T.M. Scanlon Interview: Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Freedom of Expression, Tolerance, and Human Rights: Conversation with T. M. Scanlon, Alford Professor of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy, and Civil Polity; Harvard University; February 20, 2007, by Harry Kreisler

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Philosophy and Public Debate

I'm struck by how relevant this all is, and in the back of my mind is the question of how philosophy makes an impact. You obviously make an impact on the field of philosophy and on the students you have, but I think more people should be reading [your book] because it has a cleansing quality on the mind as one thinks about issues one reads about in the New York Times.

In the early 1970s, some friends and I got together and founded a journal called Philosophy in Public Affairs. It's amusing, or maybe embarrassing, to go back and read the preamble that we wrote. We said something like what you just said, that we think philosophy has something to contribute to moral issues, centrally concerned with issues of our time, and by founding this journal we want to, on the one hand, encourage philosophers to address themselves more to practical issues than they have before, and second, to bring their thoughts to a wider audience. We even said philosophy has something to contribute to the understanding, and even the resolution, of these issues.

That seems wildly optimistic, but looking back thirty-five years, I have to say that we were quite successful on the first front. That is, philosophers did (not simply as a result of what we did, but partly because of the spirit of the time) turn their minds much more in succeeding decades to practical questions. I don't think we succeeded very well in getting people outside the philosophical community to attend to it.

The subscriptions of that journal never got beyond 3000, and it was cited in a few law review articles, but not much beyond there, so it's hard to crack that frontier. I've written a few things in the New York Review of Books, and maybe a few other journals, but I don't know that they've gotten a very wide audience.

I once participated with the same group of folks in writing an amicus curiae brief for the Supreme Court. This was in the case about assisted suicide. I'd done a similar thing earlier, with another group of people, in a case having to do with academic freedom and freedom of speech. The one about freedom of speech seemed to never be noticed by anybody, but the one on assisted suicide got a fair amount of play. It's sometimes referred to, often negatively, and a couple of magazines mentioned it in their stories. I was struck by the fact that when the reporters called me, they never asked me, "Why do you guys think this or that?" Rather, the only question they had was, "Who do you guys think you are, that you should be pronouncing on this subject?" That was a bit surprising.

So, it's their attitude toward you, as opposed to the substance of your position.

It's "These pointy-headed academics getting out there, trying to tell us what to do." That seemed to be the attitude.

One of the essays in this collection that struck me was the one we just talked about, the one on human rights. Is there anything to add now, if you look at the nineties and the emphasis on human rights, and how the political process has corrupted some of the basic insights we had about human rights, turning it into a notion of changing societies that couldn't be changed? You address that in your essay.

I do, although only in one paragraph or sentence. I said, "Even if you think it's permissible for people to intervene, that people who are torturing people and throwing them in jail don't have a right not to be interfered with, still, we've got to look at the question of how effectively we could intervene. That may be a very important barrier." I think I said that in, more or less, those words, although it was buried in one paragraph.

If I were writing that essay over again, and sometimes I wish I could, I certainly would say something different for a couple of reasons. That essay was a product of the late Cold War. It came about in an interesting way, having to do with your previous question about how philosophy can become influential. A friend who was running an institute for philosophy and public policy at the University of Maryland organized a series of working groups, bringing together people from the academy, mostly philosophers and political scientists, and some economists, with decision makers of various sorts from Washington, [and] in this instance on human rights, some congressional staff people, actually a couple people from Congress. Harken was there because he'd written the Harken amendment, which restricted the sale of weapons to countries that engaged in systematic violations of human rights. Also, there was even a procurement officer from the Pentagon who participated in this. We met four times over the course of several months, arguing about it, and then we wrote papers for a volume, and that was where it was from.

When I was talking there about human rights as a neutral concern (the title of that essay) -- this was the early 1980s -- I was still thinking about the East/West, the Soviet bloc and NATO, dichotomy. Human rights were being accused of being an expression of bourgeois values against the proper economic rights that were supposedly being recognized in the socialist countries. I was trying to argue about how human rights really are concerns that span that disagreement. There may be disagreement about economic policy but there shouldn't be disagreement about whether it's all right to put people in jail without any kind of due process. That was my idea of the neutrality of human rights.

If you fast forward now to our own time, the Cold War is over. Human rights are now being charged with a lack of neutrality, but that's not the dimension along which neutrality is being disputed. Rather, it's cultural differences between Asian values and Western values, or between societies organized along religious lines and societies that are not. The relevant dimension around which the neutrality of human rights might be challenged is quite different now than it was then. Also, we've had more experience with intervention, as you say, so I would've highlighted it more, although I firmly believe that paragraph. I thought it was important. Those are two examples of the way in which change of events can certainly change what one would say and what one would emphasize, if one were trying to write about a question philosophically.

