Statue of Spinoza in Amsterdam
Sometimes it seems that every philosopher has his or her own paradox. Last week I discussed Condorcet’s paradox. In other blogs I have discussed paradoxes ascribed to the Greek philosophers Epimenides, Meno and Zeno. There is a Hume’s paradox; Wittgenstein discusses in his Philosophical Investigations the rule-following paradox; there is a Russell’s paradox and a Pascal’s paradox; Derek Parfit discusses a paradox; and so on. These are only a few examples, although not all paradoxes developed by philosophers or paradoxes bearing their name are philosophical paradoxes. Pascal’s paradox is one in the field of physics, for instance.
Many paradoxes are intriguing and involve brain teasing problems but are not really relevant for daily life. So, Wittgenstein’s rule-following paradox says: “No course of action could be determined by a rule, because any course of action can be made out to accord with the rule.” (PI 201) We could paraphrase it as “Does the rule determine the action or does the action determine the rule?”, which is nothing else but the well-known chicken and egg problem. However, we just act, also when we haven’t solved the paradox or haven’t thought about it, and we eat our eggs and continue breeding chicken as well.Not all paradoxes are of this kind and some are really relevant for the way we live and how act. Take the paradox of intolerance, which Karl Popper discusses in a footnote in his The Open Society and Its Enemies (vol. One, Ch. 7, n. 4). In Popper’s words: “Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. — In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.” It’s a question that presents itself again and again, like now in the days of the Islamic State: Should we tolerate who are intolerant towards us and want to put us in their straitjacket? Popper’s answer is “no”, and with right, I think. Nevertheless the problem is not as simple as it seems by this simple answer. For instance: What is intolerant? Which words and actions are intolerant? And then I don’t think of the extremes, which are usually clear, but of the limits between what can be tolerated and what cannot. Moreover, measures against the intolerant will backfire on the tolerant. If intolerant behaviour is a real problem, as it currently is, it need not only be suppressed but measures have to be taken in order to prevent it and to track it. In these days of the Internet and social media it involves secretly spying what everybody does there, since basically anybody can be intolerably intolerant and nobody’s face tells you whether s/he is. Briefly, in order to fight intolerance we need a Big Brother in order to help us, or at least a Little Brother (or so we think). But even if our Brother is only a Little Brother, little brothers grow up and will be big brothers in the end. It looks like that this is happening now. As is known, everybody who thinks that s/he is spied, will behave as if s/he is spied and will become his own Big Brother or her own Big Sister. Then we get the practical (or even maybe actual) consequence that Big Brother is not only intolerant against the intolerant but against the tolerant as well. Then it is no longer the rule to be tolerant that determines whether we do or don’t act in a tolerant way, but intolerance has become the standard. And then nobody wins and everybody loses. It’s the paradox of paradox.