Marcelo Dascal

The Challenge of Human Difference and the Ethics of Communication

The question guiding my reflections in this paper is motivated by the subtitle of the conference where it was presented. I will ask: why is human difference a challenge? 1 After exploring several issues raised by this question, I will argue that human communication provides a prime example of how to cope with the challenge of difference both philosophically and practically. I will then suggest that educational emphasis on reinforcing, especially in children, the naturally acquired basic ethical and operational principles of communication may help to develop a positive, though not uncritical, attitude towards human difference.

It is clear that, in the context of this conference, the assumption underlying the question "why is human difference a challenge?" is that human difference - both individual and cultural - is something of value, something that has to be preserved, cultivated, and brought to fruition as capable of contributing to a better human life and to human achievements. This assumption - which I share - precludes, of course, one obvious way of interpreting the challenge posed by human difference, namely, as an obstacle to the good life and/or to human progress - an obstacle that has to be overcome by somehow reducing human difference. Once we leave aside this possibility, our question can be sharpened: why is human difference a challenge for those who see in it a value?

Something poses a challenge for someone who is persuaded it ought to be pursued when pursuing it encounters major impediments. We must, then, try to sort out these impediments, if we want to understand and meet the challenge posed by the desire to live with, benefit from, and cultivate human difference.There are factual and practical impediments, as well as conceptual and philosophical ones.

On the factual/practical side, one should acknowledge first the effect of powerful socio-historical processes (e.g., globalization, mass education, etc.) that lead to uniformization, with the consequent devaluation (and, occasionally, obliteration) of human difference. Possibly as a reaction to such processes, perceived by some as the imposition of an alien dominant culture, there are no less powerful processes of particularization leading to self-enclosure (viewed as a means of self-preservation) of cultural and ethnic groups, and accompanied by often violent forms of xenophobia.

One might think that an "open world", with high physical and electronic mobility, where one is constantly exposed to human diversity, might function as an antidote to such processes. But this does not seem to be the case. Direct contact between different groups (e.g., through immigration) usually yields fierce competition, strengthening, rather than weakening negative stereotypes. Tourism may occasionally lead to an appreciation of the complexities and subtleties of remote cultures, but for the most part it reinforces a way of looking at other ways of life as "peculiar", "curious", "barbarian" - that is to say, as "primitive". As for the media and the Internet, as much as they remove artificial barriers to significant encounters with "the other", they also permit the proliferation of virtual communities of hatred, dedicated to the perpetuation of prejudice. These processes, in turn, are supported and strengthened by local or global ideologies that preach the superiority of their group or system - be it religious, economic, political, or moral - over all the others. Exposure to human diversity per se is definitely not sufficient to overcome these and other difference-devaluating processes and their supporting ideologies. Pace Descates, prejudice does not evaporate by itself, and it is much harder to combat, conceptually as well as practically, than usually thought. 2

What is needed is to add to such an exposure is a positive attitude towards human difference. Social intervention is needed in order to create a frame of mind that values difference, rather than seeing it either as a danger or as a mere curiosity. By resolutely placing human difference in the list of moral (and other) values, such a frame of mind would ipso facto endow it with legitimacy. It would also imply that the way to handle the conflicts arising from the encounter with difference should not differ in principle from the way we handle value conflicts in general. The challenge, then, consists in delineating more precisely such a frame of mind and in devising the means to impart it to ever larger segments of humankind. The first task belongs to the rubric of conceptual/philosophical difficulties; the second will bring us back to the factual/practical level of implementation.

The first concept that comes to mind as a component of a positive frame of mind vis-à-vis human difference is that of tolerance. And rightly so. For a culture of tolerance is no doubt a culture that makes room for difference, that does not try to combat it, and that accepts to coexist peacefully with it. But, taken in its traditional sense, tolerance is not enough, because it does not assign to difference any positive value. In the tradition of liberalism, tolerance towards different beliefs and forms of life is anchored in the right granted to individuals to believe and live as they wish, as long as they do not thereby disturb the fabric of society. Minoritary groups are allowed to hold "bizarre" (in the majority's eyes) beliefs and customs, which, although "known to be wrong" (by the majority's standards), are "tolerated" if considered (by the majority) harmless. From the point of view of a majority sure of the superiority of its own beliefs, there is nothing to gain from the existence of these minoritary groups and their "peculiar" beliefs. Their toleration is conceived as a moral duty, whose fulfilment further confirms the majority's sense of (moral) superiority ("we comply with our duties, even though they are unpalatable to us and we do not benefit from so doing"). This kind of tolerance does not foster a give-and-take interaction with the different, admiration and respect for it, enrichment through it, and its cultivation. Furthermore, it is based on the assumption that different forms of life and belief systems can be easily compared and ranked in a linear scale, a ranking that grants those at its top the right to adopt a paternalistic attitude towards those at its bottom, with the corresponding privileges and duties.3

