The Paradoxes of Tolerance

Tolerance is an almost sacred concept in contemporary public discussion. It is taken to be a concept that when put into practice almost always guarantees the moral uprightness of the practitioner. There is nothing worse in the estimation of others than to be intolerant. Tolerance is taken to be such a foundational norm of behaviour that it transcends the general moral relativism which abounds these days and can seem to cut through any moral system. Nevertheless, there are certain paradoxes of tolerance that are often the focus of discussion in the literature in this area. I shall focus on three pertaining to important aspects of the nature of tolerance.

The Nature of Tolerance

The general notion of tolerance is that it involves at least the recognition or acceptance that there are people, beliefs, practices etc with which one does not agree, which one finds objectionable in some way, but which one does not take steps to suppress or undermine. So there is something that one finds disagreeable or objectionable, yet one tolerates it for some reason.

The first essential feature of tolerance then is the objection component – in order to be tolerant, we must find something objectionable. If one does not find something objectionable, one does not tolerate it, one is simply indifferent to it.

The second essential feature is that in spite of what we find objectionable, we accept it in some way. This does not mean that we endorse what is objectionable or that it is no longer objectionable, but that the reasons for accepting what we find objectionable outweigh the reasons for finding it objectionable. And so we are led with good reason to tolerate what is objectionable.

The third feature then is that there has to be a limit to toleration. This is because sometimes the reasons for finding something objectionable far outweigh any reasons that could be provided for accepting it. Murder is a classic example in this regard; the reasons for objecting to murder are always weightier than any reason for accepting it. Hence we do not tolerate murder.

On the basis of these three features of tolerance, there are three paradoxes.

The Paradox of Objection

Finding something objectionable is an essential feature of tolerance; if we don’t find something objectionable, we are not said to tolerate it, we are simply indifferent to it. It follows then that the more objectionable we find something and yet are able to accept it, the more tolerant we are and hence have a stronger moral character. But there is a paradox looming here.

Suppose we have a racist who is genuinely convinced of her racism. This person finds people of other races objectionable; yet she realises that the reasons for being tolerant are stronger than those for being racist. Hence, she decides that in spite of finding people of other races objectionable, she will accept them nonetheless. The paradox here is that if tolerance is a fundamental virtue to possess, then this tolerant racist is really being quite virtuous and has a good moral character. Thus, somebody with quite a depraved and indefensible moral outlook can be said to be morally virtuous – and this is an obvious paradox.

The Paradox of Acceptance

To be tolerant one not only has to find something objectionable, one also has to accept what one finds objectionable. So the reasons for acceptance in this regard are stronger than the reasons for rejection. There are plenty of mundane examples of this kind. Many parents of small children will often find the general chaos and disorder of the home objectionable – they would rather it not be like that. But the reasons for objecting here are very slight compared to the reasons for accepting such disorder, e.g. giving children space to thrive, growing in love through play, allowing children to express themselves, watching them grow etc.

On the other hand, there are cases where the reasons for objecting to something are very strong, almost as strong as the reasons for accepting it, and so there appears to be a kind of stalemate. In such cases, if we tolerate that for which we have very strong reason for rejecting, we end of tolerating something that we have very good reasons for finding objectionable. And this is evidently paradoxical since we ought not to tolerate that which we have good reasons to reject.

The Paradox of Limits

There has to be a limit to toleration since we cannot tolerate everything. So if our reasons for rejecting something outweigh our reasons for accepting it, we are thus intolerant of it. But there is a certain paradox here in the very idea of a limit to toleration. If tolerance is taken to be something good and virtuous, then its complementary opposite, intolerance, is taken to be something vicious and not good. But there are quite straightforward cases in which the right thing to do is to be intolerant of something, e.g. we do not tolerate murder, racism, sectarianism etc. The paradox here is that whilst tolerance is conceived as a virtue we can also be said to be virtuous when we practice its opposite and are intolerant.


Given these paradoxes, what are we to do? Are we to reject tolerance as a virtue to cultivate? Certainly not!

In the history of thought, paradoxes have often played an important role in clarifying an issue. Indeed there is a well established proof in logic known as reductio ad absurdum such that if we assume some premise and establish a contradiction on the assumption of that premise, then we can reasonably infer that the assumed premise is not the case or must be clarified in some way. The consideration of paradoxes thus allows us either to deny a premise or clarify its meaning.

