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Toleration is an individual and collective attitude and a practice of allowing people to be and act differently from oneself or one's group. It is often seen in terms of religious tolerance.

Individual aspects[]

Tolerance may be regarded as a personality trait related to agreeableness and associated with openness to experience

Social aspects[]

In the sociatal level it is related to social acceptance.

[T]oleration is the virtue of refraining from exercising one's power to interfere with others' opinion or action although that deviates from one's own over something important and although one morally disapproves of it." (Nicholson 1985)

In terms of a definition.

  • To tolerate requires having the power to dissuade an action or belief. We do not "tolerate" something if we can’t do anything about it. Because it concerns power, toleration is a political concept. Ultimately, therefore, questions of toleration appeal to action or inaction on the part of a governing authority. The state has a monopoly on coercive power and can therefore exert the most coercive influence against whatever it refuses to tolerate. But it can also limit the coercive influence of non-governmental groups or individuals against things they don't want to tolerate.
  • To tolerate something we must refuse to use that power. To use our power to stop something is to refuse to tolerate it.
  • To tolerate something it must have some importance. Toleration concerns issues considered to be of consequence. Generally speaking, we don’t "tolerate" people who wear several kinds of plaid at the same time, for example, or who have other trivial differences with us.
  • To tolerate something it must involve a deviation from our own position. There is disagreement.
  • To tolerate is to consider an opinion or action wrong. We do not tolerate something if we are indifferent about it. Nor do we tolerate those things that we see as good.

Specifically, to tolerate an opinion or an action it must be something of which we morally disapprove. This qualification build on the previous one and eliminates disagreements over issues that are important but not moral. You and I may disagree concerning whose football team is superior, and the question may be of great importance to us both. But this is probably not a moral disagreement and therefore does not concern toleration.

Historically, most incidents and writings pertaining to toleration involve the status of minority and dissenting viewpoints in relation to a dominant state religion. In the twentieth century and after, analysis of the doctrine of toleration has been expanded to include political and ethnic groups, homosexuals and other minorities, and human rights embodies the principle of legally enforced toleration.

To tolerate is a virtue. But what kind of virtue? It is a form of wisdom (prudence). Although the thing tolerated is seen as morally wrong, it is seen as wise not to stop it, all things considered. These other considerations might include concern over civil strife, harm to the person otherwise coerced, or worries over the consequences should the political fortunes change.

In light of this analysis, there are several popular misconceptions concerning toleration.

Popular misconceptions[]

"To tolerate others, you must be willing to doubt your own beliefs. If you are sure that you are right, you will not tolerate others."

Toleration can never be based in skepticism. Toleration is always based in what we believe, not in what we doubt. To refuse to take a position on the rightness or wrongness of an opinion or practice gives no reasons concerning how to respond to that opinion or practice, one way or another. For this reason, G. K. Chesterton's assertion--"Toleration is the virtue of people who don't believe in anything"--is wrong by definition. (Other related misconceptions: "Toleration means not judging other people's actions." "Right and wrong are a matter of personal opinion. We should all just tolerate other people’s beliefs.")

"Genuine toleration is a matter of principle, not of prudential considerations."

To the contrary, the decision to tolerate is always based on a prudential consideration, except for those who refuse all coercion as a matter of principle (e.g., radical pacifists). To claim that that some authority has the right to coerce is to claim that some things should not be tolerated (e.g., theft or murder). To claim that something should be tolerated is to claim that it is wrong, but should be permitted.

The assertion that toleration is based in principle, like many other misconceptions on the concept of toleration, involves a confusion of terms, or involves using the term in two ways. Those who advocate toleration as a principle are often in fact demanding freedom for opinions and practices that they find unobjectionable. Whether they are right or wrong to think so, their appeal for "toleration" by those who do object to the opinion or practice is actually an appeal for freedom concerning something that they themselves are not tolerating. They are not tolerating it, strictly speaking, because they do not believe that it is wrong. The appeal may gloss this difference of opinion over the permissibility of the opinion or action at issue and leverage the emotional reactions that "intolerance" carries.

Notice, however, that none of the above yet helps us take a position on which opinions or actions should be tolerated.

Why tolerate?[]

Since to tolerate is to refuse to stop something immoral, some have condemned toleration. If something is wrong, they say, then it should not be tolerated. This position is extreme and can be reduced to absurdity. Not all wrongs should be considered crimes. It is wrong to insult someone unjustly, for example, but we rarely prosecute this behavior, and we are right not to do so.

But if some opinion or action is morally wrong and it is important, then why should it be permitted? And how do we decide what to tolerate?

Political life in the real world involves compromises and trade-offs in the goods we want to achieve, both material and non-material. Toleration involves ranking things that are important to us. Some things are more important than others. Protecting the well-being of those close to us is more important than enforcing our preference in hair styles, for example.

Whatever our ranking of goods, we only tolerate something we consider morally wrong if stopping that moral wrong would do harm to something of a higher rank. Of course, both the ranking and the calculation of harm are highly controversial and dynamic.

Do we tolerate littering, for example? In many countries the punishment for littering is relatively small. The cost of completely eliminating it is considered too great. In one country, however, people caught littering may be beaten with a bamboo cane, or otherwise publicly humiliated.

There is another way to say this: we tolerate means in order to protect ends. Any political structure, governmental or non-governmental, only tolerates what it calls evil if it believes that not to tolerate it would "cost" more.

On any moral understanding, then, "Evils must be tolerated in just those cases where their suppression would involve equal or greater hindrance to goods of the same order, or any hindrance at all to goods of higher order. More briefly (and less exactly): true tolerance is the protection of ends against means." (Budziszewski 1992: 269) We tolerate evils in order to protect goods.

So toleration requires judgment. This judgment is always debatable.

See also[]

References and further reading[]

  • Budziszewski, J. (1992)True Tolerance: Liberalism and the Necessity of Judgement (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers).
  • Mendus, Susan and Edwards, David, eds. (1987) On Toleration (Oxford: Clarendon Press).
  • Mendus, Susan, ed. (1988) Justifying Toleration: Conceptual and Historical Perspectives (New York: Cambridge University Press).
  • Mendus, Susan (1989) Toleration and the Limits of Liberalism (Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities Press).
  • Nicholson, Peter P. (1985) "Toleration as a Moral Ideal" in Aspects of Toleration: Philosophical Studies ed. John Horton and Susan Mendus (New York: Methuan).
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