The Philosophy Resource

Teaching resources for philosophy students and teachers

What is tolerance?

Tolerance is a value: it’s something we should care about. It involves showing respect for each other’s opinions and points of view. ‘Respect’ in this context does not have the usual connotations of admiration and approval, because we might find infuriating, wrong, or silly what others are saying, but still tolerate it. Respect is best understood here as regard for another’s freedom to voice their opinion.

Tolerance for the individual & society

Tolerance can be a personal value, because each one of us can be tolerant of the opinions of others. It can also be a political value, if a whole society is tolerant. Although the behaviour of individuals in a society matters, most philosophers have been concerned to analyse and defend tolerance as a political value: one that a whole society should show. One reason for this is that unlike other values, such as compassion for example, it is possible to make laws to promote tolerance by protecting the right of individuals to express freely their opinions. An example of such a law in the UK is Article 10 of the Human Rights Act. Laws that afford such protection can in turn help create a culture of tolerance. The aim of this section is to give a more precise definition of tolerance and then examine why we should be tolerant.

Article 10 Human Rights Act

In the UK, Article 10 of the Human Rights Act is such a law since 1998:

  1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This Article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.
  2. The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.

Click here to view the whole Human Rights Act. Click here to view a clear analysis from a legal perspective from Liberty, a civil liberties organisation.

Identifying tolerance

How do we know whether an individual is tolerant? We know it if, when she is exposed to opinions she does not share, she behaves politely towards the people who express them. If by contrast she is among people who agree with her, we cannot tell whether she is tolerant or not. Similarly, in order to tell whether a society can justly claim that it is tolerant, it must be reasonably pluralistic: if in other words there must be a diversity of views within that society. We can tell if a society is tolerant if there is a diversity of views within it and the people who express them are not persecuted. It seems then that in order to demonstrate tolerance, you need diversity of opinion. However it also looks as if you can only have diversity of opinion in a society, if the society is already tolerant (otherwise people will be scared to voice their opinion or will already be in prison or in exile, fleeing persecution). This looks paradoxical. So has something gone wrong here?

Note that when we speak of diversity of opinions, we speak about a fact: the fact that there are lots of different points of view. When we speak about tolerance we speak about a value, which tells us how we should behave when confronted with this fact: that we should respect these different points of view. Tolerance is hard to achieve because individuals within a society manifest it, when they are exposed to a diversity of points of view; and societies manifest it when they are able to protect such diversity. But at the personal level, the more we care for the matter about which we disagree the harder it is to behave tolerantly, and the more loathsome we find the views expressed the less we want to be tolerant. The difficulty then at the social level is to ensure that minority points of view are protected, no matter how strongly the majority opinion is against them.

‘In the practice of tolerance, your enemy is the best teacher’ – Dalai Lama XIV, Kindness, Clarity, and Insight, Snow Lion Publications 2006, p.19

Given that tolerance is such a hard value to practice, there had better be a good justification for it (reasons why we should practice it). The two dominant answers to the question ‘why be tolerant?’ in the tradition of philosophical writings about tolerance are: instrumentalist and rights-based.

Instrumentalist justifications

Say that we should be tolerant because tolerance allows us to obtain other things we value, and therefore it has instrumental value. For example, if I have £50.00 in my pocket, it has instrumental value because it allows me to buy things I want. The instrumentalist view of tolerance says that we should be a tolerant society because it allows us to do or get other things we want. A good example of a defender of the instrumental value of tolerance is John Stuart Mill.  

Rights-based justifications

Say that we should consider tolerance as a basic value of human society and therefore protect it as a basic right. Other examples of supposedly basic values can include justice, or autonomy. If we think of a value as basic for a society, then it is important to recognise it as a right within that society so that it can be part of the basic constitution, the legal blueprint for the society. This is what rights-based approaches to toleration do. The next section contains some passages that illustrate these two approaches.

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