Photo Credit: James Cridland
We all live in a world characterized by social diversity. Some communities may appear homogeneous, but our reality is that ethnic, religious, cultural, gender, sexual, and ideological differences are never far away. Although many individuals cherish this diversity and see it as a source of social richness, there remain many who see such differences as a threat to their own identity. When those who feel threatened by social differences attempt to eradicate or suppress them, conflict results. This presents political philosophers with their biggest challenge: securing peace.
When the liberal political philosophers of Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries faced the widespread religious conflicts surrounding them, they proposed the concept of toleration as the most effective solution. As the political philosopher John Horton characterizes it, toleration entails a principled decision to refrain from interfering with an object of difference that causes dislike or disapproval — even, and especially, when one has the power to stop it as part of a majority group or powerful minority.
Toleration is a concept that contains a few fundamental components. First, there are two subjects, a tolerating subject and a tolerated subject. Next, there is an object of toleration, a belief, behavior, or attitude that triggers a negative feeling on the part of the tolerating subject. Finally, there is a deliberate decision not to impose one’s will on subjects who elicit dislike or disapproval.
Why would one deliberately refrain from putting a stop to things that cause dislike or disapproval? This is the so-called “paradox of toleration.” We can provide at least four grounds by which this paradox can be overcome. These are: prudence, skepticism, autonomy, and freedom of conscience.
Prudence reminds us of the consequences of intolerance. The costs that one can incur while indulging in intolerance can be very high, so prudence suggests tolerance instead. Skepticism can remind the tolerant person that true certainty is rare, and that his or her own position could be wrong. Imposing one’s position on others is inherently unjust — and all the more unjust when that position contains a degree of uncertainty — so it is better to leave others alone. Autonomy is a fundamental principle of liberalism that entails respect for the free decisions of other individuals. As John Stuart Mill argued in his seminal work On Liberty, only an autonomous life can truly bring about individual happiness.
Finally, freedom of conscience is predicated on the principle that every individual has an inherent sense of right and wrong. Feelings of fulfillment and happiness can result from following the dictates of one’s own conscience, or remorse from failing to do so. We have a fundamental interest in the ability to lead a life in accordance to the dictates of our own consciences, so we should not be forced to do things contrary to our consciences.
Toleration is a humble principle. It does not demand one to cherish or to positively support the things that one dislikes. A tolerant person instead leaves those things alone. In this way, the difference has a chance to exist and perhaps demonstrate its value to the world. In a tolerant society, individuals are not oppressed for their uncommon ways of thinking, speaking, or acting, as long as they do not cause concrete harm to other individuals’ basic human rights of life, liberty and property.
When this tolerant mode is practiced by individuals — and, even more importantly, by the state — the possibility of social conflict is reduced. A peaceful society is the proper environment for individuals to put their talents and creative energies into work, and a tolerant society has much better chances not only of being peaceful, but also of building a prosperous future.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.