Tolerance is not a moral precept
The title of this essay should disturb you. We have been brought up to believe that tolerating other people is one of the things you do if you’re a nice person — whether we learned this in kindergarten or from Biblical maxims like “love your neighbor as yourself” and “do unto others.”
But if you have ever attempted to live your life this way, you will have seen it fail: “Why won’t you tolerate my intolerance?” This comes in all sorts of forms: accepting a person’s actively antisocial behavior because it’s just part of being an accepting group of friends; being told that prejudice against Nazis is the same as prejudice against Black people; watching people attempt to give “equal time” to a religious (or irreligious) group whose guiding principle is that everyone must join them or else.
Every one of these examples should raise your suspicions that something isn’t right; that tolerance be damned, one of these things is not like the other. But if you were raised with an intense version of “tolerance is a moral requirement,” then you may feel that this is a thought you should fight off.
Tolerance is not a moral absolute; it is a peace treaty. Tolerance is a social norm because it permits different people to live side-by-side without being at each other’s throats. It means that we accept that people may be different from us, in their customs, in their behavior, in their dress, in their hookup lives, and that if this doesn’t directly affect our lives, it is none of our business. But the model of a peace treaty differs from the model of a moral precept in one ordinary way: the protection of a peace treaty only extends to those willing to abide by its terms. It is an agreement to live in peace, not an agreement to be peaceful no matter the conduct of others. A peace treaty is not a suicide pact.
[Tolerance] is an agreement to live in peace, not an agreement to be peaceful no matter the conduct of others. A peace treaty is not a suicide pact.
When viewed through this lens, the problems above have clear answers. The antisocial member of the group, who harms other people in the group on a regular basis, need not be accepted; the purpose of your group’s acceptance is to let people feel that they have a home, and someone who actively attempts to thwart this is incompatible with the broader purpose of that acceptance. Prejudice against Nazis is not the same as prejudice against Blacks, because one is based on people’s stated opposition to their neighbors’ lives and safety, the other on a characteristic that has nothing to do with whether they’ll live in peace with you or not. Freedom of religion means that people have the right to have their own beliefs, but you have that same right; you are under no duty to tolerate an attempt to impose someone else’s religious laws on you.
This is a variation on the old witnessed that “your right to sway your knuckle completes where my nose starts.” We often leave behind (or disregard) that no right is absolute, because one person’s rights can conflict with another’s. This is why freedom of speech doesn’t protect extortion, and the right to bear arms doesn’t license armed robbery. Nor is this limited to rights involving the state; people can interfere with each other’s rights with no government involved, as when people use harassment to suppress other people’s speech. While both sides of that example say they are “exercising their free speech,” one of them is using their speech to prevent the other’s: these are not equivalent. The balance of rights has the structure of a peace treaty.
Unlike absolute moral precepts, treaties have remedies for breach. If one side has breached another’s rights, the injured party is no longer roped to respect the treaty rights of their assailant — and their response is not an identical disturbance of the rules, even if it looks superficially similar to the original breach. “Mommy, Timmy hit me back!” holds no more ethical weight among adults than it does among children.
After a breach, the moral rules which apply are not the rules of peace, but the rules of cracked peace, and the rules of war. We might ask, is the response proportional? Is it necessary? Does it serve the larger purpose of restoring the peace? But we do not take an invaded country to task for defending its borders.
Take the example of a group muffling another using harassment. Many responses may be adequate. Returning harassment in turn, for example, is likely to be proportional, albeit it is uncommonly effective — harassment usually occurs in a situation where the sides do not have equal power to harm each other in that way. On the other arm, acting to restrict the harassers’ capability to proceed in the future — even at the expense of limiting their right to speak — may be both proportional and effective. But lining the aggressors up against a wall and shooting them would not only be disproportionate, it would be unlikely to restore the peace.
No side, after all, will ever accept a peace in which their most basic needs are not sated — their safety, and their power to ensure that safety, most of all. The desire for justice is a desire that we each have such mechanisms to protect ourselves, while still remaining in the context of peace: that the rule of law, for example, will provide us remedy for breaches without having to entirely abandon all peace. Any “peace” which does not please this basic requirement, one which creates an existential threat to one side or the other, can never hold.
If we interpreted tolerance as a moral absolute, or if our rules of conduct were entirely blind to the situation and to previous deeds, then we would regard any measures taken against an aggressor as just as bad as the original aggression. But through the lens of a peace treaty, these measures have a different moral standing: they are implements which can restore the peace.
