Tolerance

August 27, 2009

One prominent characteristic of our American culture is it’s emphasis on tolerance of those who are different from us. But there is a bit of danger here that we may easily fall into – it is that we may start treating tolerance as a virtue, when it is really an absence of one.   Even when we use the word with that positive connotation of accepting and respecting others, it is still, by itself, not enough.  It would be a grave mistake to suppose that tolerance should be spoken of in the same way as courage or charity or honesty.  It would equally be a grave mistake to suppose that tolerance should be spoken of in the same way as cowardice, or deceit.

Here’s why being tolerant is not enough.  One may assume that it would be morally good to be tolerant of those who are different from you in regards to religion or race or gender.  It is not.  It is not even morally neutral – it is closer to being morally evil.  For being merely tolerant is close to being indifferent to their plight, to their existence.  It is same as not fulfilling that Golden Rule, not loving them as you love yourself.  It would only be morally good for you to love those who are different.  You may accept someone’s beliefs and differences in culture, but it’s all for naught if you do not love the person.  If you truly love your neighbor, then you would of course be loving and accepting and respect them.  But if love is not at the bottom of it, you may tolerate others and their beliefs only as the same way you tolerate anteaters – as something you don’t see or have to think about or interact with, as something that for all intents and purposes doesn’t exist.

There’s another way to see that tolerance is not a virtue.  We as a society is severely intolerant (and rightly so) of those who are harmful to the society.  It is in fact ethically necessary to be intolerant of certain behaviors, for they would undermine our society.  You may think that this is rather utilitarian, and that deontologically, tolerance itself is good even in these instances.  But I disagree, for being tolerant of these actions merely shows inaction.  In other virtues that are misguided, they are characterized by willful action, not willful inaction.  For example courage required to save a shipment of illegal drugs, is morally evil though courage is a virtue.  Being tolerant of a mass murderer who is shooting other people is morally evil, because tolerance is not a virtue.

In short, we would do well to remember what tolerance is like: it is like being broad minded.  As Chesterton once said, turnips are singularly broad minded.  Turnips are also singularly tolerant of everything.

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