This opinion piece from the Prospect has me reconsidering one of the classic debates of political philosophy. Concisely put, the question raised is whether a just society tolerates the intolerance of its citizens, or, to couch it more explicitly in moral terms, do I have an obligation to tolerate others and, if so, does this obligation extend to the intolerant? This question begs other important questions, specifically, “What is tolerance?” and, “what is the virtue of tolerance?” I don’t think that I have adequate answers to these questions, but I think that they are important, so I want to discuss them anyway. Comments and counter-arguments are welcome.
To those who consider tolerance a virtue, the notion is often broadly defined to include an open-minded attitude toward difference of background and difference of opinion. On this account, the tolerant person is characterized as the political liberal who opens himself up to the possibility that his is not the only or best way to live. He embraces diversity in his community because he believes it is an in-road to a more broad-minded, and therefore more enlightened, world-view. A more narrow definition of tolerance is that it is the ability to endure others peaceably. On this account, the tolerant person may have a strong distaste for those who do not share his race, religion, or predilection for reading the Wall Street Journal, but he refrains from outward hostility toward them which allows him to live or work comfortably in their proximity.
As nice as it may be to consider oneself the broad-minded and enlightened liberal, I think this definition of tolerance ultimately falls apart. The problem here is not that the liberal accepts the possibility that his way of thinking might be in error, the problem is that values are not the type of thing about which one can truly be agnostic. In other words, I can accept that my background is responsible for some of the values which I hold, and that these values may influence and prejudice my judgments about how others live their lives, but I cannot escape the values themselves. I cannot, for example, choose to feel reverence for the clerics of religions that other people believe are supernaturally inspired, nor can I accept as justice the corporal punishment executed against fornicators and homosexuals in some parts of the world. Though the enlightened person acknowledges that some values are basic* and therefore groundless, he cannot escape a conflict in holding the value of tolerance while, at the same time, believing that tolerance demands that he accept the values of the intolerant as equally morally justified. I cannot, for example, take seriously my moral obligation to permit others to believe and practice according to their own moral values when my neighbor’s moral values compel him to kill his wife or daughter because he believes that she has practiced sexual immorality.
Generally speaking, free societies draw a line of distinction between free thought (and those things which are generally assumed to fall into the realm of free thought- free speech, free association, free worship) and free action. The mantra of the liberal state is “Believe whatever you wish to believe, but you must act in accordance with our laws or face the threat of violent coercion.” Those who advocate the “peaceable endurance” view of tolerance hold a position similar to this, and therefore I do not think their view implodes with internal contradiction. I can consistently believe that I should try to live peaceably with you despite the fact that I don’t like your religion, ethnicity, or personal disposition, and, at the same time, reserve the right to intervene and compel you to do something differently if I find your actions to be morally impermissible. The problem here is that if my definition of tolerance allows that I can and should intervene when a person violates a moral rule that I believe is compelling, then the prescription to be tolerant doesn’t seem to have the strength to compel me to change my actions for the sake of tolerance. In fact, I have difficulty imagining a scenario when it would be morally obligatory for me to tolerate another person who acts in accordance with any value that I do not share. I am tempted to say that this version of tolerance requires only that we respect others’ right to tastes that differ from our own, but the line between taste and moral value is itself quite blurry. After all, one person’s preference for braised pig belly and Catholic iconography is another person’s violation of kosher law and idolatry.
If we are to make any sense out of the moral imperative to tolerate others then we must identify some non-arbitrary dividing line between what we ought to tolerate and what we ought not to tolerate in others. This is the only way to avoid the implosion of relativism endemic to the broad account of tolerance and the whimper of ineffectuality endemic to the narrow account. Most Western states have pragmatic laws in place to distinguish between permissible private actions and impermissible public actions, but the pragmatic justification** for laws like this does not have an obvious moral corollary. What I mean is, there is no obvious moral principle which can explain why I should intervene if my neighbor burns a cross on my lawn or rapes his daughter, but why I should tolerate it when my neighbor goes to meetings wearing a white robe and hood or teaches his daughter that the world is only 6,000 years old, though the law clearly distinguishes between the former and the latter.
So, what is the virtue of tolerance?
*The assertion that, all other things being equal, it is better for innocent people to be happy rather than suffering is an example of one of these groundless, basic values.
**Cynically, I think mostly this justification is grounded in the way these laws accommodate the marketplace and the distribution of private property.