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Two Dogmas of Multiculturalism: Nietzsche, Rushdie, and Values Discourse (part 1)

A broadly liberal, tolerant attitude toward the values, beliefs, and practices of members of different groups, both religious and cultural, is evident among the educated in the modern world. Both the terms “multiculturalism” and “liberalism” capture different dimensions of this broad attitude; hence I will employ the term “multicultural liberalism.” In some sense, the master concept of multicultural liberalism is “tolerance,” proffered as a normative ideal. The educated members of societies throughout the world, from East to West, speak of the importance of the “value of tolerance,” and tend to diagnose cultural conflict in particular as rooted in an absence of it. Indeed, it is clear for example that the educated of Lebanon (the place where I am writing this) regard themselves not only as belonging to a multicultural society, but also as in some sense adopting the standpoint of multicultural liberalism as it is here employed. When something goes wrong and clashes erupt, there is the sense that it is partly due to a lack of tolerance, and a failure in some or all of the communities in question to recognize the importance of a commitment to this value.

It is worth noting that the attitude of multicultural liberalism is committed to two dogmas that appear to imply each other, yet also appear to be contradictory. The first dogma asserts that, if not in such blunt terms, “Tolerance is good.” Thus the phrase “value of tolerance”: the multicultural liberal has a respect for and a commitment to the value of tolerance, which means that she believes that it is good to accept or allow for beliefs, practices, and values that may not accord with her own. The second dogma, which indeed seems implied by the first, demands skepticism concerning any claim to the superiority of one set of cultural beliefs, practices, or values over another. It is related to a general moral or cultural relativism that in its more robust form asserts that there is no independent standard or standpoint from which to adjudicate the relative worth of values. Thus the multiculturalist will typically assume a posture of skeptical reserve toward, or straightforwardly condemn, the general idea that one set of values—cultural, sectarian, or otherwise—may be judged superior to another. In fact, the very appearance of the terms “superior” and “values” in the same sentence may cause some to experience dissonance or discomfort.

These two dogmas appear to both imply and contradict each other. The claim that tolerance is good implies the claim that intolerance is bad. One might think of this as the logically minimal way in which tolerance, despite its basic meaning to “accept” or “allow,” prohibits at least one thing, and that is intolerance. However, this implication of the first dogma runs directly afoul of the second, the imperative that one ought to suspend judgment concerning the beliefs, practices, and values of cultures or sects not one’s own. If one believes that intolerance is bad, and one is also confronted with beliefs, practices, and values that exhibit intolerance, it would be inconsistent to suspend judgment concerning them. But to condemn is presumably to be no longer tolerant. This state of affairs seems to arise because suspending judgment implicitly issues from the demand of the value of tolerance itself; anyone who believes that tolerance is good, the first dogma, seems implicitly committed to the second, which commands the suspension of judgment, particularly judgments that condemn the beliefs, practices, and values of other cultures. So the two dogmas are tightly implicated, yet in important instances apparently contradictory.

Is the very idea of tolerance incoherent? Certainly, there is occasion to question the rationality of any idea or standpoint that has self-refuting characteristics. But I wish to argue that it is the way that tolerance is presently conceived from the standpoint of multicultural liberalism that leads to the paradox, and not any defect in the idea of tolerance itself. Indeed, I believe that tolerance should be regarded as eminently rational, and that the rationality of tolerance is the substantive, normative basis for a commitment to it. To say something is “rational” or “irrational” is to do more than pay an empty compliment or dispense a vacuous term of abuse. Theorists such as Jürgen Habermas and others have concretely demonstrated that rationality has a social, discursive, and normative significance, and reflects a distinctive human inclination and capacity to engage in discourse with other members of our species that is geared toward mutual understanding, coordination, and agreement.[1] In this sense, tolerance must be regarded as the rational virtue par excellence, since it implies an attitude that effectively provides the very conditions for engaging in such discourse: a good faith willingness to enter into dialogue. However, for reasons that should become apparent shortly, it is precisely the rational basis of tolerance that the standpoint of multicultural liberalism is presently not prepared to endorse.

The standpoint of multicultural liberalism rather rests strongly upon the idea of “values.” What I will term “values discourse” reflects a prominent myth of the modern age, active in popular, media, and academic culture. The idea is that you have your values and I have mine; they have their values and we have ours. Like perceptions, concepts, and memories, values are among the items that make up our overall psychic inventory, and lack any further grounding or justification. Perhaps they come from culture, perhaps tradition, perhaps from “personal growth”; but regardless of their provenance, there is a sense in which they are immediately given, as the bedrock for any further type of judgment. We have inherited this idea from Nietzsche via Weber, and it has since become a central dogma of the Humanities and Social Sciences, and trickled down to the popular and media culture, where it is ubiquitously in use. It is worth briefly rehearsing here how Nietzsche deliberately transferred “values” from the normative sphere—values understood as criticizable, to the descriptive sphere—values understood as psychological bedrock.

For Nietzsche, the innovator of values discourse, the claims of reason and the morality it supports are unmasked as arbitrarily grounded in brute value preferences (themselves grounded in “will”), which are reflected in the attitudes and traditions of the kinds of people who possess them: healthy/unhealthy, creative/uncreative, charismatic/uncharismatic, powerful/weak, master/slave—these become the relevant dyads of social analysis and cultural criticism, replacing the normative conceptions of right and wrong, true and false. These latter are understood to belong to the rhetoric of a reason that hypocritically disguises its own hegemonic tendencies, its own will to power; rationality becomes mere rationalization in the service of a particular value scheme. Values become the final units of analysis [2] through which it is possible to unmask the arbitrary foundations of any normative claim.

