Mere Civility:

Civility, toleration, and “human rights as empathy”

posted by Catherine Arnold

Mere CivilityThe United States, we are told, is facing a crisis of civility. From across the political spectrum, commentators, public intellectuals, and politicians warn that hyper-partisan, polarized discourse threatens the foundations of American society. The solution, all agree, is a return to civil discourse: Americans must moderate their speech and treat their opponents with respect. Unfortunately, as Teresa Bejan points out, calls for a return to civility raise as many problems as they purport to solve. Most importantly, how does a tolerant society police disagreement in a way that does not threaten its members’ right to differ in their beliefs? In Mere Civility: Toleration and the Limits of Disagreement, Bejan argues that neither laws restraining speech nor “civilitarian” calls for discourse based on mutual respect and affection adequately balance individuals’ rights to both differ and disagree. Rather, she proposes that a minimal commitment to observing the “culturally contingent rules of respectful behavior” would better accommodate our deep disagreements, allowing individuals to differ in their fundamental beliefs and vociferously disagree over them in the public sphere.

Bejan’s argument for “mere civility” is a pragmatic one: mere civility, she claims, is a better solution to our current predicament than either legislating speech or calling for a return to civil discourse. To make her case, Bejan recovers three early modern responses to the problem of balancing difference and disagreement in a tolerant society: Thomas Hobbes’s “civil silence”; John Locke’s “civil charity”; and Roger Williams’s “mere civility.” Through deeply contextualized readings of their works, Bejan demonstrates that both Hobbes’s civil silence and Locke’s civil charity placed significant limits on disagreement. Hobbes advocated banning speech on religious issues and Locke proposed excluding those who did not sincerely respect their opponents’ right to disagree with them. By contrast, Bejan’s unlikely hero, the radical evangelical Roger Williams, unleashed disagreement. Because Williams believed that he—and other members of Rhode Island society—could convert heretics only through conversation, debate, and insult, he placed minimal restraints on speech, requiring simply that citizens adhere to socially-determined norms of polite behavior. Bejan argues that Williams’s mere civility may be the most appropriate solution to our current political discourse because it encourages deep disagreements over fundamental beliefs, rather than limiting whom we engage with and what we can say to them.

As part of her argument in favor of mere civility, Bejan decisively rejects contemporary “civilitarian” claims that mutual respect and affection for one’s opponents are the minimum necessary for civil discourse. Her critique rests on her reading of John Locke. Although political scientists usually describe Lockean toleration as ethically minimal, Bejan contends that Locke actually imposed significant ethical demands on members of a tolerant society. Like sixteenth-century eirenicists, who hoped to restore Christian peace unity by establishing a core set of fundamental Christian beliefs that all could embrace, Locke sought to create social harmony through consensus. Although he substituted mutual respect, toleration, and humanity for belief in the sacrament of baptism, Bejan convincingly demonstrates that Locke nevertheless believed civic peace could be secured only if all members of a tolerant society shared a set of core values. For this reason, Lockean toleration—and, by the same token, Locke-inspired civilitarian calls for civil discourse—excludes those who do not embrace the values of civil charity and limits debate to those who do.

Locke’s demanding theory of civil charity may not provide the most practical solution to our current crisis of civility. However, Bejan’s reading of Lockean toleration as civil charity does have important implications for the histories of human rights and humanitarianism. Historians have recently begun to examine historical moments in which humanitarian concern for the victims of bodily depredation fused with rights talk, creating a type of liberal human rights politics that Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann calls “human rights as empathy.” The early eighteenth century was one such moment. Between 1690 and 1750, Britain began to engage in humanitarian diplomacy to prevent Protestants, Catholics, and Jews in other European states from being punished for their religious beliefs. In what follows, I will suggest that Bejan’s reading of Locke helps to explain why and how this politics—which fused natural law arguments with appeals to humanitarian sentiment—developed in early eighteenth-century Britain.

Britain’s humanitarian diplomacy was premised on the idea that state persecution violated both natural law and the ruler’s ethical obligation to treat her subjects with humanity. In justifying Britain’s negotiations on behalf of persecuted refugees and prisoners, British diplomats and politicians argued that rulers could not use their authority to penalize individuals because of their religious beliefs. They claimed that when states did exile, imprison, or torture their subjects for their beliefs, Britain had a duty to protect the victims from the unjust and illegitimate actions of their sovereigns. At the same time, British diplomats, politicians, and clergymen asserted that humanity required them to aid men and women who faced bodily deprivation—including imprisonment, torture, or exile—irrespective of their religious beliefs. Thus, British arguments for humanitarian diplomacy combined rights talk with appeals to the affective bond of humanity.