In the case of tolerance, we do not deny the need to cultivate tolerance as a virtue, so given the paradoxes we must clarify tolerance in some way. What the paradoxes show is that tolerance is not something that is morally normative. It is not enough to be tolerant; one has to be tolerant in the right circumstances with the right object. The only way to do this if we weigh the reasons for objecting to something and the reasons for accepting it. But the only way to do that is if we have certain moral norms more basic than tolerance by which to evaluate what is objectionable and acceptable, i.e. what is right and wrong. Hence, tolerance does not tell us what is right or wrong, it only goes to implement what we already take to be right and wrong. Tolerance is therefore not a sure guide in moral matters, but rather latches onto a deeper moral framework which is our guide; it is the strength of justification of that framework and its informing our actions that will establish whether or not we are acting virtuously, not how tolerant we are.

Dr Gaven Kerr


A Mother’s Reflection on the Gift of Children

For the past twenty years my life has been surrounded by children. As a mother of eight God continues to teach me much through them. Children make us better people. They keep us grounded and prevent us from becoming self-absorbed. From the first moment of that dreaded early pregnancy sickness we learn to sacrifice our own comfort for another. They challenge us and have an immense capacity for unconditional love and forgiveness.

Children have an ability to evoke the strongest emotions in us – intense love, protectiveness, annoyance, and impatience. How much we can learn from children! They make us keenly aware of both our strengths and our weaknesses. Being in their company is good for us. We are challenged to forget ourselves and put their needs first

One of my favourite images of Jesus is a sketch of him laughing heartily surrounded by children. The picture shows him with a little smiling boy on his knee while another hugs his neck from behind.  I love contemplating this image as it is exactly as I understand Jesus to be around children: playful, loving and right in the middle of things.

As children how easily our hearts and minds open up to the reality of God’s love for us and to our true identity as His beloved sons and daughters. Jesus elevated children, famously chiding his apostles from preventing them coming to him after a very long day of public ministry.

“Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Mathew 19:14).

I was just nineteen years old when a family friend who was also a Christian brother handed me an audio cassette tape called ‘Contraception, why not’ by a professor Janet E Smith. It was certainly an odd title but as she was a sociologist and this was my area of study at university I was immediately interested. It was an intriguing talk, factual, compelling and even entertaining. I was completely convinced after hearing her sixty minute presentation that Church teaching on human life was both progressive and prophetic. As the years passed and I encountered the many myths, inaccuracies, and open hostility to this area of Church teaching I am so grateful to that family friend for simply handing me that little tape which provided such clarity on this important area at such a young age.

Being pro-life is not about having baby after baby. It is about both generosity and responsibility. It is about taking the time to get to know our God given biology as men and women and working with nature rather than against it. It is about a healthy respect for the gift of procreation and exercising discernment and prudence within our own particular circumstances. It is also about not judging other couples whether they have one child or ten!

Yet in today’s ailing culture a horrible mindset has taken hold. A mindset which deems large families as irresponsible. Welcoming children into this world is no longer viewed as a blessing and a privilege but a choice that we must control at all costs. If that child is diagnosed in the womb with a disability that choice is extended in many countries up to the point of birth. With the advent of new ‘designer baby’ techniques and three person embryos the ability to exercise control over new human life has reached disturbing new levels. At a time when materialism and medical advances are at an all-time high, the most basic of children’s rights are at an all-time low. As well as taking away the very right to life from children in the womb some countries have decided that born children don’t even have the right to know the identity of their natural mother or father.

This obsession with controlling new life has permeated deep into our culture and our communities. When I was in hospital having my last baby word quickly spread that I was having number eight. I was a constant source of bewilderment and pity. I mean I seemed normal enough but what on earth was wrong with me? Eight children in this day and age!

What is it about children that has become so threatening to our adult world? How have they become the target of countless laws and policies which are determined to control and even extinguish their existence when they are at their most vulnerable? This beautiful gift of new human life has been rejected, demeaned, and exploited under the guise of choice and compassion.

The so-called progressives of our age in their pursuit of radical adult centred ideologies have ironically stripped children of the most basic rights of all. The right to be born once conceived and the right where possible to a mother and father’s love are now dependent on adult choice and protected in law in many supposedly developed countries.

In the developing world it is children that continue to be the greatest casualties of war, famine, and disease. As pope Francis pointed out “In a world where there is so much wealth, so many resources to feed everyone, it is unfathomable that there are so many hungry children.” (Pope Francis 2013)

And yet the paschal mystery at the heart of Christianity holds up a radical and countercultural message. One that shows us that true happiness comes from giving of ourselves and putting our own needs second place. We were made in the image and likeness of God who in Jesus showed us all the true meaning of sacrificial love.