A less restricted conception of tolerance (for which perhaps a better name should be coined) requires the assignment of some sort of intrinsic value to each particular manifestation of difference, as well as to their collective contribution to humankind as a whole. This, in turn, requires the abandonment of the simplistic ranking assumption, along with the self-awareness, by each individual or group, of their imperfections and limitations. If I can question my own beliefs and behavior; if I can sincerely say to myself, regarding those of my convictions that conflict with those of another person or group, "Perhaps I am wrong and they are right"; then I have certainly beeen able to learn from the different and to assign to it a positive value. But giving up one's convictions and accepting the other's, i.e. "conversion", need not and should not be taken as the ideal outcome of interaction with the different. Not only because it is rare and difficult to achieve, but rather because it operates, ultimately, in a one-way direction.

A more modest, but not less important outcome to be sought is understanding. 4 If I make the necessary effort to put myself in the other's place, 5 I may be able to grasp the other's beliefs and behavior in such a way that they "make sense"; viewed from this perspective, they turn out to be "reasonable". I may then say, "If I were him, I would think and do the same", even though, being myself, i.e., viewing things from my perspective, I actually do not think and act like him. Understanding the different thus implies being prepared to admit that the reasonableness of beliefs and behavior is perspective-dependent, i.e., that there are no absolute criteria, possessed by any individual or group, of what is correct to think and to do. Understanding is intrinsically an hermeneutic activity: it is always "interpreting", never simply "decoding". 6 As such, our construal of the other and of the difference between "us" and "them" is dependent on our own perspective, and contains - so to speak - a part of ourselves. No one can fully step out of his conceptual and normative world in order to reach out for the different. But the effort involved in trying to reach out and understand, the effort to construe the difference itself, cannot but contribute to modifying significantly our perspective, which is never static or fixed once forever.

Giving up the faith in the absoluteness of any one set of criteria (including my own) and being prepared to modify one's perspective in trying to understand/construe the difference, are processes that pave the way for the readiness to construe criteria, perspectives, and belief systems as the ongoing result of a contingent and eclectic blending of the various different criteria, perspectives and belief systems one encounters in a never-ending human cooperative enterprise. The spirit of this position is well expressed by the following talmudic midrash:

It was a tie; the heavenly vote was split right down the middle -- two in favor; two against. At issue -- "Should man be created?" The ministering angels formed parties: Love said, "Yes, let him be created, because he will dispense acts of love"; while Truth argued, "No, let him not be created, for he is a complete fake". Righteousness countered, "Yes, let him be created, because he will do righteous deeds; and Peace demurred, "Let him not be created, for he is one mass of contention". The score was even. Love and Righteousness in favor, Truth and Peace against. What did the Lord do? He took Truth and hurled it to the ground, smashing it into thousands of jagged pieces. Thus he broke the tie. Now, two to one in favor, man was created. The ministering angels dared to ask the Master of the Universe, "Why do You break Your emblem, Truth?" for indeed Truth was His seal and emblem. He answered, "Let truth spring from the earth". 7

