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Michael Sandel writes that contemporary liberals, in defending a wide-ranging toleration that would extend to, for example, pornography and other unpopular things, find themselves increasingly in a bind. They do so because their toleration of such things is based upon "some version of moral relativism, the idea that it is wrong to 'legislate morality' because all morality is merely subjective. 'Who is to say what is literature and what is filth? That is a value judgement, and whose values should decide?'" As Sandel points out, however, such a defense of toleration, "the relativist defense," quickly undermines itself; for "toleration and freedom and fairness are values too, and they can hardly be defended by the claim that no value can be defended."(1)
But why did contemporary liberals embrace "the relativist defense"? Leo Strauss provides an answer to that question:
When liberals became impatient of the absolute limits to diversity or individuality that are imposed even by the most liberal version of natural right, they had to make a choice between natural right and the uninhibited cultivation of individuality. They chose the latter. Once this step was taken, tolerance appeared as one value or ideal among many, and not intrinsically superior to its opposite. In other words, intolerance appeared as a value equal in dignity to tolerance.(2)
The tendency of liberals to make this choice, the choice of individuality over natural right, leads Strauss to the following conclusion: "Liberal relativism has its roots in the natural right tradition of tolerance . . . but in itself it is a seminary of intolerance."(3)
That today toleration and relativism have become indistinguishable, part of an apparently seamless web, is, I think, accurate. But need it have been so? Does toleration provide the fertile ground in which relativism takes root and flourishes? And what of the intention of the founders of toleration: Did they guard against this possibility? Or did they intend that toleration become indistinguishable from relativism? We are fortunate to have at our disposal the record of a debate between one of the founders of the principle of toleration and his antagonist, in which these very questions are taken up. After John Locke's first Letter Concerning Toleration was published in 1689, Jonas Proast, an Oxford scholar and chaplain, wrote a reply the following year. Over the next decade, in response to critiques by Proast, Locke wrote his Second, Third, and Fourth Letters, in which he attempted to rebuff the charge, among many others, that toleration would lead to unbelief and moral relativism.(4) That debate is my subject. In particular, I explore how Locke attempted to build a fire wall, so to speak, between toleration in matters of mere religion, on the one hand, and toleration among competing conceptions of the good, on the other.
I begin, in Section I, by outlining the means - Locke's three "considerations" - by which he establishes toleration toward competing accounts of salvation, and I describe what aspect of Locke's defense of toleration led Proast to suspect that Locke was ushering in a new age of atheism and moral relativism. In Section II, I take up the first of these charges and show that Locke's version of toleration does not deny the possibility that some religions are more true than others; but he allows for this possibility only by defining the true religion as that religion which is within the limits of reason alone, a subject that I turn to in Section III. In this manner, Locke was able to defend himself against Proast's charge that religious toleration leads ineluctably to religious skepticism or even to irreligion. Here then is part of Locke's fire wall between religious toleration and a more general toleration. I also suggest, however, that Locke's project, which involved separating out those elements of religion that can be known by reason from those that cannot, risked undermining, or at least transforming, revealed religion.
This takes me, in Section IV, to Proast's charge that Locke's religious toleration would lead to moral relativism. I describe Locke's response, why he thought that religious toleration does not make it impossible to have moral knowledge and does not make it entirely illegitimate for the state to enforce certain norms. Moreover, I attempt to sketch one possible grounding for this moral knowledge (Subsection A) as well as to give an overview of five norms - which, not incidentally, concern primarily toleration - that Locke encourages the state to privilege (Subsection B). Here then is the second part of Locke's fire wall between toleration in religious matters and a more general toleration. Though once again a reservation intrudes itself, namely, whether the basis of toleration, Locke's division between what is within the limits of reason and what is not, is sufficiently stable to safeguard the moral realm from the encroachments of relativism. I conclude with this matter, the relation between liberal toleration and relativism.
In his Letter, Locke sets forth what he calls "three considerations," which in his subsequent Letters he refers to as the three beams, in support of toleration in matters of mere religion. These are, first, what appears to be a theological or scriptural claim that there is no evidence that God anywhere committed the care of souls to the civil magistrate; second, what might be called a "psychological argument" that force cannot compel belief; and third, his argument that, "in the variety and contradiction of Opinions in Religion," where the princes of the world differ over which is the true religion, men have little hope of being led into it if they have no other rule but the religion of the court (see L.I.26-28).
The relation between these three "considerations" or beams and which one of them is most important to Locke's defense of toleration are not questions that I will take up here. Instead, I will focus on the third consideration; for it was this one, as Proast himself would note, that was most likely to lead either to unbelief and/or to toleration in matters beyond religion. And so, it was here that Locke would have to build his fire wall between toleration, on the one hand, and unbelief and relativism, on the other hand. Now it goes almost without saying that Locke's project shares nothing of the overt boldness of Spinoza's or Kant's assault on the truth of Scripture, or even of Jefferson's insouciance. Indeed, it hardly seems cut from the same cloth as that larger European struggle for freedom of conscience that, according to Pierre Manent, was forged "in a bitter fight against Christianity."(5) After all, Locke is famous for denying toleration to atheists (L.I.51), in contrast to, just as fatuously, Pierre Bayle's case for tolerating atheists. But despite Locke's …