The Philosophy of Tolerance

By Richard Pimentel


1. A fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc., differ from one's own; freedom from bigotry. Unabridged (v 1.1)

2. The capacity for or the practice of recognizing and respecting the beliefs or practices of others. American Heritage Dictionary

The previous article touched upon the Religious Right and the allegations of intolerance directed at this group. There was much emphasis placed upon the multimedia artist, Joel Pelletier, and his painting “American Fundamentalists (Christ’s Entry into Washington in 2008)” which touched upon Pelletier’s views of the Religious Right. Amongst the various concepts mentioned in the last article, there was one concept that merits further scrutiny – tolerance. What is tolerance? Has the idea of tolerance changed? What are the philosophical implications of tolerance?

There are two common denominators in the definitions offered in the epigraph of this article. The first is the need for a respectful and fair attitude towards others and the second is this attitude is directed towards those whose beliefs and opinions differ from ours. However, there is one important component missing in these definitions – the right to reject someone’s claims or beliefs while respecting their right to say it. These three components comprise the classical definition of tolerance that defines tolerance as having respect for another’s right to express their beliefs while maintaining respect for the person even if you disagree and reject their beliefs. This classical meaning of tolerance is an essential component of a free and open democratic society. Surely, if this society is to remain as such, then we must recognize and respect the rights of others to express their beliefs along with the ability of disagreeing with their beliefs. The recognition and allowance of the free expression of divergent views is morally obligatory. However, the classical understanding of tolerance is no longer assumed. Proponents of the contemporary understanding of tolerance promote a distorted view of tolerance. Dr. Francis Beckwith, philosopher and faculty member at Baylor University, has a name for this new understanding – liberal tolerance. Dr. Beckwith writes, “Proponents of this viewpoint argue that it is intolerant and inconsistent with the principles of a free and open society for Christians (and others) to claim that their moral and religious perspective is correct and ought to be embraced by all citizens.” In other words, liberal tolerance is defined as the endorsement of neutrality and the prohibition of judgments on others. All views are equally valid. You cannot say that your view is correct and someone else’s is false.

This distortion has turned the true meaning of tolerance on its head and this semantic and experiential distortion has affected the manner in which some people perceive others such as the Religious Right. The contemporary purveyors of tolerance, such as Joel Pelletier, forget that disagreement is essential to tolerance. Without disagreement, there is no need for tolerance. By no means is every member of the Religious Right tolerant but I believe that it is unwarranted to deem all of the Religious Right as intolerant. Not being able to assert that there are propositions and ideas that are true and others that are false is self-refuting and unlivable. Even Pelletier claims that the Religious Right is wrong and his views are right. If tolerance truly meant that we must accept all views as equally valid and suspend judgment of other views then even the proponents of this tolerance adhere to a notion that is self-refuting. The fact is real differences and disagreements exist between people. Without this there would be no need for tolerance because tolerance presupposes disagreement.

To say that someone is intolerant because they disagree with someone’s ideas and because they deem that some ideas are true and some are false is perplexing. But this concept has great influence in our politically correct culture. The remarks about homosexuality stated by General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in an interview with the Chicago Tribune is an example. The General was interviewed about the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy towards gays serving in the military. He shared his view that homosexuality is immoral and that the behavior should not be condoned by the military. His remarks caused uproar with certain members of Congress, the media, gay advocacy groups, and even Bill Clinton. Subsequently, General Pace apologized for not keeping on the topic of policy. He did not apologize for his ethical view on homosexuality. This created more anger and brought further criticism. He was criticized for being intolerant and judgmental. However, are not his critics guilty of the same thing when applying this distorted view of tolerance? They have been passing moral judgment on General Pace because he passed moral judgment on homosexuality. I wonder how these same critics would look at General Pace if he openly approved of homosexuality. Surely, they would be celebrating his approval and courage for passing the moral judgment that homosexuality is an ethically accepted behavior. Unfortunately, this destruction of the virtue of tolerance carries negative philosophical implications.

tolerance. Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. (accessed: March 27, 2007).

tolerance. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. (accessed: March 27, 2007).