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Why Tolerance Is Different Than Acceptance


It was a pleasure to see my old acquaintance, Richard Samuelson, tackle the issue of toleration in a recent article here at The Federalist.

While it may not be a matter of life and death as it was when philosopher John Locke tackled the subject, it is quite important that we wrestle with it today with no less vigor than he did.

Unfortunately, Samuelson does not help clarify how we ought to think about toleration in the current polarized environment. His piece is a bit confusing and ultimately adopts a problematic approach that may play into the hands of the opponents of true, liberal toleration.

Samuelson’s thesis seems to be, in part, that Americans are adopting a post-modern understanding of toleration that is bigoted in its call for mere non-interference rather than respect for the position of others. He argues that this new understanding is akin to an “older definition of ‘toleration,’ according to which we hold our noses and tolerate people and practices we find repugnant.”

At the same time, however, Samuelson is saying that the problem with today’s politics and today’s understanding of “toleration” is that in the name of toleration, the government will use its coercive power to discriminate against religious institutions and those who wish to exercise their rights of conscience and association.

The construction here is a bit muddled. Parts of the essay indicate that he disagrees with the traditional understanding of toleration. He argues that religious liberty – and thus religious toleration – must be more than “an indulgence a superior gives to his inferiors, ‘tolerating’ practices and beliefs that he regards as repugnant, as one tolerates one’s in-law.”

But then in the next sentence and section he seems to be arguing something completely different: government interference with our rights to conscience, religion, and free association. He notes that “Neither ministers nor other citizens need to be given a license from the government to practice their religions” and then makes a case for free exercise and non-interference as crucial to our fundamental rights.

What It Means To Respect Others

Of course, this is entirely consistent with traditional toleration! If the basis of Samuelson’s problem with traditional toleration is that it merely indulges rather than respects the views of those we think are wrong, then that begs the question of what we mean by respect. Following the liberal understanding, I’d say respecting others means that we should avoid using force against them on the basis of their ideas, thoughts, or practices (as long as those don’t directly impinge on anyone else’s rights).

One cannot simultaneously accept the God denier and the God believer as equally correct.

But again, Samuelson seems to go beyond that given his besmirching of the traditional view. So what could that be, if not something closer to a demand for acceptance? But why must I respect something in that deeper way if I think it is wrong? For example, why should the lesbian “respect” someone who fundamentally disapproves of her identity? Why should the pro-lifer “respect” the abortion provider? Hate the sin, love the sinner? Sure. But Samuelson either seems to want more or is just making an argument for the old-style toleration as applied to his cherished views like religion while asking that people also be less “judgy” about those who share his preferences.

The problem with demanding something more than toleration — i.e., acceptance — for all is that acceptance is ineluctably partial. It cannot be universal. One cannot simultaneously accept the God denier and the God believer as equally correct. But toleration can and must be universal: if I demand, on the grounds of our common humanity, non-interference from those who disagree with me, I can and must do them the same justice.

The most generous reading would suggest that Samuelson is trying to square a circle by asking for something more than non-interference and something less than government action to force tolerance. But isn’t this then some form of minimal moral acceptance or inclusion? And isn’t this in some way a gentler version of the post-modern approach most conservatives dislike, with its soft relativism about ends and lack of judgment about fundamental values?

What Toleration Should And Shouldn’t Be

For those who either disagree with Samuelson or aren’t sure what to make of his argument, let me lay out what toleration should and shouldn’t be in a liberal order. Toleration can best be understood (and is similarly defined by others) as not using force or advocating the use of force against those who hold ideas and beliefs or who engage in practices that one thinks are wrong but which do not violate the person, property, or liberty of others. This classical liberal type of toleration shows proper respect for people as reasoning beings able to reach their own conclusions about the nature of the world and the most appropriate way to live and organize their lives. Recognition of another person’s right to his own thoughts and beliefs is also an essential foundation of civil discourse.

Without the institution of toleration, societies will slip into ignorance or the tyranny of unthinking acceptance.

So that we do not unwittingly go down the path of soft relativism or the tyranny of political correctness, it is important to recognize that toleration does not mean that we must be indifferent to, respect in a deep way, or be compelled to accept any belief or practice. In a free society, the sphere of ethical and scientific debate should be quite broad as people wrestle with questions about the proper way to live and the nature of justice. This means that — like goods and services in the economic marketplace — ideas and practices have to compete and be subject to robust criticism. If we have the confidence of our convictions, we should be open to vigorous challenge about the best ways of living consistent with our individual and societal flourishing. And we should be able to challenge others as we grope together towards truth.

Without the institution of toleration, societies will slip into ignorance or the tyranny of unthinking acceptance. This is why educational institutions like the ones I work at — the Charles Koch Institute and Charles Koch Foundation — should have a strong commitment to toleration. This is why we teach Locke and Mill in our classrooms. I’d also note that we fund academic research in order to expand the diversity of ideas consistent with the liberal spirit of inquiry and oppose efforts to use state power to squelch academic freedom.

If we don’t embrace the classical liberal understanding of toleration as I’ve described it, then we’ll have exactly what I believe Samuelson and so many others really fear: people forced to think and behave in a certain way and thus ultimately living in a less free society. Let ideas, debate, and freedom bloom.