Review of Leiter's 'Why Tolerate Religion' in 'The Philosophical Review'

Why Tolerate Religion?
Samuel C. Rickless
The Philosophical Review
April 28, 2014

This book considers the important question whether a good moral case can be made, on deontological or consequentialist grounds, for the privileging of religious over nonreligious claims of conscience in any scheme of principled toleration in a liberal state. Leiter's conclusion, of significant moment both legally and culturally if true, is that the “selective application [of toleration] to the conscience of only religious believers is not morally defensible” (133). The book is short, an enjoyable read, accessible to the generally educated public but alive to a number of sophisticated philosophical ideas and distinctions, its prose crisp and straightforward, its attitude no-nonsense, its conclusion provocative, and its arguments clear, concise, and analytically rigorous.

Before summarizing the book's main arguments, I should note that it may at first appear slightly odd that Leiter is not in a position to accept his own conclusion. For he is a Nietzschean moral skeptic who denies the existence of moral truths (163, n. 12), and thus cannot accept the truth of the last sentence of his book. Charitably, then, the book is best read as arguing for the conditional claim that if there are good moral reasons for a liberal state to adopt a principle of toleration, then those moral reasons do not justify privileging religiously grounded claims of conscience.

The book is divided into five chapters. In chapter 1, Leiter outlines three main moral arguments for a principle of toleration, by which he means a principle that treats as impermissible the state-sanctioned burdening or destruction of beliefs and practices it finds wrong, mistaken, or undesirable (8). The first, broadly Kantian argument is that the basic principles of justice (principles that would be chosen under a Rawlsian veil of ignorance) must “secure the integrity of…religious and moral freedom” (16). The second, nonepistemic utilitarian argument is based on the assumption that “being able to choose what to believe and how to live (within certain side-constraints [most notably, Mill's Harm Principle]) makes for a better life” (17–18). The third, epistemic utilitarian argument is grounded in the idea that permitting undesirable beliefs and practices is necessary to the discovery of truth and that such discovery (when constrained by the Harm Principle) “contributes to overall utility” (19).

Faculty: 
Brian Leiter