No doubt an attitude towards human difference based on the notion of understanding described above, along with its consequences, would be much more in line with a positive valuation of difference than the traditional notion of tolerance. But it raises difficult philosophical and practical problems. Foremost among them: it smacks of radical relativism of the "anything goes" variety. As such, it seems to undermine the very premises upon which it is grounded. For, the requirement of unlimited tolerance or "understanding" seems to preclude the possibility of criticizing any beliefs or behavior, including intolerant ones, i.e., it does not provide a basis for either positively or negatively evaluating any belief or form of behavior. If so, a tolerant attitude is, in principle, as good as an intolerant one. From a practical point of view, tolerance may even turn out to be ill advice, since it may weaken one's stand against intolerance. This is the rationale for proposals such as Popper's "principle of limited tolerance": Be tolerant only towards the tolerant. But, apart from other problems I have pointed out elsewhere,8 proposals such as these bring us back to square one. For they lead in fact to an attitude of a priori exclusion of certain forms of human difference, namely those that "we" classify as "intolerant". This amounts to setting up a priori conditions for human difference to become eligible for the "club" of worthy forms of human difference. These conditions in fact require "the other" to share with "us" certain values and beliefs, i.e., to become "like us" in some important respects.9 In other words, on this view only "not too different" forms of human difference are valued, i.e., human difference is not valued unconditionally, as such, but only once it fits "our" categorical criteria. 10 This may mean, however, that "we" prevent ourselves from getting acquainted with and learning from that which is radically different, that which confronts us with profoundly different alternatives to our most entrenched convictions, eventually leading us to introduce in them radical innovation.

Fortunately, we don't have to deprive ourselves from the benefits of full, uncensored exposure to radical difference, for fear of defenselessness; nor do we have to fall into radical relativism by valuing and seeking to preserve all forms of human difference. The key to facing successfully this double challenge is (a) to employ the distinction made above between acceptance and understanding of radically different beliefs and forms of life, (b) to make full and fair use of, rather than giving up, the human critical capacity,11 and (c) to remain aware of the contingent and fallible nature of all our judgments as well as of their underlying criteria.

These points are inter-related. If we make the necessary effort to understand the different and to construe the difference, we will be in a position to examine them critically, as best we can, and therefore to decide reasonably whether to adopt or reject, fully or partially, the different beliefs, forms of behavior or criteria; if we don't make the understanding effort, however, such a decision can only be based on a superficial impression, emotional reaction, or sheer prejudice. Being based on a reasonably fair understanding, our critical evaluation stands a chance of not being perceived by its target as a form of aggression, and may even be partly or fully accepted, thus enhancing the give-and-take character of the interaction. This is further enhanced if the critic is self-critical enough, so as neither to believe nor to affect that his standards of criticism are ultimate, universally valid, and beyond criticism.

Under these conditions, the encounter with the different need not produce either unconditional acceptance or rejection. It may yield a form of interaction where the main achievement (and perhaps also the implicit goal) is understanding itself - understanding of the different, of oneself, of the difference, etc. This is no minor achievement, given the obstacles that lie in its way and the labor it requires; nor is it a way of blurring difference, avoiding dissent, or refraining from taking a stand. On the contrary: it permits to define better what at first was an impressionistic difference, it permits to locate within this difference the possible points of dissent, and it permits to eventually take a carefully reasoned stand on these points.

Having reached this point, I can at long last wind up with the originally intended topic of my paper - communication. I think agonistic communication (e.g. in some forms of debate or polemics) is a paradigmatic case of how a cooperative form of interaction is possible even between widely dissenting (and different) parties.12 But I will not develop here the theme of agonistic communication, since the very nature of communication illustrates some of the ideas sketched above.

Communication is a cooperative enterprise. Speaker and addressee play different (rapidly interchangeable) roles, but they share an interest: to make sure that the "message" conveyed by the one is received and reasonably well understood by the other. Whoever engages in communication is, by default, presumed to be cooperative. So much so that ostensive violations of the requirements of cooperation (e.g., to be relevant, to provide reliable information, etc.) are normally taken to be only apparent violations, a fact that permits one to use such "violations" as a way to convey implied meaning (e.g., if asked whether the dinner was good I reply by commenting about the weathernegotiated construction of meaning, thus violating the maxim "Be relevant!", my interlocutor will certainly understand that I didn't like the dinner). Now, achieving the shared aim of communication requires effort on the part of both the speaker and the addressee. The former has to make sure that he is understood; the latter, that he understands. The fundamental duties of an ethics of communication are, then, the (speaker's) duty to make herself understood (by the addressee) and the (addressee's) duty to understand (the speaker). In many special situations, the distribution of the effort involved in the performance of these two duties is not equitative - e.g, in parent-child, teacher-pupil, or expert-layman communication. But in run-of-the-mill communicative situations, the norm is a more or less equitative distribution of effort between the parties; blatant violations of this norm (e.g., using jargon that is unintelligible to the addressee or refusing to automatically repairing obvious misspellings or mispronunciations of the speaker) are taken to be serious breaches of the cooperation contract implicit in communication.

