqualifies thus also his action as such.

Against that someone could argue that in many cases just the search has a peculiar attraction, which disappears with finding. With a criminal story it is just the search for the perpetrator that makes the whole affair interesting. That is undoubtedly true, but only if at the end the perpetrator is found. A writer of detective novels can perhaps once make the gag that at the end of the novel his readers wait in vain to discover the real perpetrator. If he should often work according to that scheme, he will soon no longer find readers. For when the search turns out to be meaningless because what one is looking for can simply not be found, also the appeal of searching gets lost and turns into boredom and disappointment. A researcher who arrives at the result that the solution of the problem he was looking for cannot be found will abandon his efforts. For a search that from the outset is in vain, since the thing looked for cannot be found, has lost its attraction and becomes pointless.

It is, of course, possible that someone, since he regards truth as such as boring, for that reason so highly appreciates the search for truth. But it is to be feared that he who holds that opinion has never seriously looked for truth. At any rate, he has not yet really discovered and understood it. Every successful researcher can tell him that truth is anything but boring and uninteresting.



The Absolute Truth

What are we to think of the reproach that not necessarily every truth but that the absolute truth made intolerant? Here again the first question is what 'absolute truth' means. The Latin word "absolutus" means, if it is literally translated, "isolated". Absolute is something that is purely in itself and depends on nothing else. According to the sense of the word the term 'absolute truth' first means some or that truth that has purely for itself and independent of any other factors, interests, wishes etc. the character of truth. Such truth is free from anything else, from private interests, claims of power, violence fantasies, etc.

The consequence of such a definition is that you can not at all possess an absolute truth as if it was a kind of private property, for it must stand above all individual and private matters in order to be really absolute. That's why you cannot defend it in the way you defend your property, your home or your fellow human beings. If truth in this sense is absolute, then the right relationship to it does not lead to intolerance, on the contrary, it leads just to tolerance. For nobody simply has or administers such a truth; it is recognized, esteemed, respected. Those who wanted completely to monopolize it would just destroy its absoluteness.

Also for that reason a really absolute truth is for nobody a danger: Every truth can only be obtained through conviction and cannot be enforced by other means. Not because a certain belief, philosophy or religion would tell so, no, truth can on principle not be enforced by violence. For this reason an intolerant enforcement of truth misses its purpose from the outset. You cannot enforce truth on others, because according to its nature truth can only be recognized through a free rational insight. There is quite simply no other way to recognize truth. On the pure level of theoretical knowledge there is no compulsion to arrive at a certain truth. Quite the reverse, only those who can freely think and reflect are able to discover truth. Of course, this will include the many and diverse forms of reference to others, ranging from simple learning up to detailed and long lasting intellectual discourse. None of that alters the fact that the knowledge of truth is ultimately only possible as insight and that an insight is never enforceable from the outside or by any physical methods.

You can admittedly try to manipulate a human being to such an extent that it thinks certain things to be true, but that is a psychological outwitting and no real insight, even if the person concerned may not always be in a position to detect it.



Those who are really interested in truth can by no means be interested in such dubious or even inhuman methods. In order to make it perfectly clear: It may be that there are methods of brainwashing with the help of which we can force certain opinions on a human being - a real discovery of truth can never be achieved in this way. It is in the nature of things that forced conversions are impossible, even if in history they unfortunately have repeatedly been attempted. A truly absolute truth, i.e. a truth freed from all interests and emotions, can not at all lead to intolerance, because only in freedom truth can be adopted as conviction. In his talking it is truth that matters for the one who is interested in really convincing his interlocutor and not just in rhetorically taking him by surprise. For a genuine conviction can only turn up where I think something to be true.

All authorities that have to do with the absolute truth should be aware of the fact that it must not be monopolized. It is for instance not the task of a Constitutional Court to deduce the only possible interpretation from a constitutional principle, but only negatively to declare certain decisions of the legislature to be unconstitutional and positively to define a framework within which a constitutional decision has to stay. The same applies to the teaching authority of the church. It too has not the task to define the only possible way of the doctrine but to reject those statements that are not compatible with the faith and, if necessary, to set in advance the framework for the proper interpretation of the faith. As we all know, in an individual case this is not always clear to those who are responsible for it. That, however, is not the fault of truth; the reason is the wrong dealing with it. Actually, the highest truth makes just possible the greatest possible tolerance. For it shows us that we always fall behind its claim and that we therefore are to allow this also others.


