The Philosophy Resource

Teaching resources for philosophy students and teachers

Some hard cases

The aim of this section has been (a) to define tolerance and (b) examine different views on the question ‘why we should be tolerant’? We classified the strategies of justification of tolerance as: instrumentalist, rights-based, and constitutivist. The position defended was the constitutivist one. Although the focus has been on justification for tolerance, it is important to see how tolerance works in practice. There is no recipe for this, so what follows are attempts to think through some hard cases in a Kantian spirit.

Hate speech

Shall we tolerate hate speech?

Here is one way in which the constitutivist response may go:

Hate speech is a use of speech that promotes hatred. This is a use of speech that looks more like when we shout ‘Fire!’ to warn people, or ‘Shoot!’ to give an order. On this model, hate speech is not the expression of hatred as when we say ‘I hate you!’, but rather it is speech used to encourage people to hate. If we accept this distinction, then hate speech would not come under the remit of the constitutivist defence of tolerance and cannot be opposed or defended on those grounds, because it is not an expression of an opinion at all (arguably) and so not subject to rational scrutiny.

What we might do instead is to view hate speech as a kind of behaviour, like warnings and orders are behaviours, and judge it as such. We judge other behaviours by asking what are the reasons for it, what tells in favour of the behaviour, what values apply to it and so forth. The promotion of hatred is not a good reason in anyone’s book. So seeking to restrict hate speech is not an issue about tolerance of other people’s opinions, it is an issue about what we think about certain kinds of behaviour.


Social networking sites with misogynistic messages (May, 2013) Huffington Post.
Muslims against crusades (June, 2010) YouTube.
(See also Hornsby and Raz in bibliography)


Shall we tolerate propaganda?

Propaganda, as the use of communication intended to influence our thinking and our behaviour, is an expression of opinion with very specific aims. The constitutivist defender of tolerance may not like it but it does not look that she can do anything more than change the style of communication. For example she can ask: is the aim good? If so, what tells in its favour? Is the product good? If so, why? This type of reasoning of course can be hindered by threats, bribes, relentless advertising campaigns etc. But these are the kinds of obstacles to freedom of thought and so to reasoning, which we considered earlier. So the constitutivist can justifiably oppose them.


Political propaganda and its uses (May, 2013)
Marketing propaganda (September, 2009) The Inquirer
(See Marcuse and O’Neill in the Bibliography)

Tit for tat

Shall we occasionally suspend tolerance towards the intolerant?

This is the tit for tat, strategy: if you shout me down I will shout you down. This need not be literal: people can use their power and money to block access to different views, or they can sneer at and ridicule their opponents. So it seems that counteracting this by similar strategies is justified; however it is not justified on the constitutivist defence of tolerance. Reason requires freedom and good reasoning is critical reasoning. There is no space here for an exception as described in the tit for tat.


Student Protest stops David Willett’s speech on the future of the university (November, 2011) Varsity.
(see Kymlicka and O’Neill in the bibliography)

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