Bryan Caplan  

The Meaning of Tolerance

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I'm a fan of tolerance.  But Nathan Smith, one of the smartest people I've ever taught, is not.  Nathan:

As for tolerance, it is subject to this paradox: that a society cannot be tolerant without being intolerant of intolerance. To see why, imagine a society where 95% of the population is highly tolerant both of homosexuals, and of violence against homosexuals. Gay people in this society can take pleasure in the knowledge that the vast majority of their fellows look upon their lifestyles with perfect equanimity, and do not judge or condemn them in the least. Alas, the tolerant majority looks with the same equanimity on a small minority of self-appointed divine avengers of sodomy and perversion. When such thugs attack a homosexual in the street, the crowds will not sympathize, but will reflect that, after all, who are they to judge? How can they condemn the sincere expression of someone else's ethical beliefs? Clearly such tolerance is hardly worth having...

American society today is intolerant of aggression; of racism; of proposals for ethnic cleansing; of the Inquisition; of fascism and communism; of polygamy. It harbors a propensity to lash out against "sexism," even though this word does not, as far as I can tell, refer to any actual coherent concept, but means whatever a person who chooses to be offended wants it to mean at a given moment. Some parts of American society are becoming intolerant of the idea that marriage necessarily refers to an attachment between a man and a woman. I regard some of these intolerances as bad, but to regard intolerance in general as bad doesn't fundamentally make sense. You can't really even make a coherent distinction between moral progress and intolerance of the moral evils that moral progress overcomes...

Once I asked, "What country has ever suffered from cosmopolitan tolerance run amok?"  Nathan has an answer:

...I would name the Roman Empire. There, the many nations of the ancient Mediterranean met and mingled, promiscuously exchanging myths and gods and cults and light philosophical ideas and goods and slaves. They called it the Pax Romana, but it was a time when Roman republican liberty surrendered to the tyranny of the Caesars, and the intellect atrophied and descended gradually into mediocrity. Of course, the late Roman Empire wasn't entirely tolerant as we mean the word. Thousands of Christian martyrs died gruesome deaths merely for refusing to engage in the nominal emperor-worship which the rest of the population indifferently and ironically engaged in. But principled religious toleration hadn't been invented yet. The Roman Empire acted to defend the civic unity expressed in the imperial cult, but its general attitude was one of tolerance, of live and let live. It tolerated a labyrinth of religions and cults, it tolerated prostitution, it tolerated social practices like slavery and infanticide.
Like most English words, "tolerance" is somewhat ambiguous.  Some people use the word as Nathan does, to indicate blanket indifference or moral agnosticism.  But I doubt this is the standard use of the word.  Return to Nathan's hypothetical: A gang physically attacks a gay man.  A bystander pulls his gun and tells them to back off.  Morality aside, it seems linguistically odd to accuse the bystander of "intolerance."

If tolerance does not (normally) mean blanket indifference or moral agnosticism, what does it mean?  Libertarians may be tempted to equate tolerance with not violating people's rights to person and property.  But this too seems linguistically odd.  Picture a homophobe who spends every day peacefully denouncing gays as disgusting and vile.  Though he never commits violence or tampers with their property, he's clearly "intolerant" as we normally use the word.

What then do we normally mean by "tolerance"?  As a matter of common linguistic usage, something like: Not strongly opposing what people (especially strangers) do with their own person and property.  Libertarianism says, "People have a right to do what they want with their own person and property."  Tolerance says, "People shouldn't get too upset about what other people do with their own person and property."  Tolerance is weaker than outright approval, but it does set a cap on disapproval.  Contrary to Nathan, tolerance in this sense doesn't merely allow tolerance of intolerance; it implies it!  A tolerant man doesn't fret too much when X peacefully but vociferously disapproves of Y.

Note: On this definition, there is nothing intolerant about condemning, say, nationalists for supporting immigration restrictions.  A supremely tolerant person could still say, "I'll stop attacking nationalism once nationalists become a politically impotent minority."

Whether or not I'm right about standard usage of the word "tolerance," I consider tolerance in this sense morally good - and a worthy part of the libertarian penumbra.  Once you accept your duty to physically leave other people alone, it is also a good idea to mentally mind your own business.  Why?  Many reasons, starting with:

1. People's moral objections to how other people use their own person and property are usually greatly overstated - or simply wrong.  Think about how often people sneer at the way others dress, talk, or even walk.  Think about how often people twist personality clashes into battles of good versus evil.  From a calm, detached point of view, most of these complaints are simply silly.