Truth and Violence

It has become fashion to brand clear convictions as the origin of violence. I will not deal with the allegedly historical proof of this thesis: First, because I am not familiar with this field, but also because such historical proofs are generally questionable. It is sufficient to bear the question of the respective responsibility of certain people for the wars of the last 200 years in mind, about which we historically know after all more than about things that happened two to four thousand years ago, in order to see how extremely difficult it is with historical events impartially to establish who is really to blame - for what and to what extent. The motives for our doing are, as everybody knows, practically always mixed and not only of one single kind.



And that usually means that in many cases it is just as wrong to declare all the openly presented motives wholesale to be lies as it is wrong to think them to be true and the only motives. Everything suggests that the too simple explanations of historical events are improper simplifications.

Nevertheless, it is undeniable that the conviction to be in possession of the truth can and has often led to arrogance and intolerance. And it is also true that fanaticism only exists where people stand up for something, and the worst fanaticism is usually the one which pretends to stand up for the highest values. Here too the old saying applies, "corruptio optimi pessima" (the reversal of the best is the worst). Nothing in our life is protected against being changed into its opposite. That's why nobody but Jesus has so clearly denounced the perversion of religion. But from it does not follow that the thing which is here perverted had no value. As everybody knows the deepest hatred often comes from disappointed love. But nobody who is half-way reasonable will conclude from this that love as such was something bad and not worth striving for. Thus intolerance too can of course come from a false understanding of truth, without following from this that truth itself necessarily leads to intolerance.

Moreover, fanaticism is not necessarily the defence of an absolute truth but often enough the defence of the supposed or real own rights, often with a minority interest, which concern the national, ethnic or cultural identity but not an all-encompassing truth. Also some strange behaviour patters of Israel in the Old Testament which today seem rather strange to us (and which were not different with other peoples of that time) can be explained as defending one's own identity in a minority situation. If the Israelites had simply merged with other peoples before they had reached a relevant number and founded a real state, they had sooner or later come to an end as Israelites, and as believers in the one God.

Another danger is the dishonest referring to the alleged defence of truth. That kind of hypocrisy is especially dangerous, because it camouflages itself as defence of the good. But he who knows about it can now in exactly the same way stumble into the opposite trap and out of fear, conformism or mere laziness refrain from defending truth. That is no longer tolerance but de facto a preliminary stage of its abolition. For intolerant people have an easy job where values and truths are no longer defended; there the power of the fittest prevails, and in the long term the public morals are undermined, as we know it from the alarming increase of protection money, corruption and similar serious shortcomings in many countries; if such abuses have once taken root it is very difficult to fight them.



Limits of Tolerance

With it we have mentioned the limits of tolerance - a subject that cannot be discussed in all details. Because tolerance meets first its limits where other people are harmed and when it is impossible to justify this for the sake of a higher good. To be sure, it is impossible to prevent any behaviour that damages others or unfairly puts them at a disadvantage. The difficulty with tolerance therefore is that it ends at the moment when some individual or group does something that seriously harms someone. For it can and must not be tolerated that another person is harmed, unless it could not be avoided for the sake of a higher good. From this a difficult problem arises, because the question "When is someone harmed?" is not so easy to answer. With most things we do we also disadvantage others, starting from the disadvantage of a not completely fair treatment up to massive psychological, social or health damage. Who does, for instance, want to assert that he had completely undamaged come through his home and school education?

If people protest with every small matter and assert that their sleep or their personal development had been disturbed, from it an attitude of intolerance can develop with which such a thing as consideration for others and for the concerns of the public scarcely occurs. Conversely, if people with none of their behaviour patterns mind whether they harass others, then we come to the same result. Tolerance begins with the consideration for others, and not so that one always first demands consideration on the part of others. No culture of the right tolerance can develop without a culture of respect and the readiness also to curb for the sake of the common good the one or other own convenience.

Let us therefore give our attention to those cases which without doubt cannot be tolerated. That is certainly the case when the toleration of certain behaviour patterns leads to intolerance of others or violates fundamental human rights. A boundless tolerance would be self-destructive. Tolerance therefore needs a true and unshakeable foundation so that it does not become the victim of the intolerant. We need therefore the conviction of inviolable rights, the violation of which must not be tolerated under any circumstances. That includes all practices that violate the human rights and human dignity and which therefore are crimes or offences against humanity. This means nothing else but that the declaration of belief in the cause of the inviolability and lasting necessity [Unaufgebbarkeit] of the rights and the dignity of all human beings has the rank of an absolute truth.



