Friday, October 07, 2011

The end of tolerance

The illusion that moral diversity is a viable social strategy is at its last gasp.
Zac Alstin
Friday, 7 October 2011

Same-sex marriage advocates are seeking not merely the legal and financial rights that go with the institution of marriage, but the social affirmation that marriage promises. To put it another way, some same-sex marriage advocates have argued that the existing marriage laws are inherently discriminatory and promote homophobia within the broader community.

Either way, we are well beyond the point of “tolerance”. The examples from Britain show that our society is beginning to embrace the ethical implications of its official stance on issues such as sexual orientation. The High Court rejection of the Christian foster-carer’s appeal, the anti-discrimination laws’ interference in the operation of Catholic adoption agencies, and now the first hints of similar action with regard to same-sex marriage, show a growing appetite for public ethical engagement in hitherto private matters. If religious organisations are forced to choose between their moral teachings on same-sex marriage and their legal right to perform marriage at all, then we will for the first time in many years face a genuine public confrontation between competing ethical theories, without the soothing refrains of tolerance and individual freedom.

In short, some of those who once called for tolerance and individual freedom have adjusted to the success of their programme and decided to shift the boundaries. But their new goal cannot be achieved by appealing to tolerance, freedom, or even diversity because they now seek to impose their own implicit moral system upon the whole of society.

Attacks on the legitimacy of religious institutions in areas of marriage and adoption correspond to increasing pressure to override the right to conscientious objection for doctors and other healthcare professionals. This new appetite for moral coercion signals the end of tolerance, the end of a pretence that we could “live and let live” without reaching binding moral conclusions.

What was once illicit became tolerable; now the merely tolerable has been normalised. But, as tolerance comes to an end, so will the illusion that moral diversity is truly a viable long-term strategy for a society. We might begin again to ask in earnest what is good and evil in human life.
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