The Myth of Absolute Tolerance

It is generally believed that broad-mindedness and tolerance are the hallmarks of civilized communities and therefore most desirable of virtues today. Tolerance as a virtue is good and needed especially in the context of the pluralism of our times. History has been witness to unimaginable hatred and violence in the name of religion and faith. Historians tell us that the last century has been the bloodiest and it is anybody’s guess as to what was the chief cause for it. Even in a nation like India where, as Radhakrishanan described tolerance in Hinduism as the ‘deathly hug of a bear’[1], we have witnessed intolerance at its worst in recent times. Surely there is need for a fresh look at the whole idea of tolerance and the need ever greater for it to be taught and practiced across the board by every one. But to think that tolerance can be absolute is to miss the point completely. Is tolerance possible in all situations and at all times? If it is, then what kind of tolerance is needed?

Intolerance of the tolerant!

The intolerance and the rabid hatred of opposing views even among the so-called tolerant societies or faiths have demonstrated sufficiently, one hopes, that something is wrong with our understanding of tolerance. It certainly suggests that absolute tolerance does not exist. To think that tolerance can be practiced without any regard for truth or to desist from any value judgments is, in the final analysis self defeating and suicidal. This can be demonstrated very easily. Just take a look at those who proclaim tolerance as a virtue. You will notice that even they are intolerant. They are intolerant towards those who do not agree with them. Their position is that every viewpoint is equally valid and therefore must be tolerated. But the trouble comes when they are faced with those who do not hold such a view. There are those who hold that every view or belief is not equally valid and that theirs is the right one, and those who disagree need to be challenged and corrected. The proponents of tolerance cannot but disagree with such a view. This brings home to us, that absolute tolerance is an impossible position to hold and is self defeating. It is impossible because some intolerance seems inevitable. It is self-defeating because while claiming to be tolerant they cannot tolerate those who disagree with them and end up being intolerant. Besides, if you begin to tolerate every view or belief, you end up being subsumed by those who believe that their view is right and that they must do everything they can to propagate it if necessary use force or even exterminate those who hold a different view.  The ‘deathly hug of a bear’ indeed, dragging the bear to its own death! The eastern societies, especially in India, have come to realize this.

Why is it so? Why can’t we tolerate every view or position and not dub anyone as wrong? Why cant tolerance be absolute?

Tolerance is an attitude

To begin with the dictionaries[2] tell us that tolerance has to do with attitudes or a willingness to bear or accept. Responses and attitudes are not values or standards to talk about in terms of absolutes. We talk of absolutes in the context of truth, values, norms, and morals. Secondly when we talk of tolerance there is a suggestion that there is something that is the mean, norm or a standard and any deviation from it can be or cannot be tolerated. So tolerance is an attitude shown or the willingness to accept a deviation or a difference from a norm, belief, or a viewpoint.

It needs to be noted that the idea of tolerance suggests that there is a disagreement about an issue and therefore the need for tolerance about the disagreement. It also suggests that there is what is known as a median or a norm or even a standard and any deviation from it can or cannot be tolerated or tolerated with a rider or a qualification. In the fields of engineering and scientific experimentation we know this is a common practice. For instance when I was studying for my bachelors in science, we had to conduct experiments in physics and chemistry. We were asked to perform the experiments and take the readings. Our findings were to conform to the standard readings and minor differences were permitted within certain limits as tolerable. Just this evening the weather forecaster on the TV referred to the pollution levels in the city of Hyderabad and suggested that they were within tolerable limits. My friend who works in a gas turbines manufacturing unit of a leading company tells that when the blades are made for the turbine each blade must meet a specification with regard to size and the temperatures it is subjected to or has to withstand. Since it is impossible to achieve absolute or zero error because of human factors, and environmental fluctuations, they are given certain tolerable limits within which to operate.  This is an accepted practice in such fields. One can imagine the disaster that one could face if everything were to be tolerated.

Tolerance is towards people

J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig[3] tell us that the principle of tolerance has been defined in two different ways, the Classical and the Modern versions. “According to the classical sense of the principle of tolerance, a person holds that his own moral views are true and those of his opponent are false. But he still respects his opponent as a person and his right to make a case for his views. Thus there is a duty to tolerate a different moral view, not in the sense of thinking it is morally correct, but quite the opposite, in the sense that a person will continue to value and respect one’s opponent, to treat him with dignity, to recognize his right to argue for and propagate his ideas and so forth”(italics mine). While  “The modern version of tolerance, popular in the general culture, goes beyond the classical version in claiming that one should not even judge that other people’s viewpoints are wrong.” One wonders if there is a reluctance in the later version, to face truth or even to challenge or be challenged by opposing views, because it entails intellectual and philosophical scrutiny, correction and scope for improvement. One of the problems with this view is that it has mistaken truth for tastes and ethics for aesthetics. In the area of arts and culture, as Mortimer J. Adler[4] argues, where tastes reign supreme, tolerance is desirable and to be expected. But in matters of truth and values, absolute tolerance is tantamount to dismissing all value judgments as matters of taste rather than as matters of truth. But again as Adler quoting J.S. Mill, argues,  “Mill advocates the toleration of individuals who differ in thought and speech, but not tolerance for competing doctrines or opinions, as if they were all equally acceptable or preferable. He does not look upon pluralism with respect to matters of truth in the same way he looks upon pluralism with respect to matters of taste.”

Robust tolerance

Finally if our aim is the pursuit of truth, then we need the ‘classical’ kind of tolerance. It is mature and robust, for while holding one’s own position as true, it treats its opponents with respect and makes room for them to exist and express themselves while opposing their views. We certainly do not need the tongue-in-cheek kind of tolerance, which makes dubious claims to tolerance while running away from reality and truth. Nor do we need the kind of intolerance that attempts to regiment culture and practices and to enforce faith and religion, suppressing freedom of expression and thought.

The test of a truly developed or civilized society is not of being broadminded or tolerant without any regard for truth claims or to avoid value judgments.  But it is a willingness to examine the claims of its opponents and tolerate them even if there is no agreement. It is a sad commentary on the 21st Century society, with all our claims to knowledge and information we do not know how to handle our differences, disagreements, dissensions and conflicts.  We either tend to hide behind the veneer of being broadminded or resort to rabid intolerance. Both the responses indicate a weakness or even an unwillingness to examine ones own claims or those of others and thus be exposed. A civilized society is one, which has the confidence of its own beliefs and has the willingness to examine its own views and work gracefully for change, if there is need. And also knows how to handle those who do not agree with them.


[1]Quoted in, Pillai, Paul. India’s Search for the unknown Christ, New Delhi, 1978.

[2] The Oxford Advanced Learner’s dictionary: (Online dictionary) Tolerance (of / for sb/sth) the willingness to accept or tolerate sb/sth, especially opinions or behavior that you may not agree with, or people who are not like you; (technical) the amount by which the measurement of a value can vary without causing problems; allowable variation in any measurable entity.

The Cambridge dictionary: (Online dictionary) tolerance (ACCEPTANCE) – willingness to accept behavior and beliefs which are different from your own, although you might not agree with or approve of them; tolerate – to accept behavior and beliefs which are different from your own, although you might not agree with or approve of them.

[3] Moreland, J.P. & William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. (Downer’s Grove, IL:  Intervarsity Press, 2003).

[4] Mortimer J. Adler, Truth in Religion: The Plurality of Religions and the Unity of Truth, (New York, Collier books, 1990)

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