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Making Sense of Political Toleration

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 June 2007

School of Geography, Politics and Sociology, University of Newcastle.


This article argues that, in contemporary political circumstances, we should think of political toleration not as toleration that a government extends to those it rules but as a political ideal that governments can uphold and promote. We should substitute a conception of the tolerant society or the tolerant political order for that of the tolerant ruler. Toleration so conceived is consistent with the idea of a neutral state, although it need not entail a commitment to political neutrality. However, if we are to make sense of the idea of a tolerant society and, in particular, of the assumption that one political arrangement can be more tolerant than another, we need to place limits on what can count as toleration and intolerance. I use a distinction between agents, observers and patients to argue that point. I also argue that the presence of compossible options is a precondition of political toleration so that, if an issue requires a choice between incompossible options, it should not be conceived as an issue of toleration at all. The general message of the article is that, while we should reject claims that toleration has become obsolete as a political ideal, we need to revise our thinking on what constitutes political toleration if we are to apply that idea to liberal democratic arrangements ideally conceived.

Research Article
© 2007 Cambridge University Press

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