Toleration & Judging

My book, Toleration, is now available so I thought I would write up a few posts related to it. This first post will also be up on Polity’s blog. For some comments about the book, see Polity’s website. You can also order the book from Wiley; if you do, you can use discount code PY532 for 20% off.

So, Toleration and Judging:

In the contemporary west (and perhaps elsewhere), many of us like to think we are open to meeting and having friendships with all sorts of people that are different from us. We might have our own religious or moral beliefs, but we think of ourselves as beyond having to impose them on others. So we meet others with views that can’t be true if ours are and we think “they are entitled to their views.” With that firmly established in our minds, we think we can have an honest and respectful relationship with the other. We think we can and should tolerate everyone else. Live and let live. So far so good.

Too often, however, the “live and let live” attitude is thought the opposite of a proselytizing dogmatism. Proselytizing dogmatists, as I understand them, are uncomfortable with their own beliefs not being accepted by others and seek to convince everyone they meet of those beliefs. These people are seemingly so convinced of their own beliefs that they can’t tolerate others not accepting them as true.

We seem to have two possibilities: (1) those thoroughly committed to the truth of their own views and, so, unwilling to accept that others can’t come to see the truth of these views and (2) those who live and let live, presumably not very committed to their own beliefs. The non-proselytizer, it seems, isn’t willing to say others are wrong. Indeed, we often hear it said that we can’t (or shouldn’t) judge others or their beliefs and so must tolerate them. Toleration, on that view, is based in our inability to judge others, perhaps because of a recognition of our own fallibility. But, of course, if we are fallible with regard to our other beliefs, we are fallible with regard to our belief that toleration is a value!

We are, indeed, fallible. I don’t think anything follows from this with regard to toleration (see Chapter 7, section E). It is perfectly reasonable to think toleration is a value while recognizing one’s own fallibility. One may be wrong, but to say one thinks X is to say, “given all else I know, I think X and I will maintain X until shown that X is false.” As Joseph Schumpeter said “To realise the relative validity of one’s convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly, is what distinguishes a civilized man from a barbarian.” Indeed, it seems entirely natural to be willing to stand for one’s beliefs unflinchingly, recognizing one’s judgments may nonetheless be wrong. Importantly, moreover, that willingness to judge is necessary for toleration (and, I think, part of a good life—consider someone unwilling to judge a chain-saw wielding hockey-masked stranger). This is an important and sometimes overlooked fact. To tolerate something is, in part, to refrain from interfering with it, but not every instance of noninterference is an instance of toleration. I can watch my son play with his wooden trains for hours without interfering. No one would say I tolerate his play. If I said “yes, I tolerate his play,” I imagine people would wonder about my parenting. This is because saying I tolerate the train play implies that I dislike or disapprove of it—that is, saying that in some way, I oppose it. But I don’t oppose it. I love it. (This is also why multiculturalism, as advocacy of multiple cultures, is not a form of toleration; it is a form of endorsement rather than indication of opposition.)

Saying I tolerate X means, in part, that I have made a judgment that X is something in need of toleration, something not thought worthwhile or good, morally or otherwise. If I make no judgment against X, I cannot (conceptually) tolerate X. This suggests that the two possible positions noted in my third paragraph above are not exhaustive of the possibilities. This is a good thing for BHLs and libertarians generally because neither of those positions seems quite suited to us. A third sort of person is indeed missing: (3) those thoroughly committed to their own views, willing to judge that others’ or others’ beliefs are worth opposing and yet insistent that—at least in some of those cases—the others must be tolerated.

“Advocating toleration does not mean advocating some wishy-washy namby-pamby way of being that requires you to refrain from judging others” (page 2). To be an advocate of toleration is to think toleration is objectively valuable—that is, to think it something all should value, not something one merely endorses as good for oneself but perhaps not good for others. Tolerating others requires opposing them in some way–judging that that there is something to oppose. The big question, for me, is “why should we tolerate what we oppose?” In the book, I lay out different principles that indicate when we should tolerate and when the limits of toleration have been transgressed. I endorse one of these and indicate why I reject the others—though I suspect others will think at least one of those others must be endorsed as well. I will tolerate that.

  • Farstrider

    Recognizing that this is a blog post and not the actual book, and admitting that I have not read the book, I’d like to hear more about the difference between toleration of bad ideas and toleration of people who have bad ideas, because I think that is a distinction lost in the post. To be more concrete about this, I regard proselytizing as a morally permissible activity – perhaps even a moral obligation depending on the viewpoint expressed or challenged – even if that proselytizing takes the form of blasphemy and ridicule and deeply offends people to their core. No one has a moral right to be free from offense generally, and I do not see “tolerance” as a moral value if it is synonymous with suppression of criticism. But “tolerance” is a moral value to the extent it means not using violence or other punishment against those who have bad ideas. And I’ll confess that these beliefs stem from the epistemological uncertainty I have in my own beliefs. I may be wrong about my beliefs, but the only way I’ll learn that is through free exchange of ideas. Punishment never changed anyone’s mind.

