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The Case for Tolerance

  • George P. Fletcher (a1)

For people to live together in pluralistic communities, they must find someway to cope with the practices of others that they abhor. For that reason, tolerance has always seemed an appealing medium of accommodation. But tolerance also has its critics. One wing charges that the tolerant are too easygoing. They are insensitive to evil in their midst. At the same time, another wing attacks the (merely) tolerant for being too weak in their sentimentsof respect. “The Christian does not wish to be tolerated,” as T. S. Eliot said; and by this he meant to claim, presumably, that the Christian desires respect and acceptance, and not merely the forbearance suggested by “tolerance.”

To make the case for tolerance, we must engage in a three-front campaign: first, against intolerance; second, against the moral failing of indifference; and third, against the desirability of respecting and accepting everyone. The central claim in making this case will be that unlike these three competing sentiments, tolerance is a complex attitude toward the behavior and beliefs of others. Its complexity consists in both moral disapproval (or atleast cultural rejection) and the avoidance of interference. If there is a case to be made for tolerance, it must derive from this peculiar complexity. After surveying its alternatives, I will argue that the complex sentimentof tolerance is more readily praised than its alternatives.

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1 International Herald-Tribune, August 8, 1994, p. A5.

2 See Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. Hialeah, 113 S.Ct. 2217 (1993).

3 Locke John, A Letter Concerning Toleration, ed. John Horton and Susan Mendus (London: Routledge, 1991), p. 17.

4 Rawls John, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), p. 212.

5 For a general study of the problem, see Feinberg Joel, Harm to Others (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984).

6 The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception holds that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was born without original sin.

7 See Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration, p. 23.

8 See Leibowitz Yeshayahu, Judaism, Human Values, and the Jewish State, ed. and trans. Eliezer Goldman (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992).

9 On this point, see Dan-Cohen Meir, “In Defense of Defiance” (unpublished manuscript).

10 See Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration.

11 Kant Immanuel, Fundamental Principles of theMetaphysics of Morals, trans. Abbott Thomas K. (New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1949).

12 This connection is more obvious in other languages. The same root generates both tolerance and patience in German (Geduldsamkeit and Geduld), Hebrew (sovlanut and savlanut), and Russian (terpimost' and terpenie).

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Social Philosophy and Policy
  • ISSN: 0265-0525
  • EISSN: 1471-6437
  • URL: /core/journals/social-philosophy-and-policy
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