Dangerous Uncertainty

April 1, 2012
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Michah Gottlieb

In his 1689 “Letter Concerning Toleration,” the British philosopher John Locke addresses the question of whether one sect of Christianity has the right to persecute another. Speaking to an imagined interlocutor who affirms such a right, Locke asks him which Christian sect possesses that right: “It is the orthodox church that has the right of authority over the erroneous or heretical one,” answers his interlocutor confidently. At this point, Locke turns the knife. “This,” he declares, “is to say nothing at all” since every church believes itself to be the true church.

Locke’s argument is that since no one can know the way to salvation for certain, we must tolerate others. Therein, Locke is putting forward a crucial modern argument for toleration: Our tolerance of others is grounded in our inability to be certain about our own beliefs.

While Locke denied our ability to know the true way to salvation, he nevertheless affirmed our ability to prove many truths rationally, including the truths of God’s existence and universal moral obligations. However, such assertions have been assailed for breeding intolerance. Locke himself denied toleration to atheists, and many have denigrated the notion of “universal morality” as a Western concept used to oppress “primitive,” non-Western cultures.

William Egginton, a professor of comparative literature at Johns Hopkins University, takes Locke’s argument for tolerance to its furthest limit in his recent book, In Defense of Religious Moderation. Egginton argues that any claim of possessing absolute truth is inherently dangerous. He labels as “fundamentalist” anyone who asserts such knowledge, including religious extremists and die-hard atheists. Egginton contrasts fundamentalists with those he calls “moderates.” What distinguishes the two, he explains, is “not what they believe, but how they believe.” While fundamentalists contend that their beliefs are based on the knowledge of absolute truth, religious moderates acknowledge that their beliefs do not depend upon such knowledge, which they claim is unattainable. For Egginton, ethics depends upon epistemology. While fundamentalists who are certain of the truth of their beliefs naturally persecute those who do not share those beliefs, moderates are led by their “uncertain faith” to be tolerant of differences, humane, and peaceful toward others, since they are unsure that their convictions are truer than anyone else’s.

Egginton’s argument rests on the assumption that one can draw a direct line from uncertainty to tolerance. But is this so? Uncertainty can lead to tolerance, but it need not. As history testifies, one can deny the possibility of knowing absolute truth while embracing an intolerant, even fascist worldview. German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s Nazism is perhaps the most famous example of this thinking. The problem stems from the fact that those who claim the impossibility of knowing any absolute truth must also be uncertain of our ability to know the absolute truth of the unconditional value of every human being — a truth that forms the basis of universal moral obligations. As such, in a situation in which it is personally advantageous to affirm a fascist, intolerant worldview, the person of “uncertain faith” lacks the intellectual resources to confidently declare such a worldview mistaken, for he must regard the notion of the unconditional value of every human being as simply one way of constructing reality.

Concern about uncertainty lies at the heart of the work of the two most important post-Holocaust Jewish philosophers, Leo Strauss and Emmanuel Levinas. As Jews who studied under Heidegger and had to flee the Nazis, Strauss and Levinas sought to formulate absolute principles that would ground ethics and tolerance. For Strauss, this meant returning to the classical rationalist tradition, while Levinas used phenomenology to base ethics on a direct, personal encounter with the “Other.”

Whether or not Strauss and Levinas ultimately succeeded, their efforts demonstrate their acute awareness that uncertainty can be just as lethal as certainty. Concern about the dangers of uncertainty constitutes one of the Holocaust’s most important legacies for contemporary moral and political thought.

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Michah Gottlieb is assistant professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University. He is author of Faith and Freedom: Moses Mendelssohn’s Theological-Political Thought (Oxford University Press, 2011) and is editor of Moses Mendelssohn: Writings on Judaism, Christianity, and the Bible (Brandeis University Press, 2011).

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