This is the narrow path that Jesus invites us to climb as his followers. To serve rather than be served. This is how we discover our true identity as children of God and find true peace.

Despite the many challenges and even chaos children can bring us, our love for them gives us plenty of opportunity to climb further up that narrow path. Whether we are a sleep deprived new parent or working overtime to pay the mortgage. Whether it is struggling to monitor a fourteen year old’s screen time or debate a curfew with a sixteen year old. We need endless amounts of patience and perseverance. Most of all though we need to be praying parents actively seeking God’s intervention in our children’s lives. And ultimately we need to be trusting parents who know that despite the wrong choices our children may make, and despite our own shortcomings, our efforts and prayers are never wasted. We entrust their lives to our heavenly Father who knows and loves each child, uniquely, and passionately.

In this 50 year anniversary of the publication of Humane Vitae, we need honestly to reflect upon and share with renewed vigour and clarity the beauty and wisdom of Church teaching on openness to new life and the immense gift that children are to our broken humanity.

Tracy Harkin


Pro-Life Community Leaders at Westminster

A group of community leaders from NI are visiting Westminster today (18/7/18) to tell MPs not to risk crippling devolution by imposing abortion laws on NI. MPs will hear from seven women, including a former Sinn Fein Mayor, a current DUP MLA, an SDLP councillor, and spokesperson for Iona NI Mrs Tracy Harkin.

The message of the group is that there are many women across Northern Ireland who do not want the current abortion law to be changed. This comes within the context of ever greater pressure to undermine NI’s pro-life laws at Westminster. Recently some have called for a free vote in the House of Commons on Labour MP Stella Creasy’s proposed amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill. If successful, this would see new abortion laws imposed on Northern Ireland, which would be even less restrictive than the current law in GB, despite the fact that abortion is a devolved responsibility for the Northern Ireland Assembly and has been so since 2009.

Leading Conservatives, including the party’s deputy chair James Cleverly and the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson have warned against going over the heads of the Northern Ireland assembly, as has SNP MP Deirdre Brock. Polling by Both Lives Matter also showed a huge majority – 72 per cent – of Conservative MPs are against devolution being undermined by imposing abortion laws on Northern Ireland.

Dawn McAvoy, co-founder of Both Lives Matter said: “It’s vital that MPs hear from women who live and work in Northern Ireland and who represent other women across the Province.There are a lot of myths about abortion law in Northern Ireland, it’s important for the GB public to know that women in NI do have access to safe and legal abortion, in carefully limited circumstances. There’s been a lot of noise about the “need” for new abortion law in Northern Ireland. This is being driven by pro-abortion campaigners who are trying to open up unlimited access to abortion. We represent some of the many Northern Irish women who reject this. We would urge British MPs to respect the people of Northern Ireland and our elected representatives. Our current law provides proper protection for both the mother and the unborn baby and we’ve found that many women have no desire for that law to be changed.”

DUP NI Assembly Member for Upper Bann, Carla Lockhart, said:
“I have constituents who are deeply concerned at the prospect of abortion on demand being foisted on Northern Ireland. We will be urging members of both Houses to respect the sincere and deeply held views of many in Northern Ireland about abortion as well as the role of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Abortion was fully devolved to the Assembly in 2009. Any move to liberalise our abortion laws through Westminster would be unreasonable and disrespectful to the democratic process in Northern Ireland. Such significant change would undermine the principle of devolution. It would be short-sighted and foolish in the extreme to take advantage of the current political complexities at Stormont to impose such controversial legislation over our heads.”

Former Sinn Fein Mayor, Ann Brolly, said:
“The devolved administration in the north of Ireland was hard won and is currently very fragile. If MPs are serious about respecting it then they will not legislate above the heads of our elected representatives. All across the north there are many women, of different political persuasions who do not want this sort of imposition and I would strongly urge MPs to listen to the views expressed today.”

The most recent consideration of abortion by the NI assembly was in 2016 and showed a clear majority against changing our pro-life laws. Let us hope that Westminster politicians listen to us today.


Google Doodle Honours Georges Lemaître

The Google doodle on 17/7/18 honours Fr Georges Lemaître for his 124th birthday: Fr Lemaître was a Catholic priest and astronomer and professor of physics at the Catholic University of Leuven. He held a number of innovative views in physics, but what he is rightly well known for is his proposal of the primeval atom which later became known as the big bang theory of the origin of the universe.

Fr Lemaître originally studied civil engineering, and after the first world war began studying physics and mathematics. At this same time he began his studies for the priesthood (during these studies he came into contact with Desiré Mercier, the well known philosopher working in Leuven at the time). He obtained his doctorate in 1920 and was ordained a priest in 1923. He also became a graduate of astronomy at Cambridge.

