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How does toleration fit into a pluralistic society?

A truly diverse society exudes open-mindedness, not just reluctant acceptance of differing viewpoints.

CHANDRAN KUKATHAS: I think of toleration as really a response to the fact of pluralism. So in that sense toleration is the normative principle whereas pluralism I think of as the condition of the world. I suppose just to complicate things a little bit one could think about pluralism as itself a kind of principle. So if one says one is a pluralist what one means, I think, one recognizes the diversity of ethical views out there and one's attitude therefore is tolerance or toleration. So in that sense pluralism sounds like it's also an ethical position. But the way I'm using it here I'm going to take it that pluralism is the condition, so toleration is the response to it. We accept that there is a plurality of perspectives on the world of ethical views and so on, and the attitude we take is that we accept these differences. We think that we should try to work around them. At some point it's going to be difficult because we may have about some issues very, very strong views and may not be willing to tolerate or accept certain forms of diversity. But I think the aim of the person who is moved by the idea of toleration is to go as far as possible, to recognize that others may themselves think about our own views as somehow distasteful or repugnant or immoral.

Within the theory of liberalism what's dominated for sometime really, probably the last 50 or 60 years is the idea that justice is the most important value for trying to understand the good society and even for understanding the free society. But I think that the classical liberal tradition really is one that sees toleration as much more important. Now it hasn't always been explicitly so, but I think if one looks at the origins of liberal thinking, at least in the modern world, then toleration becomes much more important. And the reason for this is that I think liberal thinking really arises out of a reflection on the fact that people disagree substantially about things. They have different ways of life, especially I think in Europe they had different religious convictions although different religious convictions within Christian traditions. And one of the theories that came out of this was a theory of how to deal with these differences, and the solution was to develop norms of toleration, norms that suggest that what you should do is try not to reconcile differences by coming to a mind about fundamental principles. By definition these were things that were disagreed about. The solution was to try to find a way of not so much reconciling as accommodating differences.

So in principle the idea of toleration is what makes most sense. Now, one of the difficulties I think that came up straightaway though was that there's a question about what one should do when toleration threatens to break down. And one very prominent answer to this has been, and especially in modern liberal thinking has been what we do is we appeal to principles of justice to settle this question of what are the limits of toleration. But the problem here is that if justice is itself something that we can disagree about then to appeal to justice would really just beg the question because we'd be appealing to something that we say is the correct view when we started off with a problem that we don't agree about what the correct view is. So I think the retreat to justice as the solution to establishing the limits of toleration is extremely problematic. That's why I think for classical liberals the principle of toleration is really much more important and should have the status of a freestanding principle, not one that is somehow subordinate to considerations of justice.

I think the purpose of the principle of toleration is to offer a little bit of guidance into thinking about how one understands a good society under conditions of pluralism or diversity. It doesn't go too much further in the sense that it doesn't help us, for example, settle on how to establish determinately what the law should be or how we should settle particular questions. I think what it really does is suggest that the way to go is to think about how one can reach some kind of understanding by accommodating differences in diversity. One can think about toleration in that sense in a number of different ways. One can think of it in a very minimal way. One can think about being tolerant in the sense of just being willing to put up with something. Or one can think about toleration as something a bit more expansive, something that is of virtue in the sense that one not only accepts reluctantly but actually accepts with a kind of open spirit to think okay, I will not only not exercise violence to force my views upon you, but I might actually also go a little bit further to try to understand your point of view. I think that's the more capacious kind of toleration. So there's quite a wide range of attitudes that you could take if you accepted the principle of toleration. But just saying I accept the principle of toleration wouldn't be enough to actually say exactly where you stood on a whole range of things.

  • While pluralism is considered a condition, toleration is the response to it. To recognize and accept a diverse range of perspectives on ethical views is to exhibit tolerance.
  • Singapore Management University professor Chandran Kukathas points to toleration as a cornerstone of the classical liberal tradition. In fact, liberal thought arises from the reality that people disagree substantially on any number of things.
  • The principle of toleration offers guidance in understanding what makes a good society, as well as how that society upholds conditions of pluralism and diversity.
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