One of the greatest moral buzzwords of our age is “inclusivity.” It has become a favorite on the lips of politicians, executives, celebrities, academics, and pastors alike. Like “fairness,” “peace,” “dignity,” or “diversity,” it has quickly achieved the coveted status of moral obviousness: What kind of person could be against inclusion?
But like most obvious concepts, what inclusivity enjoys in widespread acceptance it lacks in conceptual clarity. What does it mean, specifically, to be inclusive, and how should it fit within any hierarchy of values?
What’s in a Word? Boring, but Important
Let’s start by noting some of the basic features of the concept. First, “inclusion” necessarily implies a “here” and a “there.” To include someone presumes a space exists that is already inhabited by a group that seeks to invite outsiders in. If this were not the case, inclusion would be moot.
This, of course, brings up the question of what defines “space,” the arena in which inclusion takes place. Since inclusion is usually used in reference to groups, “community” could be substituted in this context, which would mean that to include means to open one’s community to those who are outside of it.
Whatever else “community” might mean, it at least implies the existence of a collection of individuals who share some constitutive set of features that define the group as one thing rather than another: churches, political parties, fantasy football leagues, universities, etc., are all kinds of communities because they have characteristics that define them as one thing and not as another (more on this below).
The definition of inclusion could thus take this form: “I practice the value of inclusion by inviting you, who are outside of my community, into my distinctive community, which is different than any other community of which you are currently a part.”
Let’s take one more step. If inclusion is not only a value but my highest value, and, moreover, a value that I universalize, then I am furthermore committed to saying: “All people, in everything that they do, must seek to include everyone into their distinctive community with the ultimate goal of total inclusion.” This may sound innocuous enough, perhaps even morally praiseworthy. But does it pass logical muster?
Although not the first philosopher to identify them, Aristotle neatly lays out the three foundational laws of logic in his “Metaphysics.” They include the following.
The Law of Identity: a thing is what it is. So, for example, when we point to any given thing in existence, we say that it has some constitutive feature or set of features that make it one thing and not another (like a “human being” or a “baseball bat” or an “Android phone,” etc.).
The Law of Non-Contradiction: a thing cannot both be itself and its opposite at the same time. So, for example, it would be illogical to claim that humans have some free will and no free will at the same time in the same way.
The Law of the Excluded Middle: something must either be or not be with regards to its essential characteristic or characteristics. So, to draw on the above example, there is no third option on the question of whether humans have free will or not. You cannot split the difference or take an average. It either is or it is not.
Now, Let’s Respect the Law
While “total inclusion in the community” may sound good as a fundamental moral principle, running it through the logic machine above yields some problematic results.
First, we have to recognize that defining a community requires specifying a characteristic or set of characteristics that constitute it as a particular community and not something else (the Law of Identity). For example, what makes a community of anti-war activists a community is its shared commitment to pacifism, notwithstanding any other differences among individual members. Absent this shared commitment, the community would cease to exist.
Second, we have to recognize that any given community cannot both be itself and its opposite at the same time (the Law of Non-Contradiction). For example, if the community of pacifists were to begin advocating for missile strikes in country X, they may still be able to call themselves a community, but not a pacifist community. To be a community, in other words, not only means being one thing rather than another, it also means not being able to be contradictory things at the same time, such as pacifist hawks.
Third, and similarly, we have to recognize that some features of the identity of any given community either are or are not (the Law of the Excluded Middle). Drawing on the previous example, a community cannot be “kinda pacifist” if we define pacifism as a commitment to total-nonviolence. Either it recognizes the licit use of force or it doesn’t.
In short, the three laws lead us to recognize that the whole concept of community (barring defining community as “everything in existence”) depends upon exclusion. Being a community at all requires having a unique identity that excludes other potential identities, particularly when those other identities would be contradictory or imply a degree when the reality is either/or (like a pacifist in relation to war).
This is precisely the problem with “inclusiveness” if it is defined as a community’s highest value. No matter what specific community you have in mind, a totally inclusive community—that is, a community that defines itself by the standard of inclusion—is incoherent and self-defeating.
An Example: The ‘Inclusive’ Church
To illustrate the point, let’s imagine (or think of) a Catholic church that seeks to define itself primarily according to the value of inclusivity. To achieve this goal, it not only hangs a bright “All Are Welcome Here!” banner over its entrance and invites everyone to Mass, it also invites everyone to write its liturgies, define its moral doctrines, and even to take turns being the priest, all with the goal of making everyone be and feel included in the community. Would we still be talking about a Catholic church, or even a “community” in any coherent sense?
No, and one need not suffer the charge of being “non-inclusive” to say why. As the three laws illustrate, there are always some non-negotiables to the identity of any community at a definitional level, and insofar as these non-negotiables exist, the community cannot coherently welcome everyone if by “welcome” we mean “allow every individual to equally participate in” or, even, “feel comfortable in.”
In the church example, we can instructively ask whether a church that seeks to define itself as everything to everyone (a violation of the Law of Identity) is coherent; or whether a church that both recognizes all elective abortions as a sin while also recognizing the moral permissibility of elective abortions (a violation of the Law of Non-Contradiction) is coherent; or whether a church that recognizes the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist while concurrently recognizing the Eucharist as only symbolic (a violation of the Law of the Excluded Middle) is coherent.
The questions answer themselves, and the reason is because of, well, reason. To be an inclusive community one must be a community in the first place; and to be a community in the first place, one must have certain definitional criteria that follow the most basic laws of logic. Otherwise, the value of inclusion is, quite literally, nonsense, and, if followed to its (il)logical end, means demanding that communities include even those who would destroy their distinctive identities.
This is not only a bad idea from a strategic point of view, but also absurd: the “includers” would eventually become the “excluded,” and would therefore have grounds to demand that they be included in the community that now excludes them. And round and round the inclusion wheel would go.
Welcoming Exclusion for the Sake of Inclusion
It is crucial to emphasize that this is not an argument that inclusion is bad or to be avoided. The degree of balkanization we are currently witnessing in society—especially along political and cultural lines, where frictions among communities are increasing as “We are a community, therefore respect us!” claims proliferate—is also one of the great problems of our times. We have every reason to advocate for “big tent” political parties, welcoming universities, workplaces where people feel they can belong, and religious communities that extend hands to those who may feel left out.
But we have every reason to advocate for coherence, as well. Many characteristics of a community certainly are negotiable and can be flexible, even to the point of breaking, in the name of inclusion. But some things, or at least some thing, must be non-negotiable. So by all means, cast open those doors with warmth and enthusiasm. Just don’t forget that they need walls to hold them up.