Ordinary communication is, thus, based on the principle that understanding is not a "given" but rather something that requires effort, on an ethics that regulates such an effort, and on mechanisms to keep the understanding process on track. The study of such mechanisms and their use reveals that ordinary communication is a process of negotiated construction of meaning, which goes much beyond the use of the syntactical and semantic rules of language. This process involves the generation and testing of interpretive hypotheses using all sorts of contextual information, an elaborate system for the detection, repair and prevention of misunderstanding, a set of principles for recognizing and interpreting indirect meanings, a set of rhetorical strategies for achieving communicative purposes, and so on. In spite of this impressive set of resources, the communication process can only assure approximate understanding, and the interpretive hypotheses it produces are always tentative. If this is the case in ordinary communication between members of the same linguistic and cultural community, the obstacles to understanding in communication across difference (of age, of class, of nationality, of language, of culture, of political convictions, etc.) are certainly even more formidable. The challenge, in this respect, is to overcome such obstacles and to achieve some measure of understanding, however approximative and partial, across the borders of human difference. Nevertheless, in so far as there is arguably no difference of principle between the two cases, but only a difference of detail and degree of difficulty, we have at least a blueprint as to how to meet this challenge, namely the workings of ordinary communication.

In fact, we have more than just a blueprint. We have also a hint as to what to do and where to concentrate our educational efforts. We must tap, develop, and preserve the child's naturally acquired communicative abilities - which include a demand for understanding as well as an eagerness to understand and a willingness to spend the necessary effort for that - as containing the potential and model for meeting the challenge of human difference. In an age where the media, the net, and education system that for the most part teaches trivialities, and aggressive marketing and consumerism compete for the child's attention, and disseminate a model of superficial and effortless understanding, this is no easy task at all. 13


Dascal, M. 1989a. "Hermeneutic interpretation and pragmatic interpretation". Philosophy and Rhetoric 22: 239-259.

Dascal, M. 1989b. "Tolerance and interpretation". In Z. Rosen and Z. Tauber (eds.), Violence and Tolerance. Tel Aviv: Papyrus, pp. 157-172 [in Hebrew].

Dascal, M. 1991. "The ecology of cultural space". In M. Dascal (ed.), Cultural Relativism and Philosophy: North American and Latin American Perspectives. Leiden: Brill, pp. 279-295.

Dascal, M. 1993a. "One Adam - many cultures: The role of political pluralism in the best of possible worlds". In M. Dascal and E. Yakira (eds.), Leibniz and Adam. Tel Aviv: University Publishing Projects, pp. 387-409.

Dascal, M. 1993b. "Diversidad cultural y pr áctica educacional". In L. Olivé (ed.), Ètica y Diversidad Cultural. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, pp. 229-252.

Dascal, M. 1995. "Strategies of dispute and ethics: Du Tort and La Place d'Autruy". In Proceedings of the VI. Internationaler Leibniz Kongress (Hannover, 1994), vol. 2, pp. 108-116.

Dascal, M. 1996. "La balanza de la razón". In O. Nudler (ed.), La Racionalidad: Su Poder y sur Límites. Buenos Aires: Paidós, pp. 363-381.

Dascal, M. 1997. "Critique without critics?". Science in Context 10: 39-62.

Dascal, M. 1998. "The study of controversies and the theory and history of science". Science in Context 11: 147-154.

Dascal, M. 1999. "Trois préjugés sur le préjug?". In R. Amossy and M. Delon (eds.), Critique et Légitimité du Préjugé. Bruxelles: Presses de l'Université Libre de Bruxelles, pp. 113-118.

Dascal, M. In Press. "Leibniz and epistemologicala diversity". In A. Lamarra and R. Palaia (eds.), Unity and Multiplicity in the Philosophy and Science of Leibniz. Roma: Lessico Intelletuale Europeo.

Dascal, M. and Berenstein, I. 1987. "Two modes of understanding: Comprehending and grasping". Language and Communication 7: 139-151.

