Troubles for Tolerance

A little while ago I wrote a post about problems for the idea that it would be good if everyone were equal. That is an easy target for me, because I don’t think that it would be good if everyone were equal, in part because of those problems. Today, then, I want to look at something that’s a bit harder for me. I think that tolerance is a good idea, and I would like to see more of it. There are, however, some problems for the concept.

Let’s start with a rough characterisation of tolerance. A tolerant person allows people to live according to ethical and aspirational systems with which he does not agree. It is a central aspect of tolerance that you allow people to actually put the ethical and aspirational systems into practice; it is not tolerant to pretend to allow them to do something, but to take everything away afterwards, or undo all their work. Someone who removes graffiti as soon as it goes up is not tolerating graffiti.

Now, there is an obvious problem for tolerance, and one that everyone grapples with. This is the person who wants to go around killing people. You can’t tolerate that behaviour, the argument goes, because it infringes on the rights of others. I agree. Tolerance should not extend to tolerance of murder, and the problem of where to draw the line is a difficult one. Here, I want to suggest that it is even more difficult than most people are inclined to think.

It is common for tolerant people to believe that the line over what you should tolerate should be drawn in general terms. It should not deal with the specific details of any actions, such as whether they happen on a Sunday. Rather, it should deal with broad ideas, such as “any action that does not harm anyone who is not a voluntary participant in the action”. This is harder than you might think, but I want to suggest that it may be a complete non-starter. I will consider a couple of very minimally tolerant standards, and argue that accepting either has difficult consequences.
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