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Why Morality and Politics are Separate

In attempting to moralize politics, the principles of democracy and multiculturalism are eroded.


Morality is a product of culture, it is not universal. Because of this, a democratic multicultural society relies on its ability to tolerate all political orientations. Sophisticated and simple, moderate and extreme, all of these ideas are equally entitled to exist and to be tolerated by society as a whole.  


Universal tolerance is a pillar of democracy. It allows for a peaceful coexistence between opposing belief systems. While you may have an unwavering view of the world, it is because of the tolerance of others that you are freely allowed to cultivate such a perspective. The same is true for views opposed to yours. Furthermore, those opposing views may help to reinforce your own or to better understand the world from an altogether different perspective.    


Karl Popper would disagree. Popper, while somewhat obscure to the average citizen, produced many ideas on moralizing politics which now reside in much modern political discourse. The most popular of these ideas is the ‘paradox of tolerance.’ Essentially Popper argues for morally justified limits on tolerance. He claims that intolerant ideologies will inevitably undermine a moral and tolerant society. To prevent this dissolution of tolerance, he says intolerant ideas should be “placed outside of the law.” While justifying intolerance in defense of tolerance seems like a self-contradictory idea–and it is–Popper argues otherwise. 


He believes that for society to remain tolerant indefinitely, it must persecute intolerance. Rather than debate and chastise bigotry and intolerance, Popper suggests criminalizing it. 


If adopted in the U.S., it would be illegal to be neo-nazi. While this may certainly appear desirable, this legislation would also prohibit most religious ideologies. As many theocratic beliefs practice the othering and judgment of non-believers. It would not apply only to right-wing extremism and religious ideologies but would apply to all ideologies with anti-white, anti-imperialist, Marxist or ethno-nationalist persuasions as well. All of these ideas are in some way intolerant of other citizens and look to oppose them based on identity and political beliefs, so they too would be outlawed. 


All belief systems would be forced to either revise their core tenets to comply with the acceptable norm of tolerance or be altogether abolished in the name of tolerance. Any belief system not in agreement with contemporary post-modernist norms would be outlawed. 


If Popper had his way, the only remaining ideologies would be neoliberal centrist ones, which would themselves have been guilty of legal intolerance in the name of purging illegal intolerance. Popper’s ideas would lead to an inquisition of the political spectrum that would all but erase the Overton window. A useful analogy for Popper’s concept can be found in a quote from Henry Ford when commenting on the customization of the Model T, he said: “you can have any color you want as long as it's black”.  If political ideas were colors, Popper's society would have the same palette as Ford’s Model T.


The paradox of tolerance was a central tenet of his proposed open society, which is defined as: “a society characterized by a flexible structure, freedom of belief, and wide dissemination of information.” This is contrasted by a closed society, one which has a set of ideals and morals which is inflexible and myopic, adverse to change and diversity of thought. The open society is Popper’s solution to intolerance, allowing people the freedom to think and say what they please. However it seems this would not bring about the end of intolerance nor would it allow free speech and thought.


Popper’s beliefs come from 1945, after the Nazis had used the framework of democracy to destroy it, and went on to wage the most devastating war the world has yet seen. His viewpoint of proactive intolerance against such a movement is justified by the impact of these events. However, the Nazis had their own ideas on the limits of tolerance and justifiable intolerance, and so did Franco and the Soviets and all other totalitarian regimes. They used 'legal' intolerance to wage war on their enemies and justify subversion of democracy.


The issue in Popper’s thought is not its sincerity or its aims but its practical reality. Criminalizing free speech, regardless of its content or intolerance, is anti-democratic. Popper sought to “moralize politics, not politicize morality” and while this is an admirable endeavor, it is seemingly impossible.


If morality was universal, there would be no need for politics.   


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author. 

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