Hoffman, R. and Leibnowitz Schmidt, S. 1998. Old Wine in New Flasks: Reflections on Science and Jewish Tradition. San Francisco: Freeman.


1. This paper was presented at the conference on Moral Philosophy in Education: The Challenge of Human Difference, held in Jerusalem, on August 1999. I wish to congratulate the Jerusalem Spinoza Institute, organizer of this conference, for a good idea and for its implementation in a stimulating conference. Philosophers always long for being "relevant" to society - especially moral philosophers. But they are often frustrated by not being able to translate their moral principles into practical injuctions for action or, when they succeed in this translation job, by not having their injunctions accepted and implemented by social agents. By asking us to couple moral philosophy with practical issues, this conference is - hopefully - also forcing us to propose ideas coupled with practices that stand a reasonable chance of making a difference. By focusing on education, the conference is picking up one of the key areas where our proposals may have some influence, so that the impact of this conference may be felt, if not immediately, at least in the foreseeable future. Maybe in this way our philosophical reflections will become, after all, socially significant.

2. See Dascal (1999).

3. I have proposed to call the approach to cultural differences that (implicitly or explicitly) aims at such a ranking "invidious comparison". See Dascal (1991).

4. The kind of understanding I am talking about here is a blend of the two modes of understanding I have called "comprehending" and "grasping". See Dascal and Berenstein (1987).

5. This is a key notion in Leibniz's ethics, but he is aware that it may also have a "strategical" use in polemics. See Dascal (1995). In spite - or perhaps because of - his monadological metaphysics, Leibniz defended both political and epistemological pluralism. See Dascal (1993a and In Press).

6. See Dascal (1989a).

7. This is a paraphrase of Midrash, Genesis Rabbah 8:5, by Hoffmann and Leibowitz Schmidt (1998: ix). The authors add to the story the following interpretation: "From then on truth was dispersed, splintered into fragments, like a jigsaw puzzle. While a person might find a piece, it held little meaning until he joined with others who had painstakingly gained different pieces of the puzzle. Only then, slowly and deliberately, could they try to fit their pieces of Truth together. To make sense, some sense of things".

8. See Dascal (1989b).

9. A difficulty raised by one of the participants in the conference should be mentioned here. I have not distinguished, so far, between inter-group and intra-group difference (and tolerance). Suppose one is tolerant towards a group that practices, within itself, intolerance. Doesn't this amount to adopting conflicting attitudes towards difference? In order to avoid such an inconsistency, shouldn't one limit one's tolerance only to groups that practice intra-group tolerance? But, if so, aren't we requiring these groups to be "liberals like us"? It seems to me that the line to be adopted in order to solve these problems lies precisely in the points I emphasize below, especially the distinction between "understanding" and "accepting" and the requirement not to cease to be critical towards those one understands and even accepts. In fact, unlike widespread perception, criticism is not aggression, but rather proof of interest and concern towards the other.

10. Although I have focused here on the meta-level role assigned to the ethico-political notion of tolerance, the argument applies, mutatis mutandis, to other notions to which a similar meta-level (or "transcendental") role is assigned, such as methodological principles in epistemology, fundamental categories in metaphysics, etc.

11. I think, with Kant, Popper, and many others, that criticism is the engine of human progress. In so far as progress is measured by its capacity of improving human life, criticism must be granted a moral value. And in so far as, eventually, the values of criticism and of tolerance are in conflict, this must be treated - as I hinted at in the beginning -- in the way other moral conflicts are, i.e., not as resolvable by some ready-made algorithm, but as requiring carefully weighed "judgment", applied to the case at hand. This, in turn, requires a more subtle and flexible concept of rationality and of rational decision -- see Dascal (1996). A situation where conflicts between these two values may emerge is that of intra-group vs. inter-group considerations, as mentioned in a previous note.

12. Agonistic communication occurs, for example, in controversies, whose importance in human intellectual development through history has been largely overlooked. For a succint exposition of why I think the study of controversies is essential, e.g., for the history and philosophy of science, see Dascal (1998); for a critique of other approaches to divergence and debate in science, see Dascal (1997).

13. For some of the practical and social difficulties involved in implementing pluralism (e.g., multilingualism) in an educational setting, see Dascal (1993b).