2. People's moral objections to how other people use their own person and property often conflate innocent ignorance with willful vice. 

3. People's best-founded moral objections to how other people use their own person and property are usually morally superfluous.  Why?  Because the Real World already provides ample punishment.  Consider laziness.  Even from a calm, detached point of view, a life of sloth seems morally objectionable.  But there's no need for you to berate the lazy - even inwardly.  Life itself punishes laziness with poverty and unemployment.  The same goes for drunkenness, gluttony, and so on.  Such vices are, by and large, their own punishment.  So even if you accept (as I do) the Rossian principle that a just world links virtue with pleasure and vice with pain, there is no need to add your harsh condemnation to balance the cosmic scales.

4. The "especially strangers" parenthetical preempts the strongest counter-examples to principled tolerance.  There are obvious cases where you should strongly oppose what your spouse, children, or friends do with themselves or their stuff.  But strangers?  Not really.

5. Intolerance is bad for the intolerant.  As Buddha never said, "Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die."  The upshot is that the Real World punishes intolerance along with laziness, drunkenness, and gluttony.  Perhaps this is the hidden wisdom of the truism that "Haters gonna hate."

None of these arguments are airtight.  Moral arguments rarely are.  Yet these arguments are enough to establish a strong moral presumption in favor of what English speakers normally mean by "tolerance."  Mild disapproval of how others live their lives and spend their money is fine.  But you should not dwell on the failings of strangers.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (17 to date)
Massimo writes:

If a child wants to live in a different family home, the tolerant and cosmopolitan position would be to allow him entry to his family of choice and the intolerant position would be to impose draconian restrictions on family borders. Is that correct?

Graham Peterson writes:

The argument that a tolerant person must be tolerant of intolerance in order to maintain philosophical consistency is fallacious logic -- not a clever paradox.

The same thing goes for "can God make a stone so heavy even he can't lift it." If you assume both P and not P, you've assumed a contradiction, not proven one.

I think tolerance basically says, "people's fall somewhere between 100% tolerant and 100% intolerant, but we often err towards intolerance, and that's not a great idea unless you live in an Amazonian tribe, so let's be more tolerant."

I went into some detail on this w.r.t conservatives calling liberals hypocrites on tolerance here:

Grant Gould writes:

You draw the line between things-it-is-tolerant-to-oppose and things-it-is-intolerant-to-oppose at "how other people use their own person and property". Given that the work of activists and of voters in a democracy is largely to direct the power of the state, what forms of activism fall in which category depends entirely on whether influencing state action is within the individual's "property".

Consider an anti-drug crusader who votes for and lobbies politicians for drug criminalization and harsh penalties is engaged in what it is not a huge stretch to call a conspiracy to commit all manner of violence and oppression. But someone of different views might say, well, political activism is just a peaceful expression of one's views, it is the very ideal of what we must tolerate. Political action -- and even voting! -- looks like violence from some points of views and on some issues, and does not look that way from others.

Similarly the pro-minimum-wage activist who wants to see the government shutting down businesses that make the wrong contracts. Similarly people engaging in anti-gay political activism that would strip my gay friends of their rights and forcibly divorce them. Similarly the folks who vote for the death penalty. These all sound an awful lot like violence to me, albeit violence laundered through the mechanism of legislation.

In a democratic society it is right to constantly fear that a person who advocates things you disapprove of is going to try to use the state to do violence to you on the soapbox and on election day. Tolerance, under such circumstances, is impossible and nonsensical.

Mike H writes:

I argue online with Nathan's mother and sister on a regular basis. That family is way too smart and they all like to use language to obscure the debate to their advantage.

Jeff writes:
As a matter of common linguistic usage, something like: Not strongly opposing what people (especially strangers) do with their own person and property.

If only. Most people who invoke tolerance as a virtue are still thoroughly invested in the kind of equality of outcome thinking that leads to, say, quotas for female board members for European corporations. These folks take a very great deal of interest in what people do with their private property. I would suggest that your definition is what the social justice crowd uses as their safe, secure stronghold in Scott Alexander's motte-and-Bailey metaphor before advancing to less defensible territory of the "i can tolerate anything except the outgroup" thinking.

