'Tolerance Among the Virtues'

Endure or Resist?

In an interview on the Christian Broadcasting Network in 2013, former RNC chairman and now White House chief of staff Reince Priebus was asked to “put evangelicals at ease” over whether the Republican Party intended to become more “tolerant.” Interviewer David Brody noted that evangelicals were concerned that Republican leaders were saying that “we have to be more tolerant.... Evangelicals start to grab the Excedrin bottles when they hear ‘tolerance,’ because they think, ‘Oh no, the GOP’s changing.’”

Priebus reassured Brody and distanced himself from that objectionable word: “I don’t know if I’ve used the word ‘tolerance,’ I’m sort of—I don’t really care for that word myself. I don’t have a problem with it, I just think it has another meaning politically that can go another direction.”

Evangelicals and GOP leaders are not alone in their discomfort with talk of tolerance. Tolerance has critics across the political spectrum. The evangelicals that Brody and Priebus had in mind worry that tolerance entails indifference to things, such as homosexuality and same-sex marriage, that they think should be condemned. Others, often at the other end of the political spectrum, suggest that tolerance involves nose-holding condescension toward religious, racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities who they think should be respected, not merely put up with.

And yet, we find ourselves in diverse communities. Some of what our family members, friends, and neighbors believe and do strikes us as wrong and even, at times, harmful. The goods of the families, friendships, and communities that we share with them come packaged with these differences and disagreements. How can we sustain these goods in the midst of these differences? What do we owe to one another and to our shared societies? These questions, often ignored by the critics of tolerance, lie at the heart of John R. Bowlin’s wise and timely Tolerance among the Virtues. Bowlin contends that we need a better way of answering these questions. Drawing on Aquinas and Wittgenstein, he develops a vocabulary for talking about the differences that divide us and the ways we ought to respond to those differences.  

Tolerance, Bowlin argues, is a moral virtue. Like other moral virtues, it is a habit that disposes people to think and act well—in the right ways, at the right times. Tolerance is the disposition to distinguish among the differences that divide us, to be a wise judge of which are objectionable and which aren’t, which call for patient endurance and which do not, and then to act in accordance with those judgments. Bowlin writes:

With the consistency of habit, [the tolerant] will single out those differences that are in fact objectionable and treat them differently from those that are not. They will distinguish those objectionable differences that are intolerably harmful from those that are harmlessly disagreeable, and they will know how to respond to each, dispensing coercion, correction, prophetic critique, and patient endurance in accord with these judgments and as the circumstances warrant. And they will determine which unobjectionable differences deserve our acceptance and recognition, if not celebration and admiration, which deserve our indifference, if not apathy and inattention, and which deserve both responses—sometimes the one, sometimes the other. 

Critics of tolerance go astray when they confuse tolerance with acts of toleration, or patient endurance. On Bowlin’s account, the tolerant know when the act of toleration is the virtuous response to difference and when it is a mere semblance of the virtue.

If a difference is not objectionable, an act of toleration is unjust. I may think that my neighbor’s Christmas decorations are a tacky eyesore. But is this the sort of thing that’s properly called objectionable difference? Does it call for me to suffer our differences, or, alternatively, to come to view them as a matter of indifference? I’m imperfectly virtuous, to be sure, but my instinct is the latter. At the other end of the spectrum, if a difference is not only objectionable but also threatens the common goods of our shared society, then an act of toleration is unjust from the other side. If a professor at the college where I teach used his authority over students’ grades to coerce students, the just response would be condemnation and correction. To tolerate his grading practices and enable him to undermine the common goods of civil peace, freedom from domination, and fellowship in learning would be unjust. 

Bowlin’s account of tolerance is powerful. It tells us that we need tolerance, but that tolerance is demanding. Like justice, tolerance is a natural virtue that is appropriate to the kind of creatures we are and the kinds of societies we inhabit. And like justice, tolerance is hard to achieve consistently and habitually. Most of us can muster acts of toleration here and there, but few of us can claim to have perfected the virtue. Can we respond virtuously, with the consistency of habit, to those whose beliefs about same-sex marriage differ from our own? How many among us can even discern what the virtuous response is? Bowlin doesn’t offer a programmatic answer to these questions by telling us whether same-sex marriage—or objections to it—ought to be accepted, patiently endured, or condemned. But his account of tolerance suggests that societies cannot make do without the cultivation of the virtue by which we might get better at sorting them out. The fact that tolerance is hard to achieve—and that it is often confused with its semblances—is no reason to abandon it. Bowlin thinks that it’s reason to get clear on what the virtue is and what it isn’t, and then to cultivate it.