The model of a peace treaty highlights another challenge which tolerance always faces: peace is not always possible, because sometimes people’s interests are fundamentally incompatible. Setting aside the evident example of “I think you and your family should be dead!” (even tho’ that example may be far more common than we wish), there are many cases where such fundamental incompatibility can arise despite good faith on all sides.
Imagine, for example, that you had good reason to believe that a monster was on its way to attack your town, slaughtering everyone in its path. You and your fellow townsfolk would be wise to arm yourselves and set up a defensive perimeter. If the danger were clear and present, the monster visible on the horizon, you would rightly see anyone who didn’t participate without a good reason as a no-good freeloader.
Some failures to participate are more dangerous than others. If any noise might attract the monster’s attention, then dancing and reveling of any sort must be prohibited; you put not only yourself at risk, but everybody around you. If it’s a horror-movie monster, attracted by premarital hook-up, then this might be restricted as well. And what if some kinds of people pose a danger to the town by their very existence? Is it worth the town’s life to let them stay? A town in enough danger might make a moral choice to exile, or even sacrifice, some of its members.
But now imagine that half the town has good reason to fear this monster — credible reports from people they trust, centuries of documentation from other towns — while the other half has identically good reason to believe that these reports are fables. One side believes, in good faith, that these stringent rules are all that protect the town from a horrible fate; the other, that these rules harm, penalize, exile, or even kill them for no legitimate reason at all, other than the power of the very first side. So long as there is real uncertainty about the monster, each side has good reason to view the other as an existential threat.
This hypothetical is, of course, no hypothetical. For anyone who believes in a god who will torment unbelievers, the “monster” is divine fury. This is even more true if sin — which attracts this fury — can spread like a contagion through an entire community. If everything you have ever learned tells you that this is a real and present danger, and that certain members of the community — members of another religion, perhaps, or people of the wrong sexual orientation— are jeopardizing everyone’s safety, then a fundamental, existential conflict is inescapable.
Many of you are most likely reading this and telling that in this case, one side is right and the other is wrong, and the clear resolution is for one side to stop harming fellow members of the community. If one side were doing what it was doing in bad faith, that might be the response — but the point here is that if both sides were acting in ideal faith, for either side to concede would be a death sentence. In a situation like this, there can be no peace treaty; only war or separation.
Since separation is often just as unacceptable as surrender— one side essentially needing to flee and give up everything they have in the world, from their homes and their jobs to their social ties — it is uncommonly a meaningful solution. It does not conform to the requirements of real peace. (This is why “white separatism” is, in practice, just a rebranding of white supremacy; white separatists never seem to suggest that they should be the ones who should leave their homes and lives behind.)
As with any peace treaty, we must consider toleration in the broader context of the war which is its alternative, and we must recognize that peace is not always a possibility.
But let me suggest a petite measure of hope. Among the worst wars of tolerance were the religious wars which tore through Europe inbetween one thousand five hundred twenty four and 1648. These wars were predicated on precisely the sort of incompatibility described above, with Protestants and Catholics each watching the other as existential threats. As states aligned with each side, the penalty for disagreement became exile or death, a condition no one could accept.
But even after six generations of fighting, and ems of millions of dead, these wars came to an end. The Peace of Westphalia, the series of treaties which ended them, was built on two radical tenets: that each ruler had the right to choose the religion of their state, and that Christians living in principalities where their faith was not the established faith still had the right to practice their religion. A decision was made, in essence, to accept the risk of the monster rather than the reality of the war.
The Peace of Westphalia was the political foundation for the concept of secularism: that religious matters are so uncertain that the state should not have the power to mandate them. It remains one of the classic peace treaties inbetween fundamentally incompatible groups. It was also, in turn, the basis for the concept of religious freedom brought by European settlers to North America; the American Bill of Rights is its direct descendant.
What this instructs us is that tolerance, viewed as a moral absolute, amounts to renouncing the right to self-protection; but viewed as a peace treaty, it can be the basis of a stable society. Its protections extend only to those who would uphold it in turn. To withdraw those protections from those who would demolish it does not crack its moral principles; it is fundamental to them, because without this enforcement, the treaty would collapse. It is adequate, even ethical, to response force with proportional force, when that force is required to restore a just peace. We seek peace because on the entire it is far better than war; but as history has trained us, not every peace is better than the war it prevents.
“Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!” — Patrick Henry, speech to the 2nd Virginia Convention, March 23, one thousand seven hundred seventy five