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.

The Ethics of Human Rights (63): Human Rights and Moral Subjectivism

Human rights seem to be vulnerable to a common argument in morality: how can we objectively determine that some action is morally wrong? I may think it’s wrong, but you may think something else. Which one of us is correct? There seems to be no way of knowing. Morality is therefore subjective: if something is wrong, it’s wrong for me, for my religious group, my culture etc. If you, your church or your culture thinks it’s OK, then go ahead and do it.

This subjectivism and relativism seem inevitable in our age of moral and cultural pluralism. Western societies are no longer characterized by a quasi-general agreement on the precepts of the Bible, and our colonial hangover has made us weary of supposedly objective morality. There’s no more “true or false” about moral norms, just “ours” and “theirs”. This coexistence of different and often incompatible and contradictory norms or moral systems should be accepted in a spirit of tolerance, and should even be celebrated as part of the richness of human life.

It’s not clear what if anything is left of human rights once we’re done with this. Since these rights are also moral norms, it seems as if they too should be demoted to the rank of personal or group preferences, with no moral force over people holding other preferences. If human rights aren’t true and objective norms, but merely our norms, and if these norms lack any backing more sophisticated than our subjective preference for them or the fact that they are in our holy book, then there’s no point in talking about human rights at all. Drop the “human” part and replace it with “ours” or “mine”. The only good that human rights can possibly do is symbolic affirmation of group membership (“Free speech is a right!” – “Ah, yes indeed, you must be a liberal! Welcome!”). They’ll offer no protection at all, since all violators obviously have different subjective norms, and have an equally valid justification for those norms, namely that they are theirs or that they are in their books.

Fortunately, none of this is inevitable. We may never be able to say that it is objectively “true” that people have this or that human right, or that it is “true” that a particular human right is an important moral norm. However, there’s considerable space between such objective truth claims on the one hand and merely personal, subjective, cultural and relative claims on the other. We may produce good arguments and make a reasonably convincing case that rights claims are good claims. Not true claims, but good claims in the sense that they are strong and difficult to argue against. Rights claims will then perhaps be accepted by people who initially held anti-rights preferences, not because they are forced by the objective truth of those claims – as they may be forced to accept the laws of gravity when the truth of those is demonstrated to them – but because they have allowed themselves to be convinced by the force of our arguments.

More posts in this series are here.