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Is there an existing label for the category of fallacies exemplified by "paradox of tolerance"?

by slikts1 min read16th Sep 201911 comments



The "paradox of tolerance" is a continually hot topic, but I've not seen it framed as a member in a category of fallacies where a principle is conceptualized as either absolute or hypocritical and the absolute conception then rejected as self-contradictory or incoherent. Other examples of commonly absolutized principles are pacifism, pluralism, humility, openness, specific kinds of freedoms, etc.

I've been provisionally calling it the 'false self-contradiction fallacy', meaning a specialized case of black-and-white fallacy as applied to ethical, moral or practical principles by presuming a false dichotomy between the principle being either absolute or hypocritical. The presumption is based on a shallow conception of the principle that excludes the deeper grounding principles that would allow integrating restrictions on the principle. The fallacy banks on the popular intuitions of justice needing to be blind and the universality of human rights and presumes limits to a principle to be arbitrary or unjustified.

Deeper conceptions of principles are able to integrate critical rejection; for example, in the case of tolerance, it can integrate the self-preservation of the principle by conditioning it on reciprocity. Tolerance in this case is not valuable in itself but as a higher-order expression of avoiding conflict escalation, achieving intellectual plurality, etc.

Absolute pacifism may be the most clear example of the fallacy, since most people understand that, to be coherent, pacifism must assign a high negative value to violence as a conflict-solving approach and positive value to alternative approaches, but that violence is still kept as the last resort, since the other approaches can't always work.

I find 'false self-contradictions' especially pernicious in their rhetorical persuasiveness and their consequent wide application in promoting moral relativism and getting around inconvenient principles. I'm really interested in finding existing discourse that would take a similar angle, and generally in mainstreaming awareness of this specific kind of fallacious argumentation.


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I don't think they're fallacies.

Some pacifists really do believe that violence should be avoided absolutely, even as a last resort. And that doesn't even seem to be a paradox, just a strategy with an extreme weakness.

I think the 'paradox of tolerance' really is a paradox given that it's not obvious, for anyone abiding by the principle, how tolerant they should be of intolerance. Of course, any given non-absolute degree or 'distribution' of tolerance could be 'self-consistent' so it's not an unavoidable 'gotcha' by any means. But the simplest, most literal forms do definitely seem to be paradoxical, unless it's interpreted entirely personally, e.g. 'I should tolerate everything and anything.'.

My favorite example – which I think is, in a sense, paradoxical – is the precautionary principle. It's definitely not obvious that it shouldn't apply to people adopting the principle itself and, in fact, doing so is one reason why I reject it as a principle. It seems obvious to me that the superior principle is to 'make the best decisions one can given the information, and attendant uncertainty, available'.

Generally, I suspect that if the above principles, and similar ones, are 'sharpened' by modifying them to "integrate critical rejection", one would arrive at an entirely different (and more sophisticated) principle like, e.g. 'make the best decisions one can'.

The paradox of unlimited tolerance is that it has unacceptable consequences in allowing the destruction of a tolerant society; same for pacifism if the grounding principles for it are valuing human life and preferring positive-sum outcomes instead of just non-violence being an end in itself.

There obviously can be and are many people arguing for absolute principles (often in bad faith, since they don't actually hold the principles themselves), which is what makes it so topical.

1Kenny2yI agree, on the object level, that principles often are 'true' or valuable but with justified exceptions. But I don't understand why the best response isn't just 'There are justified exceptions to those principles.', or 'I don't hold that principle to be true or valuable absolutely.'.
8 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 5:59 PM

The closest existing label turns out to be absolutism fallacy; I've posted a more focused question about the same topic elsewhere.

You seem to have a lot of assumptions that probably need to be 'unpacked' (made explicit). For one, 'absolutism fallacy' isn't obviously a fallacy. Pacifism can definitely be 'absolute' and, as I claimed in my answer to this question, I don't even think that's paradoxical.