Tolerance therefore needs the foundation of truth, if it does not want to fall victim to intolerance.

For this reason the defence of human dignity and human rights is the indispensable basis of every tolerant living together. This defence is only possible if we are convinced of the truth of human dignity and human rights. The courage of one's convictions needed for the defence of tolerance requires not only courage but first the conviction of the truth of those things which are to be defended. You are admittedly not allowed to force somebody to do something that is against his conscience. But in particular cases you are to prevent someone from doing something about which he maintains that his conscience ordered him to do it, as this is, for example, the case with terrorists.

The living together on the level of tolerance also requires that there are normally no conflicts in which the question arises whether the respective conduct is still tolerable or an attack on tolerance that has to be prevented whatever happens. In a pluralistic society such living together is only possible because there is a broad consensus on the practical behaviour patterns despite different views on religious and ideological basic convictions. Where this consensus does not or no longer exists, because it has been ruined by corruption, by the tyranny of criminal groupings, by inhuman systems of rule or by fanatics and terrorists, the talking about tolerance begins to become a mere academic theory. But just then and there the recollection of truth is even more urgent than in a society where living together despite different basic convictions functions rather without problems. For the peaceful coexistence of diverse views and practices can always be threatened and therefore requires always the reflection on the undisputed common foundations. Such reflection, however, will always take place in the way of looking for truth, because the mere convention, the mere decision can only be a temporary basis, provided that it is not based on a deeper foundation that requires approval out of itself - and this is the truth.


Tolerance Requires Truth

Tolerance requires the conviction of the absolute truth of the primacy of the human person. Those who do not share this conviction are in danger either to be or to become intolerant or to do nothing against intolerance. For they will either tolerate behaviours that are directed against human dignity, or they will think certain unacceptable behaviours for reasons of religion, their own nation, reason of state or the like in certain cases to be acceptable,



as e.g. the use of torture, killing innocent bystanders, perjury, treachery, the contempt of martial law and the like. It is, of course, not absolutely necessary for such behaviour that someone expressly has or holds the conviction that unconditional validity is attached to certain standards, as it is otherwise often the case with our actions: the standards which we theoretically hold and those to which we then, in practice, really keep can more or less differ.

The conviction of the existence of truth, and we are allowed also to say, of an absolute truth, which is at least practised in life, therefore turns out to be the necessary prerequisite for true tolerance. For only in the light of an absolute truth the necessary respect is granted to every human being, which is the source of and the reason for tolerance. In this light at the same time also the limits of tolerance become clear, and we see when and where we are to put up resistance.


Primacy of Human Dignity and Faith in God

It is also worth considering that the tolerance originates in a Christian tradition, even if it had not infrequently to be carried through against the Christian churches. For, according to the Christian belief, the human being has priority over all religious rites and customs. Only where the Sabbath is for man, not man for the Sabbath tolerance can be lived. But if man is subordinated to the functioning - of the state, of economy or other institutions - or to specific group interests, which can also occur under the guise of cultural traditions or alleged minority rights, then tolerance gets in danger. In case of conflict we must then on behalf of human rights, and therefore also in the name of truth oppose such practices by a veto. For only those views can be tolerated which do not make earthly things absolute but in which man has the primacy.

For tolerance applies as for any moral: Of course, atheists can just as morally think and led a moral life as those who believe in God. But only if I believe in God, in whose hands the fate of the world after all is, I can accept the responsibility for acting morally. For those who act morally not infrequently come off second-best compared with the unscrupulous, and they must above all take the risk that they cannot protect others against the power of injustice. I can only then accept the responsibility for this, if I believe that there is a divine world government.



If one against it believes everything is up to us, then one undermines morality and tolerance, because then people think to be authorized or perhaps even obliged to use all means, without regard to law and morality, in order to achieve their objectives, since they want to save the world, after all.

Besides the concrete vigilance only the always necessary recollection of the unalterable foundations of a liberal living together in society and the readiness to defend it protects from such misconduct. This is nothing else but the recollection of those truths without which a truly human life and living together cannot succeed. For genuine tolerance is not opposed to the truth, on the contrary, it is only possible if it is based on the fundamental truths about man's liberty and dignity.


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