Do you feel impelled, at all, to rewrite the essay?

When I was putting together this collection, I thought, "Should I try to rewrite this, or write an afterword?" Of all the essays in that book, I was most tempted to do it with respect to that one, but several people I knew who had written follow-on essays that referred to that had basically made the central points that I would have made, so I would have had to go back and discuss what they had said. I think it would've fit a little oddly in the volume, so I decided to leave it as it was and live with it. Maybe later I'll write another essay, which I hope to do.

I just gave a seminar with a political scientist and an economist at Harvard on human rights, so I'm thinking about it again; I might write something else.

In one of the other essays in here, you talk about tolerance as a "recognition of common membership that is deeper than these conflicts, a recognition that others are just as qualified as we are to give their contribution to a definition of society." Are you pessimistic about the way we act on tolerance?

I'm pessimistic, maybe, but perhaps at a different level. What I said in that essay was that the main issue of tolerance is that we all care about what kind of society we live in, and tolerance arises out of the fact that society belongs to all of us, none of us has ownership of it. Recognizing that society is other peoples' just as much as ours involves recognizing their entitlement to participate in the evolution of its mores, to dress the way they want to dress, to engage in the kind of sexual life that they want to engage in, to be religious or not religious as they choose. All those things are private decisions in a certain sense, but they have a public dimension. If a lot of people make one choice or another, it changes what society is like for all of us.

I wanted to say that tolerance is a difficult doctrine to accept because it evolves in the hands of our fellow citizens, recognizing we've got to live with these people, and so we're going to have to let the society go the way most of them decide it's going to go.

I can be pessimistic about that. I can say I'm firmly committed to tolerance, but I may not like the way the society becomes more and more and more saturated with sex, and more and more people are talking about it, are concerned about it. I don't like that change of events, but I can't tell them what they can put on billboards, or what they can write in magazines. I have to accept that I don't own the society.

Now society is becoming more religious. I'm not religious, so living in a society in which I'm an outsider, in a certain way, is not comfortable, and maybe it will evolve to that point. But living in an open society involves taking that risk. That's the price of being connected with your fellow citizens at the deeper level in which you recognize them as fellow citizens who own this thing just as much as we do. So, I'm always worried about the consequences of tolerance, but I'm firmly committed to accepting the consequences.

You were asking more about [whether] I am worried that people are going to become less tolerant and try to impose on me -- well, yes, that's always a threat. That certainly is a threat, but I think we've done pretty well. The demand that people be prevented from living the lifestyle they want, expressing the values they want, because it's going to have a bad effect on social mores is, as I've said, something that's always being raised. But so far we've done reasonably well at beating it back. One always wants to be worried. That's what the ACLU and organizations like that are for, and they're necessary because one always has to be worried about that, but that's a different kind of pessimism. I'm not so pessimistic; I'm hopeful, on that, although I just have to keep my fingers crossed on the other front about where it's going to lead.

Is it fair to say that philosophy's stake in this is clarifying what the issues are with regard to something like tolerance, defining the questions so we see what the problem is in the bigger picture?

To see what the problem is and see why a certain answer is one that we should rest with. Philosophers have a -- anybody has a responsibility to try to participate in public discussion, and maybe philosophers have thought a lot about it. You think it would be a good thing. Many people may not think that; they ought to try to get their ideas out there. Having said that, it's maybe an embarrassing thing to say that philosophy is, to a very high degree, a first-person subject. I write about tolerance because although I want to be tolerant, it's got this price. If we're all going to be tolerant, then what kind of society are we going to be living in? So, I feel that tension, and I want to get an answer to the question.

Given that it has this cost, why am I so concerned with it? That goes back to my interchange with my father, when I said, "How can they let the newspaper say this kind of thing? People are being systematically misled about this subject and that's going to have very bad political consequences." And my father said, "Who's to decide?" I might say something similar about tolerance. Who's going to be the police? Are we going to say that somebody can just say, "Now we've got the society we want, you can stop thinking about how you want to live, you've got to accept this." No, we don't want anybody to decide that way. Why not? Can we say more about that side of it to make us see more clearly why that's the right side to come down on, and then think about all the objections raised and how those objections can be answered? We're really trying to answer a curiosity that comes from within.

Next page: Conclusions

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