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What is Toleration?

Toleration is a contested concept. There is no agreed definition of the concept or of its scope. This is a merely a brief introduction to the idea and why it matters.

In a collection of papers published as a result of a Morrell Centre Conference, John Horton comments that “very roughly, toleration is understood as the willing putting up with the beliefs, actions or practices of others, by a person or group that disapproves of them, and who would have the power to prohibit or repress them, if they chose to do so” (Toleration Re-Examined).

More formally, for something to be an instance of toleration, the following features are often thought essential:

  • First, the tolerator must regard the beliefs or practices that are to be tolerated as objectionable (otherwise, the attitude might be closer to “indifference”);
  • Second, the tolerator must have the power to interfere to change the beliefs or stop the practices of the tolerated;
  • Third, the tolerator must forbear from such interference (this is sometimes thought to give rise to the “paradox of toleration”, if what is claimed is that it is morally virtuous to permit or put up with things that one believes to be morally (or otherwise) “objectionable”).

Such an account focuses on what it is for an individual or a state to engage in toleration, but we might also follow Peter Jones in thinking of toleration as a virtue of regimes of laws and norms (Peter Jones, “Legalising Toleration: a Reply to Balint”, Res Publica, 2012). On this conception, a tolerant regime is one in which the laws and institutions secure religious, and other forms of, toleration for citizens (perhaps meaning that citizens do not have the opportunity to exercise the individual virtue of toleration).

Whichever understanding you adopt, it should be clear why toleration matters. Modern states are not homogenous entities of people who share beliefs, values, and practices. Rather, they are characterized by pluralism. As a result, we all have to live together against a background in which we profoundly disagree about “how to live”.

Sometimes, our failure to live together peacefully is dramatically demonstrate, as in the controversies over the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed or the attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, at others the disputes might compel less attention, as in the debate over ritual slaughter of animals. These occasions raise questions over the limits of toleration.

This has only touched on the debates and issues raised by the concept of toleration. In a diverse and divided world, these debates and issues are more important than ever. We hope you enjoy browsing the site to learn more about what we do at the Morrell Centre for Toleration.