Skip to main content

Mere Orthodoxy exists to create media for Christian renewal. Support this mission today.

Why Toleration is Not Enough

June 12th, 2015 | 6 min read

By Guest Writer

Bryan McGraw is Associate Professor of Politics at Wheaton College and lover of all things smoked BBQ.

Two groups lately have found themselves on the defensive politically and socially, and seem deeply befuddled as to why—and why it seems to have come out of nowhere.  Consider first our moral conservatives, those increasingly rare birds who think that not only is there some objective set of moral standards but also, generally, that those standards should be publicly recognized.  They’ve have been shocked (not as in “shocked, shocked!”) that lots of folks want to follow through on the premises of the sexual revolution and reorder how we think about marriage—and that, as with most social revolutions, if you don’t get on board, you’ll find yourself the object of social, economic, and political ostracism.  But consider also free-speech liberals, who also increasingly find themselves besieged as the places they once thought citadels of free expression—our colleges and universities—talk more about psychological safety and comfort than how the rough and tumble of opposing ideas benefits us all.

What gives?  Why can’t we just come to some reasonable disagreement about the many matters that divide us and figure out how to tolerate those differences?  Why can’t same-sex supporters just leave the marriage traditionalists alone?  What’s so terrible about having someone on campus who thinks things you find terrible?  Whatever happened to our traditions of principled toleration, both ask?

Of course, toleration has never been quite so pure or quite so purely embraced as we sometimes mythologize, but something significant has changed in our culture that has put both the moral conservative and free-speech liberal in a precarious position: toleration is, in the minds of many, no longer enough (if it ever was). The last few decades have witnessed a sea-change in the way a broad swathe of scholars and intellectuals think about the social and political response to moral pluralism.  Traditionally—at least for the past few hundred years—the standard response to pluralism has been toleration, by which we generally mean being willing to put up with something we find morally noxious on account of some other, more important, good.  Locke, in his Letter on Toleration (1689), argues for toleration among (most) Protestant churches because it helps secure civic concord and best respects the nature and limits of government.  (Those aren’t his only arguments, but I’ll return to this below).  This eventually gets expanded to include all Christian groups, and then others until you get to what I take to be the apotheosis of liberal toleration, John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle.”  On Mill’s view, society and government (and it matters that he includes both) can only coerce or even severely criticize individuals to prevent “harm” to others.  The Supreme Court, which has largely written Mill’s principles into its First Amendment speech jurisprudence, draws the circle of what counts as publicly actionable harm pretty narrowly: incitement to violence, libel, etc.  And so it has been a principle of American public life—certainly not observed consistently in practice—that the proper response to moral disagreement is to allow others their views, though within certain limits and with the caveat that toleration does not imply a duty to abstain from offering serious, even polemical, critiques.

We might ask, though, why Locke found it necessary to include in his Letter his distinctively religious arguments for toleration?  He starts the letter off suggesting that the “chief characteristickal mark” of the church is toleration.  (A mistake both theologically and sociologically).  Everyone I’ve ever read on this makes these sorts of claims at least somewhat instrumental—most everyone reading his essay would be Christian, and you should always appeal to your audience—or as a reflection of his own, fairly latitudinarian Christian views.  Perhaps that’s correct, but what I think is also true is that toleration as an abstract claim about leaving people alone only has real moral and political teeth provided that you have some good positive reason to tolerate.  Or, to use the language I offered above, when you tolerate some noxious practice or belief, you are always, inevitably tolerating with an eye toward some other good you interested in securing.  When you tolerate your irascible relative at family gatherings, you do so because the good of familial peace is worth tolerating for.  Locke’s argument for toleration works, insofar as it does, precisely because the goods it secures are worth putting up with your heretical neighbors.

So what does this have to do with the ostracism of moral conservatives and the retreat of free-speech liberals?  In relatively recent debates over toleration, there has developed a view that says toleration is simply not enough.  In tolerating others, we implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) communicate that what they do or believe is morally disreputable.  That can have serious effects, of course, on the tolerated’s sense of self-worth and her ability (or at least willingness) to live her life as she sees fit.  Instead of toleration, the argument goes, we should offer one another mutual respect or positive regard or, and this is the key move, recognition.  We need not morally endorse others’ lives full stop, but we should go beyond a grudging indifference to something like a decently warm encouragement.  And the reason, broadly speaking, we must do so is because the goods we thought we could secure via toleration are not enough to justify mere toleration.  They still leave those being tolerated the object of social opprobrium and thus at some real disadvantage—or worse.

Hence, it is not enough for gays and lesbians to achieve a rough degree of legal and political equality.  Nor is it enough for college students to hear arguments  that go to the heart of their own sense of identity.  Unless their moral lives are, in some real way, recognized and affirmed not only by public (or university) authorities and unless their fellow citizens (or students or speakers) can be counted on to do the same, real, substantive equality will remain elusive.

Ah, but this makes for the obvious question: if recognition, not toleration, is the rule of the day, why can’t moral conservatives or others with unpopular views make similarly structured claims and demand recognition for themselves?  Hey, they might say, we have a way of life and identity—give us recognition!  It’s a good question, and if you look around, you can see them making just this claim.  But it’s been mostly for naught, as our new cultural mandarins press their advantage and demand obeisance.  Recognition for me but not for thee.

This is both good news and bad news—but mostly, it turns out, bad news.  On the one hand, this sort of inconsistency helps reveal he incoherence at the heart of the recognition claim.  Given a certain range of moral and religious pluralism, it is quite impossible to extend recognition to all or even most ways of life, especially once recognition extends into our everyday social lives.  Recognition is, or at least can be, a zero-sum game, especially when the traditions involved are deeply opposed to one another. But this, and here is the bad news, does not mean that recognition is bound to fail.  Rather, I suspect this incoherence will make it a grand success, though not for all. What is lurking behind the purported argument for recognition—and toleration, for that matter—is the practice of moral judgment about what lives are in fact worth recognizing or tolerating and here is where the misunderstandings of moral conservatives and free-speech liberals will continue to lead to loss after loss.  It is not enough to merely beg for toleration on the grounds of tradition or conscience or some-such.  Nor is it enough to suggest, as Mill did, that it is worth our while to hear scandalous or provocative views.  For when our latter day inquisitors deny the demands for recognition or toleration, their reasons rely on the idea that the moral and psychological harms they suppose themselves to be enduring are caused by others’ morally problematic practices and beliefs.  It is the sheer existence (or at least their own awareness) of these terrible people and their ideas that seem to function as a standing rebuke to their own moral self-conceptions—and thus those terrible others must be marginalized and run out of even impolite company.

The implication here is obvious, if not altogether comforting: if moral conservatives and free-speech liberals are to find success, even if that just means being left alone, they will have to do more than just make ever louder claims in favor of toleration.  They will need to do the more laborious, painstaking work of making the case that the lives or practices they hold dear have real positive value, to convince our morally skeptical neighbors that a life lived in obedience to some great good (or even God!) is one worth living, that hearing and engaging claims that challenge, even hurt, your sense of yourself is of very real benefit.  I confess that I have no great confidence that success can be found in such an enterprise, but it really is our only option.