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For Tolerance

Jonathan Gorman thanks God for the ideal of tolerance.

‘Tolerance’ has never had a good philosophical press, and Peter J. King (‘Against Tolerance’, Philosophy Now Issue 11, pp.23-4) says that we should not put up with it. Yet the ‘nebulous rhetoric’ of which he accuses public and private morality is more than matched by his own. Certainly there are uses of the word ‘tolerance’ which are misplaced. ‘Racial tolerance’ ordinarily means for most people, according to King, that “a person’s race is irrelevant to the way we judge her and to the way she should be treated”, but this is “simply good sense”, not tolerance (p.23). It is not tolerance because, as King reasonably reminds those who need reminding, the meaning (or at least a central implication) of “I tolerate x” is that I both judge x to be wrong and put up with x. Consequently ‘racial tolerance’ ought to imply that races other than our own are ‘wrong’ or morally unacceptable, and that we nevertheless ought to put up with them. Yet this is not the normal meaning of this wishy-washy phrase.

King may be correct, to a very limited extent, in this: it is true that we might describe a society which showed such good sense as ‘racially tolerant’, and we would then perhaps be misusing the word ‘tolerant’, although I’m not sure that it is wise to appeal to traditional uses of words as setting unchangeable standards for present-day use. In any event, more careful attention to the use of language would help here. In practice a call for racial tolerance is generally addressed to those who need to be taught how to treat others, who need to learn that racial grounds should be irrelevant to the treatment of others. Calling on them to be tolerant presupposes that they already believe that races other than their own are indeed ‘wrong’. To call for toleration here is to call for changes of behaviour, not primarily changes of belief (although a change of belief would be welcome), and the word is thus not misused.

But these are details. The serious and dangerous claim made by King lies here: “if we judge an action to be morally wrong, we are obliged to (try to) stop it. In the case of beliefs and statements, on the other hand, the obligation is not to stop but to change” (p.24). This passage occurs in a discussion of free speech. King is confused about free speech. Free speech is not the same as freedom of thought or freedom of belief. Free speech is the utterance of thoughts or beliefs, and to utter is to act. It can, of course, be both right to believe something and also right to keep that belief to oneself. For this reason, against King, you display religious toleration not just by rejecting the persecution of those who believe things which you hold false, but also by allowing such people to express their religious beliefs, by allowing them to live their lives undisturbed in accordance with what are to you alien standards, and by allowing them to persuade, to convert others, even though you think their beliefs and actions are wrong. But King expresses a seriously intolerant position: “if we judge an action to be morally wrong, we are obliged to (try to) stop it”.

King has forgotten about the law. A major question in the philosophy of law and in political philosophy is whether and how far morality should be enforced by the law. This element of ‘public and private’ morality is the natural home for the concept of tolerance. It is morally wrong to lie, on the whole; but the law does not prohibit it, except in limited cases (for example, lying to obtain money), and it is morally plausible that it ought not to. It is morally wrong to show ingratitude and to be rude to people; it may also be morally wrong to carry out abortion or euthanasia or armed robbery or murder. Some of these the law rightly prohibits and others the law rightly does not. It is a longstanding liberal doctrine that it does not follow, from the moral wrongness of something, that the law ought to prohibit it; and, whatever the political merit of this element of liberalism, it is good logic also. To make explicit, for the sake of validity, a suppressed premiss like “everything morally wrong should be legally prohibited” is to raise what is in itself the morally serious issue of toleration. It is plain that the deliberate limitations of law, the entire area of morality which the law does not enforce and which it is judged it would not be right to enforce, expresses what society tolerates in the central sense of the word ‘tolerance’: that which we think wrong, but which we are prepared to put up with, and which we think we are right to put up with. Thank God for tolerance.

We do not want to lose the concept of tolerance, for too many of society’s problems are best understood in terms of it. In a pluralist society beliefs and practices and ways of life are not shared. Moral convictions may be peculiar to particular groups, known to be distinct from the convictions of other groups, and no less firmly held for that. To accept the requirement of a pluralist society is to accept the requirement of tolerance: recognition of differences so serious that one group may firmly regard another group as seriously in the wrong, and yet feel a willingness to accept those very differences because it is also recognised as the right, and not merely the prudent, thing to do. We will all be much clearer about morality, both as private individuals and as public figures, when we can adopt, as the foundation for our moral beliefs, an understanding which both tells us what is right and also tells us when it is right to tolerate what is wrong. This is the heart of tolerance, and respect for humanity requires it.

© Dr. J.L. Gorman 1995

Jonathan Gorman is head of the Department of Philosophy at the Queen’s University of Belfast.

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