Toward a Tolerant View of Tolerance

Many today hold that tolerance above all is the greatest and most important moral virtue. After all, to thrive in a socially, morally, religiously, and politically diverse society requires that tolerance be the summum bonum for any people group that claims a sense of civility.

But what exactly is meant by tolerance? Consider the following, taken from the opening presentation to my World Religions class (with assistance from Frank Beckwith’s Do the Right Thing: Readings in Applied Ethics and Social Philosophy).

  • Tolerance can only be exercised in the presence of disagreement; I can only be tolerant toward views I believe are mistaken. Never to disagree with anyone is not the mark of tolerance but intellectual suicide.
  • It hardly makes sense to tolerate things you heartily approve! Therefore, tolerance presupposes a negative outlook toward an opposing view.
  • If tolerance means I cannot judge a view as morally wrong, then that is no different from saying that I must be either indifferent to the opposing view or embrace it, in which case “tolerance” has lost its meaning.
  • Tolerance is not the same as acceptance. Tolerance does not mean accepting anything and rejecting nothing.
  • There is a clear distinction between accepting a person’s right to hold a belief and accepting the belief as true. Tolerating people and tolerating ideas are different.
  • Genuine respect for and acknowledgment of another’s dignity demands a willingness to listen and take seriously his or her most basic religious commitments, no matter how foreign or opposed they are to yours. Surely the people we respect and treat fairly are not just those with whom we agree!
  • Tolerance has its limitations. People may believe as they wish, but not behave as they wish.
  • Much of what hides behind “tolerance” today is intellectual cowardice and laziness. It’s easier to hurl an insult than to engage contrary opinions with thoughtful, relevant dialog that encourages understanding and engages alternative views.

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