    • Andrew

      I think we agree. I treat toleration of people and toleration of ideas
      as the same sort of activity in the sense that I think there is only 1
      thing that justifies an end to toleration–harm. Ideas are, I assume,
      less likely to be harmful. Toleration is thus definitely not the
      suppression of criticism. Indeed, one of the arguments for toleration
      is based on the need for criticism–along the lines you suggest.

  • Jerome Bigge

    I think “minding your own business” is a part of being a libertarian. We have far too many “do gooders” who make things worse instead of better. A lot of regulation is of this nature. It may in fact make things worse in that it denies people the right to use their own talents to support themselves.

  • judd

    God damn, this blog is awesome. Happy third year anniversary guys and great post Andrew!

    • Nicolas Leobold

      Should they call it Blood Donating Libertarians? lol

    • Andrew


      • judd

        You’re welcome. I really look forward to picking up the book sometime soon 🙂

  • TracyW

    You miss a category: those so convinced of their beliefs that they wish to squash any expression of disagreement, by law or even by violence. They don’t care what people believe, just what they say.

    • Andrew

      I guess that would be a subcategory of the proselytizing dogmatists. Or maybe a more extreme sort thereof.

  • Sean II

    I think you may have missed the key psychological feature of intolerant people…which is precisely that they lack confidence in their own beliefs.

    There is a perfectly good reason why, say, Islamists and Evangelican Christians defend their views with prickly heat. They don’t have anything else. They believe in magic carpets and suspiciously capacious arks, and they know this means starting from a big disadvantage. Their fanaticism is not the product of certainty, but of certain weakness.

    Same goes for lefty radicals. If the view you’re flogging in life is that men and women are identical, then…you damn well better be intolerant of anyone who disagrees, or you’re going to lose every time.

    • Andrew

      I suspect that what you say is close to right, but didn’t want to get into the psychology behind those who are are uncomfortable with their own beliefs not being accepted by others and seek to convince everyone.

      • Sean II

        I can see why. That would be a massive topic, all by itself.

  • I reach similar conclusions in this recent paper of mine: (E. Rossi, 2013, ‘Can Tolerance Be Grounded in Equal Respect?’, European Journal of Political Theory 12.3: 240-252.) I find it comforting that even a libertarian endorses a teleological justification of toleration. Glen Newey’s latest book on the subject makes that case very convincingly.

    • Andrew

      Am I right to assume that the recent paper further develops the sort of arguments in your Kennedy I. of E. Journal piece? I’ll download it soon. Glen Newey is, to my mind, doing some of the best work on toleration today. Perhaps the best. I should note, though, that I am not all that interested in justifying toleration on its own. My real interest is in determining its normative limits. I do both in the book, but also explain why I think the former is less interesting.

      • Er, I don’t have a piece in that journal. But yes, I agree that the really interesting issue is toleration’s limits. I just happen to think that the best way to characterize the limits is an account of the justification of toleration.

        • Andrew

          This caught me by surprise so I quickly checked the piece. Its by someone named John Rossi and about equal consideration being compatible with unequal status. Sorry for my confusion!

  • Les Kyle Nearhood

    My view of tolerance is quite different. It is not that you are unsure of your beliefs or that you think the other guys might have a point, It is merely that in order for society to function, you keep your mouth shut most of the time.

    • Andrew

      That seems problematic. Too many people kept their mouths shut when the Nazi’s came to power. Society functioned (in some sense).

  • martinbrock

    In your view, my view is radical multiculturalism rather than radical toleration. I’m not sure of many things, but I am sure that most of what we call “truth” and practically all of what we call “moral” is a subjective preference and not “objective” or “universal” in any meaningful sense.

    My own preferences are conventional enough in my own cultural context, but I don’t actually believe that diverse ways of thinking, including religious zealotry incorporating racism or sexism or homophobia, are wrong, only that I don’t share their particular, axiomatic assumptions. I don’t think they’re right either.

    Most propositions that human beings take for granted are either formally undecidable or predicated upon unscientific, axiomatic assumptions. “Unscientific” is not a dirty word here. It’s only a description of the assumptions that people routinely make and without which no person could incorporate a worldview sufficiently complete to motivate his day to day interaction with other people. Acting on faith is necessary.