Are you trying to gather 'rhetorical ammunition' to defend 'pacifism' and 'tolerance' as principles, specifically? I'm confused because you seem to be denying that either of those principles can even be interpreted literally or 'absolutely' and it seems obvious to me that they can (and that people often do so).

I'm personally on-board with 'game-theoretical steelman' versions of 'pacifism' and 'tolerance', but the 'game-theoretical steelmanning', in my mind, necessarily involves all of my other values, i.e. there aren't 'pure (but sophisticated) non-absolute' versions of those principles to which every sufficiently advanced thinker would readily agree. (For one, I suspect that the steelmanned version of those principles is inevitably complicated and intricately detailed due to its interactions with other values, and to the variation and general incoherence/inconsistency of human values.)

Presuming justified exceptions to a principle to be impossible is what makes something an absolutism fallacy in the category of fallacies of presumption.

I'm really confused about this. It seems like you're arguing that every consideration or analysis of any principle must also include any 'justified exception'. I'm not arguing that any particular justified exception is impossible, but that it should be considered separate from the principle to which it is an exception – not part of the principle itself. Lumping principles and their justified exceptions seems strictly less useful in general; one reason being that which exceptions are justified is yet another potential axis of disagreement. It also seems almost designed to be maximally confusing.

Are you claiming that people should adopt a rhetorical rule of assuming that 'pacifism' actually refers to the base principle and its 'justified exceptions'? How would that work in practice? In particular, what are (all of) the justified exceptions to pacifism? How should people refer to the base principle instead, e.g. when discussing which exceptions exactly are justified or not? How should people refer to the base principle in the case where they don't think any exceptions are justified?

To make this even more meta, do you presume that there are justified exceptions to every possible principle? Are there no justified exceptions to that principle?

Applying moral principles to the real world requires complex reasoned judgement. Making the principles pure or absolute is an attempt to make the required judgement formulaic instead, often due to a cynicism about individual judgement abilities of people, and this wittingly or unwittingly leads to a paradoxical outcome like in the paradox of tolerance.

So, is your idea that, because of the general principle (ha) of 'intellectual charity', we should – typically at least, or maybe by default – habitually steelman principled arguments to automatically include any justified exceptions of which we're aware?

I think maybe it'd be better to simply offer to, and query, our fellow reasoners about which justified exceptions they accept for any principles under discussion.

Making the principles pure or absolute is an attempt to make the required judgement formulaic instead, often due to a cynicism about individual judgement abilities of people, ...

It's in general, in my experience anyways, difficult to distinguish between cynicism and realism. People really are, or seem to be, pretty bad reasoners in a lot of situations. We really do seem to be still, mostly, running how-to-get-along-in-a-small-tribal-band software, particularly when doing moral reasoning. Do you really trust most people to make good moral judgements generally? I'm on the fence, tho I do lean to a kind of Taoist 'people are naturally good' stance ('attitude'). But I'm also regularly watching for strong evidence of specific people's actual moral decisions and reasoning – and 'cynicism' isn't always wrong.

I don't think I've ever seen the paradox of tolerance used that way. Even in the original formulation from Popper, it's specifically an argument for restricting the principle of tolerance, based on the consequences of society being too tolerant.

The problem with the paradox of tolerance, (as I've seen it used) is people use it as an argument to justify putting limits on the principle which are in fact arbitrary and unjustified; they just say "we can't tolerate the intolerant" as a cached excuse for doing violence to political enemies while still professing a belief in tolerance.

As such, your defence sounds to me like it's ceding the ground. I don't believe in tolerance-conditional-on-reciprocity, I believe in tolerance.

You've set up a dichotomy between limited (e.g., reciprocal) tolerance and absolute tolerance by presuming that the limitations would be arbitrary and unjustified, but the limitations are justified by self-preservation (in case of Popper, tempered by preferring rational discourse if possible), so what you've said is an illustration of the fallacious argument this question is about.