MikeDC writes:

Brian is obviously right on the basic point. Somewhere Adam Smith is turning over in his grave at such grave misconstruction of his theory of moral sentiments. Toleration of sentiment and toleration of action are entirely different. I can be tolerant of the anti-gay sentiment, but I need not be "tolerant" of beating a man on the street, regardless of the attacker's motivations.

Anyway, I think the more interesting point is Nathan's implication that the Roman Empire's failure was due to excessive tolerance.

The implication seems to be the intolerant Republic era was great and the "tolerant" empire reflected a period of decline.

But my understanding is that in most ways we should value as economists, such as trade, wealth, population and living standards all improved over the next three hundred and fifty years or so.

So the Roman Empire seems like yet another victory for tolerance to me.

vikingvista writes:

Every notion of tolerance implies a human reaction. Since human actions vary widely in both kind and degree, tolerance is always context dependent. If someone asks you if you tolerate something, the only meaningful reply you can give is how you would respond to that thing. A disapproving glance is not absolute indifference, but it is considerably more tolerant than responding with a physical assault or advocating a legal prohibition.

Roger writes:

Just as we fight Fire with Fire and approve of coercion only to prevent coercion, couldn't we say intolerance can and at times should be used to fight intolerance?

mickey writes:

Toleration comes off to me as a granting of permission that can be taken away. I'm not inclined to claim it.

ThomasH writes:

Tolerating hatred of group x does not imply tolerating criminal actions against group x but neither does it imply not criticizing those who hate group x.

I think people who approve of torturing criminals should be tolerated (thought the torturers themselves should be prosecuted) and they should receive police protection from any physical threats. But they are worthy of the the most severe opprobrium.

stargirl writes:


Correct. The tolerant view is that children should be allowed to change families if some other family will take them in.

Nathan Smith writes:

Proposed definition: Tolerance is not strongly opposing what other people (especially strangers) do with their own persons or property.

I like it, I think. It clears a number of things up.

But do we need some modification to distinguish hateful or angry opposition from firm advice backed by reasoning? Am I intolerant if I look for opportunities to speak to strangers who are at risk for drug addiction, offering very potent explanations of why getting addicted to drugs is a bad idea?

Ryan Murphy writes:

This is a well known problem in philosophy, no?

MikeDC writes:

Proposed definition: Tolerance is not strongly opposing what other people (especially strangers) do with their own persons or property.

It's closer, but this definition breaks your purported paradox.

I think a simpler and more consistent definition is that tolerance lies in affirming the rights of another even when you disagree with their exercise Hence, protecting the rights of the gay guy is tolerant. The attacker, on the other hand, has no right to attack another to be tolerant of. He's clearly exceeding his own rights and infringing on another.

Anyway, bit your definition needs is a recognition of rights.

Does someone have the right to do something? If yes, then toleration means we respect their right to do it. Intolerance means we try to curtail their right to do it.

Thus, we may be tolerant and say to the drug user, "you may do that, but it's stupid".

We would be intolerant to say "we revoke your right to do that".

And of course, it's intolerance to infringe on another's right, or withhold your general obligation to protect each others' rights, because you disagree with their exercise of those rights.

MaximumLiberty writes:

I concur with @MikeDC. The historical use of the word tolerate was to allow conduct of which you disapproved. There is no sense of the word tolerance that means neither approving nor disapproving of something. You don't "tolerate" something you have no opinion about; you simply don't care. Examples of intolerance include government or private violence to prevent an activity or calls for such violence. But criticizing the activity is neither tolerance nor intolerance.

Max L.

Leclerc writes:

MikeDC comes close, but rights does not need to enter the equation.

"A tolerant person" does not make sence, as tolerance is not a blanket statement. It refers to something specific.

Approval and tolerance are closely linked: If I approve of X I also tolerate it, but I also think X is good (or at least not bad).

If I do not approve, I do not want more of it. But I can still tolerate it and thus not allow myself to fight it using force. If I am intolerant, I allow myself to fight X using force.

A non-violent homophobe is disapproving but tolerant towards homosexuals.

I am violently opposed to rape, that is, I am intolerant of rape and not only disapproving.

Hopefully your personal distinction between topics you are intolerant and tolerant of is based on property rights and self-ownership.

Adrian writes:

I would add one more argument against intolerance: it's bad strategy. Pouting at a peaceful homophobe or a lazy person probably won't do much to make them change. Being calm but cordially critical is most likely a better approach to fixing other people's shortcomings.

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