Tolerationist intellectuals—including one of Locke’s close associates, the radical Quaker, Benjamin Furly—played a significant role in the development of this politics. British diplomats and politicians first engaged in humanitarian diplomacy during the 1700s, when Britain negotiated the release of Protestant prisoners imprisoned “for conscience’s sake,” in France. They did so at the urging of French Protestants in exile and their allies in Britain. Although Locke himself was not involved in campaigns to free Protestant prisoners, other prominent tolerationists—members of what John Marshall has called the “early Enlightenment Republic of Letters”—were. In petitions and pamphlets, polemicists and clergymen argued that Louis XIV had violated his duties under natural law when he used his authority to punish Protestants for their religious beliefs. They also claimed that Louis XIV and French officials had treated Protestants inhumanely and begged both Protestant and Catholic politicians to aid the prisoners out of humanity. Bejan’s work suggests that this fusion of natural law and humanitarian sentiment was the result of tolerationist influence: She shows that tolerationists like Locke conceived of toleration in terms of both church-state relations and interpersonal practices.

Given Locke’s reputation as a theorist of church-state relations, his relevance to British arguments that state persecution violated natural law should come as no surprise. As Bejan notes, in the Letter Concerning Toleration (1685), Locke advocated a conceptual separation of church and state. The civil magistrate’s only duty, he asserted, was to “secure unto all the people in general, and to every one of his subjects in particular, the just possession of these things belonging to this life.” He concluded, “nobody therefore, in fine, neither single persons, nor Churches, nay, nor even commonwealths, have any just title to invade the civil rights and worldly goods of each other, upon pretence of religion.” Variants of this argument circulated in England and the Netherlands during the 1680s and, by the turn of the eighteenth century, prominent British politicians from across the political spectrum agreed that rulers should not imprison, torture, or exile their subjects only because of their religious beliefs. As a result, when British diplomats engaged in humanitarian diplomacy, they devoted considerable time to demonstrating that prisoners and refugees—whether Protestants in France, Sephardic Jews in Portugal, or Ashkenazi Jews in central Europe—had committed no civil crime and, therefore, had been punished illegitimately and unjustly.

Just as importantly, British diplomats argued that state persecution was inhumane and that humanity obliged Britain to protect the victims of persecution. By recovering the ethical and interpersonal dimensions of Lockean toleration, Bejan enables us to see that this intertwining of natural law and humanitarian argument was no accident: tolerationists like Locke deliberately fused natural law discourses about rights and duties with consideration of the affective bonds and ethical obligations that toleration required. In the Letter, Locke argued that the civil magistrate was subject to the ethical demands of civil charity. For instance, Locke urged preachers to “exhort all men, whether private persons or magistrates (if any such there be in his Church) [my emphasis] to charity, meekness, and toleration.” As the above passage demonstrates, although Locke argued for a separation of church and state, he emphatically did not suggest that the civil magistrate had no ethical obligations to other members of society. Rather, he argued that the civil magistrate, like all individuals, must not use violence to convert his subjects to his own faith and, moreover, must treat them with “charity, bounty, and liberality.” He concluded, “this the Gospel enjoins, this reason directs, and this that natural fellowship we are born into requires of us.” For Locke and other tolerationist authors, then, state persecution was not just a violation of individual rights, but also a decision to treat individuals in an inhumane, uncharitable, and harmful manner. Victims of persecution were just that: victims, who had suffered harm to themselves and their property. In the early eighteenth century, British diplomats and politicians used such arguments to justify intervention in other states’ domestic affairs: they argued that “natural fellowship” and the bonds of civil charity required Britain to protect these victims—whether Protestants, Catholics, or Jews—wherever they might be.

John Locke is the villain of Bejan’s story: She argues that Locke-inspired calls for disagreement based on mutual respect and affection restrict public debate by excluding those who do not embrace these values. Bejan’s work suggests that critics who fear the current liberal conception of “human rights as empathy” has dangerously limited human rights politics may also wish to blame Locke and his compatriots. By recovering the ethical and interpersonal dimensions of early modern toleration, Bejan enables us to see that the merging of rights talk and humanitarian sentiment has deep roots in the liberal tradition.

References/Further Reading

Green, Abigail, “Humanitarianism in Nineteenth-Century Context: Religious, Gendered, National,” The Historical Journal 57, no. 4 (December 2014): 1157–75, doi:10.1017/S0018246X14000156.

Hoffmann, Stefan-Ludwig, “Human Rights and History,” Past & Present, July 22, 2016, gtw013, doi:10.1093/pastj/gtw013.

Hunt, Lynn, Inventing Human Rights: A History (W. W. Norton & Company, 2007).

Marshall, John, John Locke, Toleration and Early Enlightenment Culture: Religious Intolerance and Arguments for Toleration in Early Modern and ‘Early Enlightenment’ Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

Moyn, Samuel, The Last Utopia (Harvard University Press, 2010).

Moyn, Samuel, “Theses on Humanitarianism and Human Rights,” Humanity blog post, September 29, 2016. Accessed on September 25, 21016.

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