Many people mistakenly think it is more loving and tolerant to be a moral relativist. A contemporary view of tolerance says that it is morally wrong to judge another person’s beliefs or actions as wrong. Therefore, to be tolerant of another person or culture is to accept all beliefs and behaviours as true and right for them. Tolerance just becomes the application of moral relativism. But is this reasoning valid? What is tolerance? This may seem like a simple question with an obvious answer. But is it?
Many pundits have pointed out that there seem to be two views of tolerance in play in our world. I like to call them Classical Tolerance and Confused Tolerance.
You will understand why I call the second view Confused Tolerance once we examine it. One could also call this view Universal, Absolute or Indiscriminate Tolerance. It could also be called the modern or even postmodern view in contrast to Classical Tolerance, because Confused Tolerance is the view that has been promoted most successfully over at least the last 60 years.
Avoidance of disagreement or disapproval
The root of Confused Tolerance is “open-mindedness” which then easily morphs into “avoidance of all disagreement or disapproval” in order to eliminate conflict and lead to more peaceable outcomes. Moral relativism allegedly allows one to avoid disagreement and disapproval by claiming all views are ‘true’ in some strange, unorthodox, and incoherent sense of the term ‘true’.
However, in order to circumvent conflict by avoiding disagreement or disapproval, one must ignore the role that understanding the difference between truth and falsehood plays in thought and life. This is significant since, as many sages have pointed out, in the absence of truth, all that is left is power! If you really want to avoid conflict and enhance peace, you don’t want moral decisions being made on the basis of who has the most power, rather than who has understood what is true. The history of the human race should provide enough evidence for this incontrovertible principle.
“Avoidance of disagreement or disapproval” as the fundamental basis for tolerance will not lead to peace. Disagreement or disapproval will not be eliminated--it will just change those with whom you disagree and those of whom you disapprove. You will disagree with and disapprove of those who don’t think tolerance is essentially avoidance of disagreement or disapproval, as well as those who think objective moral truth exists, and you will be at the mercy of whoever manages to gain power.
Tolerance makes sense only within the framework of a moral order.
Philosopher Francis Beckwith contends that, in contrast to relativism, a moral order of objective moral truth is required for tolerance: “Tolerance makes sense only within the framework of a moral order, for it is within such a framework that one can morally justify tolerating some things while not tolerating others. Tolerance without a moral framework, or absolute tolerance, leads to dogmatic relativism, and thus to an intolerance of any viewpoint that does not embrace relativism.”1
In the absence of such an objective moral order, tolerance or intolerance make no sense, and yet we all know that there are some barbaric behaviours that should not be tolerated, like torturing toddlers for sport, racism, denials of basic human rights, etc. Of course, there is always a need for reasoned, principled discussion about precisely which behaviours should and should not be tolerated (a process that relativism short circuits with its dogmatic, absolutist dictum that all thoughts, speech, and actions must be tolerated because of open-mindedness, cultural diversity and the axiom to avoid disagreement or disapproval), but we know that at least some behaviours violate some objective moral principles even if it is not always easy to determine which ones to tolerate and which ones to not tolerate. That is all we need to understand that morality is objective, not relative (a matter of opinion). In addition, when tolerance just becomes the application of moral relativism, then all the criticisms of moral relativism rightly become criticisms of tolerance, so understood.
Open-mindedness is a good posture to take as long as it is not taken to the extreme of an absolute. We should be open to discourse and persuasion to consider other ideas, but it does not follow that we must affirm all ideas as true, and stop using our critical faculties. But this is what relativism does. It indiscriminately makes all claims true.
Trying to apply the value of tolerance without an objective moral order just leads to confusion and more untethered intolerance. It is no surprise that thought leaders of the very movements that have been promoting tolerance and relativism have never actually endorsed universal, absolute, indiscriminate tolerance but always taught intolerance of some thoughts, speech and actions are necessary. (Ironically, but not surprisingly, the dividing lines between what is to be tolerated and not tolerated is influenced, if not determined, by the values one holds and are believed to apply to everyone equally and objectively.)