Nietzsche undertakes this unmasking using a method he calls “genealogy.” [3] For any normative claim regarding right or wrong, just or unjust, one must look past what the content of the claim is to discern who is making the claim [4], with an eye toward discovering the type of values in play. The idea is to discredit the content of a normative claim by tracing it back to a corrupt value standpoint. Nietzsche expects that the value standpoint of those who are physically or psychologically weaker is going to ground a very different conception of justice than that of the stronger. He points to the values of ancient aristocracy cultures, for example Athens and pre-Christian Rome, as reflecting the strong type of “master” values—proud, self-affirming, confident, unabashedly aggressive—and therefore also a conception of justice that intrinsically rewards the stronger and better endowed. He contrasts the norms of these civilizations with the norms of “Judeao-Christian” civilizations, grounded in values of humility, self-sacrifice, self-limitation, and self-denial. These “slave” values are first seen to be literally the values of slaves, groups of people interested in protecting themselves against those with a seemingly limitless power over them. Their conception of justice will therefore include a strong emphasis on the limitation of power. These types of people will have very different interests than those who potentially and actually oppress them; but it is in the nature of normative claims to disguise these differences.

Normative claims carry an implicit universalistic tendency, as captured in the phrase “justice for all.” But what happens when the weaker are able to persuade the stronger based on universalistic normative considerations of justice to limit their power? It may appear that everyone’s interests are served, but for Nietzsche it is really only the weaker party’s interests that are served. This has grave culture-wide significance since it is the slave’s values—self-protective, impoverished, distressed, degenerate—that ground the culture’s normative ideals, and not the “master’s” values, which reflect “plenitude, force, will of life . . . courage, certainty, future.” [5]

It is based on these kinds of considerations that Nietzsche wishes to expose the futility and retrograde character of normative discourse. Only relative equals with the same kinds of values can productively engage one another. Discourse between groups with fundamentally different value standpoints can only reduce to a strategic jockeying for power, what Habermas calls “strategic action.” It was worth rehearsing here Nietzsche’s radical views not only because he is the progenitor of what I have called “values discourse,” but also because his view brings into stark relief what is at stake in the move to ground normative discourse in values discourse: values discourse has a kind of built-in power to erode normative debate. The good faith assumption underlying normative debate is that it can proceed along rational lines, that better or worse reasons can be given for normative claims. However, a moral universe that reduces in principle to value schemes ipso facto lacks the normative framework to negotiate between them. It is the traditional assumption of rationality that mediation is possible, that dialogue between potentially hostile groups is possible. However, from a Nietzschean standpoint the “game” of giving and asking for reasons itself becomes just one more value to be arbitrarily possessed or discarded. “Rationality” from a Nietzschean perspective is unmasked as belonging to the value scheme of the impotent. Interminable deliberation is in the interests of those who are unable to act, or who wish to forestall the actions of those who can. Reason merely becomes one of several forms of “strategic action,” a way for an individual or group of individuals to achieve pre-existing and incorrigible goals at the expense of another.

Nietzsche self-consciously reverses the philosophical power and priority of reason first articulated in antiquity by Plato and Aristotle. Reason on this sort of conception constitutes a comprehensive, organic normative framework where values are organized and ranked. For example, justice on Plato’s conception is not merely one value amongst many. It is rather the highest virtue, embodied by those whose psyches are ruled by a rational principle. This arguably accords with most people’s intuitions about the importance and meaning of justice. But a consistent values perspective denies this. The genealogy of the value of justice for a thinker like Nietzsche, one of the few to have thought through the consequences of making values the principle of the human psyche, comes from a variety of natural, psychological, and historical sources, none of which include a primordial human responsiveness to reason. The value of justice rather hails from the ways in which the stronger have controlled the weaker in order to keep the destructive forces of resentment at bay; or considered from a different value standpoint, the way the weaker, who require norms of justice for their brute survival, have duped the stronger into entering perverse contracts to limit their natural power. The normative basis for talking about virtue and vice is eliminated in favor of a kind of survival of the fittest picture of stronger values knocking off weaker ones. Justice is merely a value, one among many, and like reason itself, simply takes a seat among every other arbitrary value, no better nor worse than any other in any rationally defensible sense.

End of Part I.

A version of this paper entitled “Is Tolerance Rational?” was presented at a conference on “Discrimination and Tolerance in the Middle East,” May 2-4, 2007, Lebanese American University. It is forthcoming in the conference proceedings, published by Orient-Institut Beirut.


1. This notion is captured in Habermas’s theory of reason as communicative action, which he has developed throughout his career. For a useful adumbration, see Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, trans. Frederick G. Lawrence (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990), lecture XI.

2. From a more metaphysical vantage, it is correct to say that for Nietzsche values themselves are grounded in “will”; but the will is psychologically indeterminate until it converts itself into values. This interesting juncture between metaphysics and psychology, explored in other areas of Nietzsche’s work (for example, in the posthumously published Will to Power), falls beyond the scope of this paper.

3. See Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1967).

4. Far from “ad hominem” argumentation constituting a fallacy, for Nietzsche it is an important aspect of the proposed method.

5. Nietzsche, Genealogy, p. 17.

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