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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



Tolerance by Hans Oberdiek (Rowman & Littlefield) though seen to be necessary on a world devided by deep differences -- often strikes us as grudgingly given and resentfully received: grudgingly given because we necessarily disapprove of what we tolerate; resentfully received because people wish to be accepted, or at least respected, and not merely "put up with." Toleration so conceived may be necessary, but it has little appeal, and certainly cannot serve as either a central or unifying doctrine in a thriving moral or political philosophy. A deeper understanding of what tolerance requires leads us to see that it demands more. However, once we inculcate the "attitude" of tolerance in ourselves and our politics, tolerance can be seen to occupy the difficult, and contested. this deepened, expanded understanding of tolerance requires both careful conceptual analysis and, even more importantly, substantive moral and political argument. "Conceptually", what needs to be done is to show the conditions under which appeals to tolerance do and do not make sense. They do not make sense, for instance, if we already fully accept a practice; nor do they make sense if what we are asked to tolerate is "intolerable." The latter suggests that appeals tolerance always carry with them the implicit assumption that the object of toleration is not utterly beyond the pale. there is, therfore, a "persuasive" aspect to such appeals: we appeal to those inclined to be intolerant to soften their judgement, to grant that what they disapprove can, and should be, permitted. For the persuasion to be effective, however, there needs to be an argument "why" those inclined to be intolerant should not be. "Substantively", therefore, what needs to be done is show how tolerance is rooted in an appealing moral and political theory: only then will toleration move beyond either simple expediency or grudging forbearance. The position defended here will be a non-individualistic version of liberalism, one stressing that moral freedom requires that society create conditions for people to write their own lives, and no have them written for them. But people cannot be the author of their own lives unless they are afforded a rich background of possibilities, and that means due respect must be given to group affiliations, even if those with power find them not to their liking, for these affiliations partially constitute our identities. Once we recognize what is required for tolerance, our own moral and political commitments urge us to engage with those we tolerate, an engagement that tends to move us towards mutual respect and, in some cases, acceptance. This is difficult terrain to negotiate, so our commitment to tolerance finds itself occupying the confusing, challenging, and perplexing ground between mere forbearance and complete acceptance.


I have tried to show that tolerance need not be elusive or even grudging if placed at the heart of substantive liberalism. To be at the heart of something, however, is not to be the whole of it. In a fuller study, I would have to show how tolerance fits in with, and supports, other claims and values of substantive liberalism, es­pecially justice, equality, and rights. Even without this, however, we can see the possibilities a defense of tolerance as part of substantive liberalism offers. Clearly, for liberals who take personal autonomy as essential to their flourishing, this task, though arduous, can be successfully undertaken. Developing tolerant at­titudes, acquiring the virtue of tolerance, and encouraging tolerant practices radi­ates outward, making it possible for most members of pluralist, multicultural so­cieties to live flourishing lives-whether liberals or not.

I say "most" because substantive liberals must make their own judgments about what is intolerable, what lies beyond the pale. They cannot, for example, tolerate those who would undermine their own tolerant practices. And it will be intolerant of any group that lies within its jurisdiction that denies its members fundamental human rights or typical constitutionally guaranteed civil rights of constitutional democracies. Provided that intolerant groups avoid these intolera­ble wrongs, however, substantive liberals will tolerate intolerant communities and traditions in their midst. They will do so not because they are indifferent or skeptical or because they do not find them seriously objectionable. They will do so because and to the extent that intolerant but voluntary communities are sources of genuine values enabling individuals to live good lives if they are willing to keep the traditions and stay in the communities.

Tolerant members of societies shaped by substantive liberalism will not shy from engaging with those with whom they disagree. They will not do so in a hec­toring way. They will do so mainly to understand and appreciate the value others find in their ways of life, beliefs, attitudes, and practices. Mutual discussion and exploration will often be vigorous and contentious, as they should be when matters of substance are at stake. They need not, however, be threatening. Often they will urge support, direct and indirect, for ways of life they do not share or much like. This support can take both governmental and nongovernmental forms. And, as far as possible, they will honor the request to be left alone. True, sometimes lib­erals will conclude that the practices of a certain community or group are intoler­able. Far more often, however, exploration, dialogue, and argument will lead to a greater appreciation of the real values available in traditions liberals themselves cannot share or communities they would not dream of joining, even if invited.

The values discovered in traditions, communities, religions, and cultures might not always be those stated. We need not accept anyone's claims at face value, in­cluding our own. We need not, for example, accept views about the supernatural or rituals that pay homage to god(s) or (false) historical claims. Yet we can still fully appreciate how much beliefs and rituals and historical narrative give shape and substance to many genuine values: a sense of a shared fate, a close commu­nity, loyalty, friendship, self-sacrifice, courage in the face of hardship, and so on.

By its very nature, philosophical reflection is abstract, even if done in the cave, as Walzer recommends. But we can never settle by abstract argument where to draw the line between the tolerable and intolerable in concrete cases. No philo­sophical exploration and defense of tolerance can substitute for the hard work that we must do within each society to fashion satisfactory practices of toleration. These will vary according to circumstances. Because of its recent history, for in­stance, Germany will not tolerate neo-Nazi groups. Because of America's strug­gles over free expression and fears of unbridled attacks on it, the rigid First Amendment jurisprudence of the Supreme Court might be just right-for Amer­icans. Neither Germans nor Americans are wrong in their response to their pecu­liar circumstances. But their solutions to particular questions of tolerance might not be right for others. Each has to work through its own history, its own tradi­tions, and its own capacity for mischief and even evil. Where tolerance begins and ends will thus shift as circumstances change. For it is only by working through the implications of tolerance in concrete cases that we can, in the end, de­termine both the possibilities and the limits of tolerance.

As we acquire greater understanding and appreciation of beliefs, attitudes, communities, traditions, and practices of others, we might come to see what they contribute to those whose beliefs, attitudes, and practices they are. We might even find that they offer something valuable to us. Even where what they offer is some­thing we find deplorable, there might be valuable elements that make it tolerable, if only barely so. With few exceptions, it would be surprising to find nothing of genuine value that a deplorable community, say, offers its members. Whether it is enough to overcome our intolerance is often a very real question. But before sur­rendering to our understandable temptation to lash out and intervene, we need to ask whether intervention-even if successful-would not simultaneously destroy prospects to live flourishing lives. The thought that we could "surgically remove" an offending practice without seriously damaging what was valuable makes about as much sense as surgical bombing; both lead surely and inexorably to unaccept­able "collateral damage." So sometimes-especially where we ourselves are not implicated-we will have to accept "mere" tolerance: putting up with what we find disgusting. More often, however, we can range more widely between for­bearance and acceptance, exploring possibilities that we will overlook if we think of tolerance as nothing more than a grudging virtue, if a virtue at all.

Raising children to see the good in what we find strange or offensive is not easy, though children seem to do this more easily than the adults who teach them. But the effort is worth it if tolerance is not to remain elusive and grudging. And it is necessary if our impulses do not cause us to sink back into a raging intoler­ance that sweeps away everything before it.

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