    Though I firmly oppose violent imposition, I can even say that opposition to violence is not objectively or universally moral in my way of thinking. The liberal archipelago that I imagine is not more moral than others. It is only less violent, because people disagreeing strongly enough to interact violently are beyond one another’s reach. This organization of humanity is my strongly held preference, but it is nonetheless a subjective preference.

    • Andrew

      Martin-I’ve blogged about these topics before. You and I definitely disagree about much of this. See:


      • martinbrock

        Regarding the first post (as listed above), I’m a mathematician rather than a theologian, so I’ll use a different proposition to illustrate my point before considering your illustration.

        There exists a number, x, satisfying x*x = -1. (1)

        Is this proposition true or false or undecidable? I suppose the answer is “all of the above”. The answer is a matter of personal preference or practical utility.

        What does the “existence” of a number mean anyway? Numbers are abstractions. Do abstractions exist in the way that a marble exists? I can hold one marble in my hand, but I can’t hold the number one in my hand.

        The “truth” of (1) is matter of its relationship, within a logical system, to axiomatic assumptions. Depending on these assumptions, (1) may either be true or false or formally undecidable. With a theory of real numbers, (1) may be either false or formally undecidable. A theory of real numbers need formally rule out a number satisfying (1), but a theory formally admitting such a number becomes a theory of complex numbers rather than a theory of real numbers.

        Now, everything I’ve just said is simply a matter of semantics conventional among mathematicians. I’m only discussing the tautological definitions of words like “number’ and “product” and “equal” and “real” and “complex” in a specialized context.

        A theory of “number” accepting the “truth” of (1) can be useful, but a theory of “number” rejecting or simply ignoring its truth is also useful. In fact, the vast majority of people understand a theory of “number” in which (1) is either false or undecidable, and this theory suffices for everything they ever wish to do with “numbers”.

        Quantum Mechanics is the quintessential example of a scientific theory incorporating complex numbers explicitly, but a theory without complex numbers, meaningfully describing what Quantum Mechanics describes, is conceivable, so Quantum Mechanics itself is not proof that complex numbers “really” exist or that (1) is universally “true”, only that complex numbers useful in formulating a theory describing reality.

        So what about “God exists and is omnibeneficent”? If we parse this statement long enough, I suppose we’ll find that it is also either true or false or undecidable depending upon logical assumptions that may be very useful in terms of interacting with other human beings but are not strictly necessary meaningfully to describe scientific observations.

        • Andrew


          All of this is simply puzzling to me. I assume you think
          the first part is a way to defend subjectivism (though I do not
          understand why/how). If that is not the point, I am not sure what you are responding to. But then you say you don’t reject objectivity. Yet if everything is subjective, nothing is objective. So, something is amiss.

          Only one more thing for now: its not all semantics. Whether i is the square root of -1 is, I gather, an open question–useful in one mathematical scheme and perhaps not on another, without an objective fact of the matter (I gather this from what you say; I claim no expertise here). But whether God (or mountains, or cars, or…) exists or not is not like that. If God exists, atheists are objectively wrong–even if we can’t know it. If God does not exist, theists are wrong–even if we can’t know it. That is not a semantic issue but a question about what the facts of the world are.


          • martinbrock

            I’m not defending subjectivism or any other ism. I don’t suppose that everything is subjective, but I do use “subjective” to describe a lot more than you do.

            That i is the square root of -1 is not an open question. It is the definition of “i” in this context. Imaginary numbers “exist”, because mathematicians use “existence” this way in this context, because this formal convention is useful and for no other reason. We call these “existing” numbers “imaginary” precisely to emphasize the irony of using the words this way.

            God is not like a particular mountain or car (as opposed to Mountain or Car as abstract categories) in my way of thinking. God is more like the Universe. On the other hand, theologians differ widely on this point, and I’m not a theologian at all.

  • Conza

    Focusing here on the latter part of the para:

    “To maintain that no such thing as a rational ethic exists does not imply “tolerance” and “pluralism,” as champions of positivism such as Milton Friedman falsely claim, and moral absolutism does not imply “intolerance” and “dictatorship.” To the contrary, without absolute values “tolerance” and “pluralism” are just other arbitrary ideologies, and there is no reason to accept them rather than any others such as cannibalism and slavery. Only if absolute values, such as a human right of self-ownership exist, that is, only if “pluralism” or “tolerance” are not merely among a multitude of tolerable values, can pluralism and tolerance in fact be safeguarded.”

    — Hans-Hermann Hoppe, 1997. “The Western State as a Paradigm: Learning from History.” in Paul Gottfried, ed., Politics and Regimes: Religion & Public Life, Vol. 30, Edison, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

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