Tolerance in Voluntary Societies

In The Nick Of TimeWithin involuntary societies, tolerance is generally a virtue. Not that every idea or action can be tolerated—far from it! Nevertheless, within an involuntary society, presumption should be on the side of tolerance. In any given instance, people who wish to deny tolerance must be required to provide clear and compelling reasons.

In the present discussion, society simply means a relationship between two or more persons. An involuntary society is one into which the persons do not choose to enter and from which they cannot readily choose to withdraw. The most obvious example of an involuntary society is a nation or other civil unit. For a nation to exert unnecessary control over the actions or ideas of its people is tyranny.

A voluntary society, on the other hand, is one into which people may freely enter, and from which they may freely withdraw. Voluntary societies are formed for all sorts of reasons. Some are professional, others are religious, yet others are directed toward avocations, and some exist purely for the purpose of providing people with an occasion to meet other people. Voluntary societies may be organized formally or they may be informal movements or associations.

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Tolerance in Involuntary Societies

In The Nick of TimeIn any human society some patterns of conduct will be tolerated and some will not. Societies differ over the degree to which they tolerate ideas: Western democracies (especially the United States) try to tolerate the expression of all ideas. Other societies sharply restrict the sphere of ideas that may be expressed.
The only people who are under the standards of the voluntary society are those who have chosen to place themselves there.No society is possible without some element of tolerance, but no society tolerates absolutely every idea and action. Therefore, every society must make decisions about what to tolerate. The problem is to make those decisions in a way that is not purely arbitrary or even tyrannical. How should a society choose what to tolerate?

In previous articles we have explored ways of nuancing this question. First, we discovered that toleration of a belief or an action does not require agreement or affirmation. By the same token, disagreement does not constitute intolerance. In fact, toleration assumes a disagreement. A tolerant person is not one who agrees, but one who refuses to end a disagreement by resorting to force or coercion.

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Tolerating Ideas Versus Tolerating Conduct

In The Nick of TimeTolerance means to allow the expression of ideas or the performance of acts with which one disagrees. It does not necessarily imply any measure of agreement or affirmation. On the contrary, where complete agreement exists, tolerance is neither necessary nor possible. Tolerance is essentially a form of abstinence. Tolerant people abstain from bringing force or other coercion to bear against ideas or conduct that they find offensive.

Without some level of tolerance, all human society would rapidly disintegrate. No two persons agree about every idea or all conduct. Consequently, complete intolerance would pit each person in warfare against all others. This state of affairs is anarchy, and the only way of avoiding it is through tolerance. Therefore, some level of tolerance is a necessary virtue.
But so is some level of intolerance. Absolutely nobody believes that every idea or act can be tolerated. When we fly on an airliner, we do not want engineers who tolerate mathematical mistakes. When we are in the hospital, we do not want an administration that tolerates malpractice.

When we are walking down the street, we do not want police officers who tolerate murder and mayhem. Under these circumstances, tolerance is not a virtue. It is an evil. Sometimes tolerance is a virtue. Sometimes it is an evil. How do we know which is which?

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The Use and Abuse of Tolerance

Tolerance has become a shibboleth in contemporary American society. We are constantly harangued to exhibit tolerance toward all manner of differences. Nothing is less stylish than to assert some belief as absolute, except perhaps to treat that absolute as the basis of a moral judgment. To be sure of one’s moral base—and to censure someone else’s conduct as immoral—is to be judged guilty of hate and phobia.

Of course, this pretense of tolerance is the merest hypocrisy. Nobody is willing to tolerate absolutely every idea and every activity. Those who prattle most about tolerance have also become the most notorious for imposing draconian speech and conduct codes. It turns out that speech Nazis do believe in absolutes, and they are willing to enforce their absolutes in obviously coercive ways.

The truth is that unbounded tolerance is neither possible nor desirable. Nobody—absolutely nobody—believes that tolerance can exist without limitation. Sooner or later, everyone bumps up against something intolerable and hateful. Pedophilia, genocide, gang rape, torturing children: something is wrong with a person who cannot hate these acts. Only a moral nitwit would want to tolerate them.

The question is not whether we ought to be intolerant, but when. How do we know what should be tolerated and what should not? Several observations help to answer this question, but one in particular is the subject of the present discussion.

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