Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

Liberty, the Reason for Tolerance

Posted by M. C. on October 13, 2022

Tolerance itself thus needs to appeal to a greater and more fundamental value that answers the question of why be tolerant. Liberty seems to be the most likely and best candidate for being that fundamental value. An imbalance of power, in and of itself, does not imply either tolerance or intolerance. Liberty guarantees it.

Michael Thomas definitely points to an important political virtue when he suggests that tolerance is “the primary political virtue.” In this connection, it is interesting to reflect on how absent this virtue seems to be from the present-day consciousness. Instead of toleration, we have adopted acceptance or ostracism as our model. Toleration supposes that you can disagree with a moral or political stance of some sort, but nevertheless allow it to be practiced. By contrast, one cannot vocalize disagreement with certain practices today without facing immense pressure to conform to acceptance of them. The key to the presence of tolerance is non-acceptance. People must be willing to allow the rejection of some beliefs and practices for there to be tolerance. That is what it means to tolerate something: to allow some belief or practice to continue despite one’s own view that the belief or practice is mistaken, wrong, or immoral. Pushing for acceptance is an entirely different approach by having conformity at its essence.

We thus have two models that, in the abstract at least, do not necessarily violate liberty: one is the model of tolerance and the other the model of pressure towards acceptance. We could point to other views, such as Herbert Marcuse’s, which hold that tolerance is essentially repressive in that it maintains a majoritarian status quo. But the two models are enough to make our point: Thomas’ tolerant society faces self-referential problems. This ideal society must be intolerant of intolerance. This alone forces us to ask ourselves why we even care about tolerance. The answer is one that Thomas himself presupposes and employs in his defenses of tolerance, namely liberty. The value of tolerance is measured against that—making the primary purpose of the state to protect liberty.

Liberty is not, however, merely the lack of external impediments or simply the ability to do whatever one wants to do. 

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