Herbert Marcuse, for example, the mid-20th-century neo-Marxist, and influential proponent of cultural revolution, alleged that tolerance had its limits and needed to give way to intolerance of, not just actions, but thoughts and speech that undermined liberation and progress toward a Marxist utopian vision.2
Proponents of confused tolerance claim that tolerance and relativism are guiding principles, but in fact have their own hidden agenda based on an objective moral order of their own (Marxism, the sexual revolution, etc.) It should come as no surprise that the current generation of followers has shifted precipitously to the intolerance end of the spectrum since the foundation for doing so was inherent in the ideology and just took time and the internet to logically work its way through to the masses (cancel culture, antifa).
There is confusion between the admirable quality of tolerance for different views and the absurd position that all claims can be or even must be equally true.
In contrast, Classical Tolerance is based on disagreement! Without disagreement, there is nothing to tolerate! Tolerance only becomes a ‘thing’ when there is disagreement or disapproval about the truth of the matter.
Tolerance is understood classically as holding that one’s own view is true and her opponent’s false, but one still respects her opponent as a person and her right to hold and make a case for her views without threat of bullying, violence, or coercion. I think Alastair Roberts has it exactly right, “Tolerance refers to the indulgence and protection of people and practices we find objectionable on moral or other grounds: ‘for a person to ‘tolerate’ something, she actually has to believe the object in question is deficient, false, or wrong in some way’”.3
Even those from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum agree that genuine tolerance includes disagreement, “Tolerance is also not the same thing as acceptance — it's agreeing to set differences aside, not the resolution of differences.”4
“True tolerance is where we extend to each other the right to be wrong. False tolerance, on the other hand, naïvely asserts that all ideas are created equal and this must be rejected. Not only is this obviously false, it’s unlivable.”5
We are truly tolerant when we respect the rights of others to hold a different view without the threat of violence or coercion. But we may still be firmly committed to another point of view as being true. The great value of tolerance in no way excuses us from resolving conflicting claims to truth.
We can be truly tolerant without accepting another person's beliefs. Tolerance has nothing to do with accepting another person's belief, only his right to have that belief.
Classical tolerance, which is genuine tolerance, demands love and respect for persons, not acceptance or affirmation of all ideas. Tolerance does not, therefore, necessitate moral relativism. Relativizing moral truth makes the concept of tolerance unintelligible at best and intolerant at worst. Tolerance fits much more neatly, is much more consistent within a framework of objective moral truth.
Indiscriminate or Discerning
Moreover, if indiscriminate tolerance is confused tolerance, as I am arguing, then genuine tolerance should be discriminating in some positive sense of the term — recognizing distinctions; discerning — possibly like an art collector uses discriminating taste in purchasing art. Or perhaps even better, the insight and discernment a scientist or philosopher employs in searching for truth.
A person who wants to be genuinely tolerant needs to engage in an insightful, discerning, discriminating mental process sorting out true ideas from false ones, as well as treating people who disagree with his conclusions with grace, respect, civility, and the freedom to hold a divergent view without threat of violence or coercion. Genuine tolerance includes a discriminating, discerning approach to ideas, not absolute relativism.
Finally, to see how convoluted the association between tolerance and cultural moral relativism is, consider these two revealing observations:
- one ought to be tolerant if the principle of tolerance is in one’s culture’s moral code, but in the same way, one ought to be intolerant if intolerance is part of one’s culture’s moral code?!
- if everyone ought to be tolerant, then tolerance is an objective moral value for all, which entails that relativism is false!
With these two considerations in mind, together with what we’ve already seen above about the modern version of tolerance (that claims one should never judge another’s viewpoint as wrong), it’s clear that the admirable value of tolerance is a much better fit with objective morality, rather than cultural moral relativism.
I think that already in our Western culture many people have an intuitive sense that something is very “off” with how the concept of tolerance has been working itself out in relation to morality in our society. Many people are intuitively aware of how faulty the “modern” confused version of tolerance is and why we should embrace, even cling to the classical version and its connection with an objective understanding of morality. The classical version of tolerance has the proper understanding of all the true and beneficial features of the value of tolerance without the incoherent, contradictory characteristics of the modern confused version which isn’t actually tolerance.