After his studies he began lecturing at the Catholic University and publishing articles on various topics, in particular on the expanding universe. It was while in London in 1930 that he proposed the primeval atom theory for the origin of the universe, and he developed the view in a 1931 article in Nature, ‘The Beginning of the World from the Point of View of Quantum Theory’, a theory that we have noted later became known as the big bang theory. In 1936 Lemaître was elected a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and in 1941 he was elected to the Royal Academy of Sciences and Arts of Belgium.

Towards the end of his life he remained devoted to thinking through issues in physics and mathematics, and this despite the attempt to appoint him to the papal commission exploring the issue of contraception (an appointment that he did not think he was able for given his lack of expertise in moral philosophy or theology). Fr Lemaître died on 20th June 1966, just after the discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation which provided evidence for his theory of the origin of the universe.

Lemaître received a number of honours in his life, rightly so given his brilliant career. Today the international space station is named after him, and he is an important figure in 20th Century physics, astronomy, and cosmology.

It is good to see an example of the unity of faith and reason in the life of this priest and scientist. The unity is such because what is sought after in both is truth, and it is by means of both that one can arrive at truth. As Fr Lemaître himself states: ‘I was interested in truth from the point of view of salvation just as much as in truth from the point of view of scientific certainty. It appeared to me that there were two paths to truth, and I decided to follow both of them’.

Dr Gaven Kerr


Morality, Religion, and the Natural Law

With the falling popularity of the study of academic philosophy, and the preference for academic subjects that are seen to lead more securely to employment, the public discussion of morality has suffered somewhat. When one comes to study academic philosophy, a course in moral philosophy (hopefully several) is usually essential (along with metaphysics, epistemology, and logic). Whilst one can get a smattering of philosophy in other academic subjects, one rarely gets the opportunity to study it in depth unless one undertakes a course in philosophy. That then entails that there is a general lack of recognition in public discussion of philosophical issues, and this particularly is the case with the discussion of moral matters.

In general, there is an awareness of some conclusions that are adopted in moral reasoning, especially with regard to hot button social issues that have their roots in moral philosophy. These conclusions did not come from nowhere, and significant voices in the philosophical tradition have offered reasoning on their behalf. But because of the lack of awareness of moral philosophy and often only a smattering of philosophy from elsewhere, the conclusions are known, but not their means of demonstration (indeed, in my experience of teaching moral philosophy, the very notion of demonstration in moral matters is one that has to be neatly and gently laid out before any exploration of the thinking of a particular philosopher is considered).

Now, moral philosophers are not the only individuals to draw conclusions in moral matters, the Church does so as well. And it is often the case that a moral philosopher draws the same conclusion as the Church, e.g. a number of moral philosophers agree with the Church that murder is wrong. But it is often assumed that a moral position advocated by the Church on some particular issue is one that is defended on the basis of religious belief and not on the basis of natural reason.

However, the latter view is incorrect. The natural law position in morality that is adopted by the Church is not one that depends on revelation for its cogency, nor does one even have to believe in God in order to accept that position. Indeed significant defenders of the natural law have explicitly stated that it can be known by all without recourse to God; so for instance John Finnis in Natural Law and Natural Rights, pp. 48 – 49 states clearly that knowledge of God is not needed for knowledge of the natural law, and indeed he states that part II of his book is an articulation of the natural law without advertence to the existence of God, His nature, or will; Aquinas argues that the principles of the natural law are self-evident, and its further precepts can be elucidated on the basis of rational reflection on human nature (Summa Theologiae, IaIIae, qu. 94, art. 2:

What the natural law position in morality maintains is that human beings have a nature and given that their actions are rationally willed, in order for humans to flourish as the kind of things they are, humans ought to order their actions in a way consonant with that nature. This is not a moral position that depends on God or revelation for its cogency, but simply on philosophical argumentation, as Finnis, Aquinas and others have articulated it. It stands in contrast to other moral theories, in particular utilitarianism and deontology; and it, like them, is defensible on the basis of natural reason.

The point here is that whilst natural law reasoning may coincide with the Church’s position in moral matters such reasoning does not depend on religious belief. In that case, the conclusions that the Church adopts on the basis of the natural law are not conclusions immune from philosophical discussion and scrutiny or indeed defence (they are not matters of faith), since they have publicly accessible reasons on their behalf. But if they have publicly accessible reasons, then they are as much up for grabs in the public discussion of moral matters as those defended from other moral perspectives.

Dr Gaven Kerr