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Is the Principle of Toleration Coherent? Are There Any Limits to Toleration?

The relations between human beings are rather diverse and based on different values for every particular group of people, regardless of the fact whether it is a racial, sexual or religious group. The issues of understanding between these diverse social groups, and of their fair interrelations and distribution of social wealth among them, have always bothered people. What is fair and just from the side of a dominant social group in relation to the minority? How should racial and ethnic minorities be treated not to cause any speculations on discrimination and inequality? These, and a number of other, questions are simple but rather crucial for the modern world trying to build a “just society”:

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Two ideas feature prominently in contemporary accounts of the just society. One is the idea of toleration and the related idea of religious freedom. A second is the idea of equal opportunity and, derived from this, the idea that the state should protect its members from discrimination in relation to jobs and other important goods such as education.

These ideas, as well as numerous other thoughts, were formulated by the famous scholars of the Ancient World, the Epoch of the Enlightenment and the modern luminaries of thought. The major concerns of such authors as Aristotle, Kant, Locke, as well as such modern scholars as McKinnon (2003), Davie (2000), etc. have always included the attempts to explain the social inequality, need for toleration and the ways in which the society can be taught to tolerate those who differ from the majority in some aspects. This paper will focus on the definition of toleration and its major reflections in the modern world.

First of all, the definition of toleration should be found. For example Galeotti (2002) argues that “the concept of toleration includes a whole range of meanings: forbearing, putting up with, permitting, accepting, recognizing.” Also, the Ancient Greek philosophical thought should be mentioned in this respect, as the Greek culture is famous for its human-oriented development. In other words, the Greek culture, and the philosophers like Aristotle or Plato as its representatives, position human life and freedom as its basic value for which the toleration and equality are basic. Calling a human being to be a “social animal”, Aristotle expresses the idea about both the close connection of human beings and nature and the equality of all human beings in their rights and freedoms.

Further on, the English and German philosophers developed the idea of tolerance and adjusted it to the demands of their epochs. John Locke, for example, agreed on the equality of all human beings, but excluded the Catholics from this statement led by the political and religious situation in England during the Reformation. At the same time, the issues of racial or sexual toleration were not even in question:

Locke and Bayle denied tolerance to Catholics not on religious but on political grounds, because their allegiance to the pope was dangerous to the state. While Bayle admitted the possibility of a commonwealth of atheists, Locke, although tempted by the same idea, did not go as far, because he believed that the expectation of divine retribution or punishment was the foundation of civil society. Nobody advocated tolerance of sexual libertinism, sodomy, and homosexuality in the late seventeenth century, when universal blame was bestowed on the Earl of Rochester.

At the same time, the issues of morals and teaching the human beings how to eliminate intolerance from the society were essential for the philosophic thought of the past. As McKinnon and Castiglione (2003) argue in The Culture of Toleration in Diverse Societies: Reasonable Tolerance, the major tool to introduce overall toleration into the interrelations between human beings was widely accepted to be education: “Moral education has played a central role in all major ethical systems of thought from Aristotle to Kant, from the Torah to socialist ideology.” In other words, the scholars of all times have been rather attentive to issue of teaching people be tolerant to those who differed from them in clothes, religious belonging, sexual preferences, etc. If a person is taught from the early childhood that diversity is good, becoming an adult such a person will not be a source of intolerance or discrimination by any of the factors. The development of toleration is, thus, the matter of education and proper attention paid by the society to the needs of the younger generations of people.

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In this respect, my opinion agrees with the points of view of the scholars considered. The modern world is a highly globalized environment in which the boundaries between countries are vague and cultures merge with each other. Accordingly, to avoid any conflicts caused by misunderstanding of a culture and its traditions, toleration is the value that should be widely promoted in the society, first of all through education.

However, the development of the topic of toleration in the modern society faces considerable challenges. First of all, the ambiguity of definitions of toleration is to be mentioned, but the incompatible character of the definitions proposed cannot be ignored either. Thus, McKinnon and Castiglione (2003) argue “theoretical statements on toleration posit at the same time its necessity in democratic societies, and its impossibility as a coherent ideal.” In more detail, the theoretical framework of toleration states that it is vital for the existence of the human society as the equality of people in their rights and freedoms is the basis for the peaceful and fruitful cooperation between humans. At the same time, this theoretical framework accepts the fact that human beings are not equal in their social status, wellbeing levels, giftedness levels and the potential for the further development of their personalities. Drawing from the latter statement, the toleration proves to be practically impossible in the modern society under the given conditions when the rich position themselves higher than the poor in the social structure, and there is no actual sign of change coming: “Within this new social and philosophical context, tolerance is still widely perceived, by philosophers as well as practically minded people, as a kind of response to difference that we cannot do without.” Thus, scholars like McKinnon and Castiglione (2003), Simmons (2007), and Stewart (1996), openly or implicitly, admit the existence of the social inequality and actual impossibility of toleration, except the occurrences of the latter caused by the protest against social norms.

Arguing that “the principle of tolerance calls upon us to tolerate the intolerable”, McKinnon and Castiglione (2003) demonstrate once again the impossibility of the toleration in practice. The first reason for such a pitiful conclusion is the idea about the incompatibility of toleration and the “normal” course of the social development rooted deeply in human minds. Drawing from it, the concept of the so-called “zero tolerance” is coined by McKinnon and Castiglione (2003). It serves as a reflection of the indifference that some modern societies might choose as the alternative of behavior in respect of racial or sexual minorities, religious groups, etc.: “The success of “zero tolerance” as a slogan for a less forgiving society bears witness to the diffusion of a mood in public opinion.” The society tired of trying to conform to the political correctness and politeness demands that become stricter and stricter, might simply choose to ignore them and not to refer to the potentially discriminated social groups in either positive or negative way. As such a social attitude is also dangerous for the development of the solid and cooperating community, McKinnon and Castiglione (2003) offer the way out which lies in moral training:

Moral training is accordingly seen primarily in terms of the capacity to make meaningful choices in one’s life (self-critical exercise of autonomy), on the one hand, and the ability to live side by side with people who have different, often incompatible, values and lifestyles from our own (respect and tolerance), on the other.