Jonathan Morrow’s summary affirms what we have contended, “Contrary to what is commonly believed, the height of intolerance is not disagreement, but rather removing the public space and opportunity for people to disagree. You can still love someone and think they are wrong about important moral and spiritual questions.”6
Another reason why tolerance does not necessitate relativism is that relativism itself is judgmental, exclusive, and partisan, which is contrary to the Modern (Confused) concept of Tolerance. Relativism dogmatically asserts that there is no objective moral truth.
- Judgmental: if you believe in objective moral truth you are wrong - hence cultural moral relativism is judgmental.
- Exclusive: cultural moral relativism excludes belief in objective moral truth as a legitimate option.
- Partisan: all non-relativists are not members of the correct thinking party.7
Moreover, combining the modern (Confused) concept of tolerance with cultural moral relativism repudiates relativism. If relativism teaches that diversity of moral views demands tolerance, the relativist is obligated to tolerate a culture forcing girls to undergo female circumcision, or foot binding, or arranged child/adult marriage, or being burned to death to honour her dead husband, or any other act from which a person may be trying to escape, even if that is rape, torture or murder. Human rights activist Xiorong Li concludes, “ethical relativism is thus repudiated by itself.”8
To be truly tolerant then, one does not only not need to be a moral relativist, but one should not be a moral relativist!
Together with the Top 10 Reasons Why Cultural Moral Relativism Fails this proper understanding of tolerance makes up a good portion of the overall case why philosophers point to cultural moral relativism as being an abject failure. As a university instructor of a freshman ethics course for 20 years, I can affirm what most philosophy instructors know — that first-year students need to learn these truths very early in their education.
I, along with probably most philosophy professors, resonate with the Roman philosopher Cicero when he asserts, “Only a madman could maintain that the distinction between honourable and dishonourable, between virtue and vice, is only a matter of opinion.”9
Still another reason that many people claim to be moral relativists is the existence of seemingly unresolvable moral dilemmas. As a result, they think that moral absolutes are impossible and relativism is the only other option. These conclusions too are misguided. I explain why in the next article in this series: You Do Not Have To Be A Moral Relativist To Resolve Moral Dilemmas.
- Beckwith, F.J. “Why I Am Not a Moral Relativist”, p.25, in Why I Am A Christian by Geisler, N.L. & Hoffman, P.K., Baker Books, 2001, pp.15-29.
- Herbert Marcuse, “Repressive Tolerance”, in A Critique of Pure Tolerance, Beacon Press, 1970, https://www.marcuse.org/herbert/publications/1960s/1965-repressive-tolerance-fulltext.html “The uncertainty of chance in this distinction does not cancel the historical objectivity, but it necessitates freedom of thought and expression as preconditions of finding the way to freedom--it necessitates tolerance. However, this tolerance cannot be indiscriminate and equal with respect to the contents of expression, neither in word nor in deed; it cannot protect false words and wrong deeds which demonstrate that they contradict and counteract the' possibilities of liberation. Such indiscriminate tolerance is justified in harmless debates, in conversation, in academic discussion; it is indispensable in the scientific enterprise, in private religion. But society cannot be indiscriminate where the pacification of existence, where freedom and happiness themselves are at stake: here, certain things cannot be said, certain ideas cannot be expressed, certain policies cannot be proposed, certain behavior cannot be permitted without making tolerance an instrument for the continuation of servitude.”
- Alastair Roberts, Why American Elites Support Same-Sex Marriage, JULY 25, 2018, review of From Tolerance to Equality: How Elites Brought America to Same-Sex Marriage, Darel E. Paul, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/reviews/from-tolerance-equality/
- Khaavren, Zunger: Tolerance is not a moral precept, https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2017/1/5/1617520/-Zunger-Tolerance-is-not-a-moral-precept
- Jonathan Morrow, What is True Tolerance?, https://www.jonathanmorrow.org/14-what-is-true-tolerance/
- Beckwith, F.J. “Why I Am Not a Moral Relativist”, p.25, in Why I Am A Christian by Geisler, N.L. & Hoffman, P.K., Baker Books, 2001, pp.15-29
- Cicero cited in George Grant, Philosophy in the Mass Age. (Copp Clark, 1966) pp.35-36.