The Ethics of Human Rights (85): What is Tolerance?

Tolerance is another word for respect for human rights. You are tolerant when you’re confronted with people who exercise their rights in a way you don’t like and when you nevertheless allow or permit them to exercise their rights. The word “permit” implies that you could intervene with people exercising their rights if you wanted to – that, in other words, intervention is an option that is relatively costless to yourself and that is likely to succeed – but you refrain from intervention anyway. You are tolerant when you let people exercise their rights, not because you fear that intervention is costly or futile, but because you choose to let them exercise their rights.

That is also why tolerance of human rights violations is impossible and why tolerance is limited. We should tolerate people who exercise their rights but not those who violate the rights of others, and neither should we tolerate those who violate the rights of others while exercising their own rights. If tolerance is respect for human rights then tolerance of rights violations is by definition impossible. Hence, it’s more correct to say that tolerance is respect for human rights as long as those rights do not lead to violations of the rights of others.

People often view tolerance as no more than a convenient way to keep the peace, to co-exist with others and to avoid the possibly very high costs of trying to change the behavior or the beliefs of others. Making other people more like us would perhaps be better but it’s dangerous, especially if it requires the use of force. And when it does, it’s not just dangerous but also futile: forcing people to believe the right thing is impossible (correct beliefs come voluntarily from the inside). Hence the common view that tolerance is a fallback option when better things are impossible or too dangerous. When you can’t force people to change or when it’s too dangerous to try to change them, you have no choice but to tolerate them. Tolerance becomes a necessary evil.

However we could also view tolerance as an active and positive disposition rather than a passive declaration of defeat when faced with danger or an impossible goal. It can be seen as an active kind of respect for the rights of others. We are not really tolerant when we passively respect the rights of others simply because we have to, because violating those rights would be dangerous or because we can’t bring about the desired result anyway. We are tolerant when we actively choose to respect the rights of others even if we could easily and costlessly violate them. When you’re forced to be tolerant, when you have no better option and when you haven’t chosen to be tolerant you can hardly be called tolerant. In other words, tolerant people are those who believe they have a good reason to violate the rights of others (for example because they view other people’s exercise of their rights as immoral) but who decide not to violate them anyway for the simple reason that they don’t want to violate them. People who don’t violate the rights of the intolerable because they have no choice, because the risks are too great or because they can’t achieve what they want are not really tolerant.

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