by Dennis McInerny

The essential spirit of any given age or society is often most directly revealed by what it estimates to be the principal virtues, and the most heinous vices. If we were to allow the mass media to be our guide in this matter, we could easily conclude our age rates tolerance as among the highest of virtues. There is certainly much emphasis given to tolerance today. We are constantly being reminded how important it is to be tolerant of one another. And, negatively, we are regularly warned of the evils of intolerance.

What are we to make of the emphasis that is currently given to the subject of tolerance? Should it be regarded as just one more sign of the vigorous moral health of the society in which we live? Or does it lend itself to another, considerably less favorable, interpretation?

In attempting to answer these questions it is well that we begin at the beginning. It might seem, at first glance, that tolerance should be classified as a moral virtue. Regarded as such, if the question is, “should we strive to be tolerant and avoid being intolerant?” the unhesitant response would be, “Yes”. After all, who would not want to be virtuous, who would not want to avoid vice? If tolerance just as such is a moral virtue, then tolerance just as such is a good thing. But are we justified in unqualifiedly accepting tolerance as a moral virtue? I think not.

We need to clarify our ideas concerning this important subject. What is tolerance? The word “tolerance” derives from the Latin verb tolare, which means to bear, to endure, to put up with. The object of tolerance, that which is borne or endured or put up with, is invariably something negative. We speak, for example, of people who have a low tolerance for distractions, meaning that they are easily distracted. Or, to cite another example, the physiologists tell us that women, on average, have a higher tolerance for physical pain than do men, meaning that they can put up with pain better than can men.

Now, the thing to note about tolerance is that, just as such, it has no immediate moral dimension to it. The inability to tolerate distractions may be simply a matter of natural temperament, and the ability to tolerate pain can be explained in terms of one’s physical make-up, things over which a person has no direct control. Whether or not tolerance takes on a virtuous character very much depends on its being an attitude which is deliberately assumed.

To the best of my knowledge, St. Thomas never regards tolerance, just as such, as a moral virtue. It would seem that the actual moral virtue that tolerance comes closest to is patience. The virtue of patience, unlike tolerance, is not the mere enduring of something difficult or painful, but it is doing so for a higher end. Saint Thomas teaches that patience represents a conscious, willed effort to preserve a rational good in the face of sorrow. The patient person puts up with difficulties for the sake of a good that transcends those difficulties. So, we take note of the fact that the saints are always patient, because they bear all the crosses that are sent to them for the supreme good which is the love of God.

Is it ever permissible to tolerate things which are not merely negative but positively evil? Not only is it permissible, sometimes it is unavoidable. There are certain circumstances in which particular evils must be put up with, and this is because any attempt to get rid of them would very likely only give rise to yet greater evils, and our second state will be worse than the first. But such circumstances should be considered exceptional, and the salient point to stress here is that to tolerate evil in such circumstances does not at all mean to approve of it. The evil is simply “put up with,” borne, as a painful presence which, if it were possible to do so, one would promptly take action to get rid of it.
A critical distinction has to be made, then, between tolerance as simply putting up with an evil which at the moment cannot be gotten rid of, and tolerance which, beyond taking a permissive attitude toward evil, actually approves of it. It is this second understanding of tolerance, tolerance which involves both permitting and approving of evil, which is being so energetically fostered in our society today. And it is to be just as energetically resisted. We will call this understanding of tolerance—a grave misunderstanding, really—indiscriminate tolerance.

Indiscriminate tolerance, which is indifferent to the moral quality of the object to which it is directed, is quite irrational, and radically destructive in its effects upon society.

The fervent advocates of indiscriminate tolerance would want us to believe that they are completely “open” and “non-judgmental” in their own attitudes, and that they are willing to tolerate just about anything. But the fact of the matter is that they are very selective in their tolerance, and the one thing they will absolutely not tolerate is that free play be given to  opinions contrary to their own. What is considerably worse, many of the advocates of indiscriminate tolerance are promoting an attitude that entails the permitting and the approving of behaviors which are intrinsically evil. In other words, they are advocating a subjective tolerance for what is objectively intolerable. In their vocabulary “tolerance”

It is imperative, in trying times such as these, that we battle unstintingly on behalf of the objective status of the moral law, and thereby preserve our own moral integrity. We must not allow ourselves to be cowed or intimidated by a distorted understanding of tolerance, and of the role it should play in society. We must keep our moral wits about us. Let us think clearly and speak without evasion or ambiguity concerning the moral law. Tolerance is good only if it implies no endorsement whatever of evil. If there is anything in this world which is emphatically and unquestionably intolerable, it is the approving toleration of evil.

This article originally appeared in the March 2004 North American District Fraternity Newsletter.  To receive our newsletter free by mail, please visit out subscription page.