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