Thus, McKinnon and Castiglione (2003) develop the idea of the ancient philosophers who viewed the above-mentioned intercultural and ethical education as the basis for interpersonal understanding and tolerance. Nevertheless, religious, sexual and racial toleration is still in need of improvement in the modern society.

For example, religious toleration has been an issue from the very ancient times of the human history. However surprising it might seem, the worsening of the situation with religious tolerance is connected with the introduction of Christianity that started fighting with the Muslims in the medieval crusades and then was itself divided into several constantly rivaling branches. Orthodox Christianity, Catholicism, Protestantism, Baptism, etc. are all the directions in which Christianity has developed, and Europe witnessed numerous bloody examples of religious intolerance between the representatives of these groups. Religious wars in France and Spain, Reformation in Germany, England and other European countries facilitated the intolerant attitudes among the supporters of the various branches of Christianity, and only the course of time provided for the settlement of the religious conflicts:

Only very gradually did a modus vivendi emerge as greater toleration of difference became the norm both within and among the states of Europe. But toleration is itself two-edged: it implies, following Bruce, a lack of Conviction, a capacity to “live and let live” which becomes not only dominant but pervasive.

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Drawing from these lines by Davie (2000), the consensus found in respect of religious toleration is a temporary one, and the actual clarity in religious matter is the wholly impossible.

John Locke, as quoted by McKinnon and Castiglione (2003), also agreed to this point of view stressing the multitude of opinions that people might have concerning religion. The authors cite “Locke’s famous Letters on Toleration, according to which even if there is religious truth it cannot be established with certainty, let alone enforced on those who do not accept it; there is the pluralism of tastes and preferences that belongs to the aesthetic and personal realm to which our moral values are conflated.” The same, according to Galeotti (2002) is true about the sexual toleration nowadays.

In Toleration as Recognition Galeotti (2002) argues about the variety of topics concerning toleration, among which sexual toleration is present. According to the author, same-sex marriages are the especially controversial areas in the issue of toleration as the society views them as threats to the established family values and traditions. Having an established way of living, the public mind is not willing to accept any changes, and that is why sexual toleration is especially problematic nowadays: “The gay movement represents an especially interesting case of the claim for toleration as recognition because it brings forward the issue of visibility in a way that does not arise in the case of ethnic or cultural differences.” Thus, the issue of intolerance towards gays and lesbians in the modern society is the product of the public stereotype according to which homosexuals should not have the rights equal to those of “normal”, i. e. heterosexual, people. If the equality of their rights is admitted, this might undermine the way of living in the modern society. Thinking so, people, as Galeotti (2002) argues, are more afraid to tolerate homosexuals than disgusted to do so:

The issue of homosexuality is paradigmatic in this respect: while many liberals would argue that full citizenship for homosexuals does not require any special revision of liberal toleration, they would not be ready to admit same-sex marriage as a direct consequence of the toleration of homosexual identity.

As a result of the diversity of opinions regarding sexual toleration, the achievement of the latter is still viewed only in a far perspective, provided the public opinion in this respect is changed through education, mental training or any other way.

However, there is another social tolerance issue in need of solution – racial toleration. This issue is especially notable in the multicultural societies like the ones in Canada, USA, etc. The joint existence of several ethnic groups inevitably places a group over others as result of the greater economic performance of the former. The intolerance, as a result, comes from the public ignoring the needs and interests of the minorities in favor of the dominant racial group. Accordingly, “the argument for public toleration of difference can be grounded on the lack of public respect implied by the principle of public blindness.” Such a state of things does not allow the minorities to even hope for satisfying their needs as they are, although not discriminated, ignored and left alone with their problems. Moreover, “questions of toleration become directly political when the third party is a government or a political agent.” The involvement of politicians in the racial toleration issues is also rather important because intolerance that can be observed nowadays would not be possible without its political coverage.

Accordingly, it is necessary to restructure the whole society and introduce new ideas into it to achieve toleration in it in respect of sexual and racial belonging, religious preferences, etc. The intolerance present in the modern society is the result of, first of all, public stereotyping against certain social or racial groups, and to overcome this stereotyping it is necessary to change the public mind. Intercultural education, ethic and moral training might be of great help in overcoming the current social intolerance and introducing toleration as a norm of social life.


Costa, Gustavo. “John Locke, Toleration and Early Enlightenment Culture: Religious Intolerance and Arguments for Religious Tolerance in Early Modern and “Early Enlightenment” Europe.” Renaissance Quarterly 60, no. 1 (2007): 322+.

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Davie, Grace. “Prospects for Religion in the Modern World.” The Ecumenical Review 52, no. 4 (2000): 455.

Galeotti, Anna Elisabetta. Toleration as Recognition. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Lowe, Ben. “How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West.” The Historian 67, no. 2 (2005): 378+.

McKinnon, Catriona and Dario Castiglione, eds. The Culture of Toleration in Diverse Societies: Reasonable Tolerance. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 2003.

Simmons, A. John. Political philosophy. Oxford University Press, 2007

Stewart, Robert M., Ed. Readings in Social and Political Philosophy. Oxford University Press, USA, 1996.

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