Like Aquinas, from whose account of moral virtue he draws inspiration, Bowlin is a master of definition and distinction-drawing. The first several chapters of the book consider what tolerance is, what its semblances are, and how critics confuse the two. On these points, Bowlin is admirably clear and precise. The book becomes more complicated when it turns from these definitions and distinctions to discussion of the messy business of determining what will and won’t be tolerated in liberal societies. Early in the book, Bowlin notes that tolerance is an acquired moral virtue, one that is natural to our humanity but that must be cultivated through activities and social practices of imitation and habituation. “Most of these activities have institutional supports (legal codes, educational curricula, religious rites, civic rituals, and so on) and reproduce various relations of power. The same can be said of intolerance the vice.” Most of us are shaped by some combination of these virtuous and vicious influences. We are, at best, imperfectly tolerant. In a liberal society, our decisions about what to tolerate are likely to be imperfect as well.

Under such conditions, Bowlin suggests, everyone with a stake in the goods of the shared society ought to have a say in what will and won’t be patiently endured within it. One problem that arises is this: debates about what to tolerate are hard to disentangle from debates about the boundaries of the society itself. Debates, for example, about how the long-term residents of a small town in Maine ought to treat the newly settled Somali refugees in their midst are, in part, debates about who constitutes the real membership of the town. Who ought to have standing in those debates? Well, everyone who has a stake in the goods of the shared society. But who shares the society? That’s precisely the question in this and other contentious debates in contemporary American public life about Muslims, refugees, and immigrants. Bowlin recognizes as much, but doesn’t tell us whether or how thinking of tolerance as a virtue might help us. In fact, he suggests, debates about who counts as part of the society are often harder to resolve than those about what deserves toleration. “When we ask about the just extent of our patient endurance we are often asking about the just boundaries of the community. Who belongs in its give-and-take of tolerance? Who deserves standing, and who has been unjustly denied? Who receives recognition, and who does not but should? Settle these matters and quite often the question of tolerance answers itself.”


WHILE THE TOLERANT among us may know how to respond to these questions, the rest of us muddle through. We look to moral exemplars for guidance, and we hope for congregations and communities that will help us cultivate the virtue ourselves. But our current political moment, and its obsession with policing the borders and boundaries of America in the interest of making it “great again” is not firm ground for that hope. In a passage that’s painfully relevant to us now, Bowlin writes:

In the end, it’s shared membership and mutual recognition in a flourishing moral and political community that matters most, that makes the patient endurance of objectionable difference possible, and that enables a regime of tolerance to survive the disappointment of dissenters. Undermine that community and you threaten its regime of tolerance. 

Partisan politics aren’t Bowlin’s topic, at least overtly, with one exception. In the epilogue, Bowlin describes a cockfight he attended in Collinsville, Oklahoma, in 2000. There was to be a statewide referendum on the practice, and Bowlin wanted to see it and judge for himself. “In small towns and distant counties, many with Hispanic or Native American roots, cockfighting was considered a noble activity, an ancient inheritance, and a mark of resistance against a wider culture that has little regard for rural lives and local traditions. In the suburbs and cities it tended to elicit disgust and, most prominently embarrassment.” Bowlin hoped to side with the friends of cockfighting, who were asking their fellow citizens not for acceptance or indifference to the practice, but for tolerance of it. Watching a group of children at the fight imitating the cocks, pecking and pinching another child while shouting “Get him! Get his eyes!,” Bowlin determined that he could not count cockfighting among the things to be patiently endured. Cockfighting was banned in the state of Oklahoma in 2002. Despite his conclusion, Bowlin’s description of the cockfighting club in Collinsville and the people he met there exhibits humility and charity, a model for the sort of discourse we might desire in a society in which our differences are significant and likely to persist.

Much has been written in the wake of the 2016 presidential election about America’s rural-urban divide, and about the condescension and resentment warping relations among citizens. I couldn’t help but read Bowlin’s story about cockfighting in light of all that, and to see not only a story about tolerance but also a story about shared membership and mutual recognition, or lack of it. My worry is whether we recognize enough goods in common to give us a stake in cultivating the capacities of the tolerant across all that divides us—from cockfighting to gun control to same-sex marriage. Tolerance among the Virtues seems to suggest that neither the virtue of tolerance nor the act of toleration is the panacea for what ails our contemporary politics. There are deeper ailments than the ones tolerance can treat. If tolerance emerges from shared society, it is to the health of that shared society that we must now tend by fighting to protect the common goods of civil peace and freedom from domination and by listening to one another’s views on how to do this with humility and charity. If we are good nurses and patients, then perhaps virtuous tolerance may emerge again. 

Published in the February 10, 2017 issue: 

Molly Farneth is assistant professor of religion at Haverford College. Her book Hegel’s Social Ethics will be published by Princeton University Press in summer 2017.

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