[ Question ]

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

by slikts 1mo16th Sep 20199 comments

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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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1 Answers

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'.