This work is available here free, so that those who cannot afford it can still have access to it, and so that no one has to pay before they read something that might not be what they really are seeking.  But if you find it meaningful and helpful and would like to contribute whatever easily affordable amount you feel it is worth, please do do.  I will appreciate it. The button to the right will take you to PayPal where you can make any size donation (of 25 cents or more) you wish, using either your PayPal account or a credit card without a PayPal account.
I am tolerant; you are permissive; he has no  moral standards whatsoever.
I have reasonable scruples, you are conservative, he is a right-wing zealot.
--Patterned after "declensions" invented by Bertrand Russell, George Bernard Shaw, or someone else altogether (since I don't remember where I came across this sort of declension).

The Concept of Tolerance:
Privacy, Role-Model Influence, and the Tolerance Wars
by Rick Garlikov

One of the new social catchwords is "tolerance", and since there is wide social disagreement about what sorts of behaviors ought to be tolerated, I wish to make an observation about what I think the word "tolerance" implies in the contexts in which it is being used in social policy discussions these days. That might help channel some of the current disagreements into more productive discussions, because to call someone else intolerant just because they don't believe as you do, is not helpful, and may itself not even be tolerant behavior. Those who argue for greater tolerance often seem to want it to apply to everything except disagreement with them.

To say one ought to tolerate or accept certain behavior in others, even though one might not wish to behave that way oneself, or even though one might think it would be wrong for oneself to behave that way, is, I think, normally to argue that the behavior under consideration is not objectively wrong or, if so, is not terribly wrong, but is either merely a matter of taste, perspective, interpretation, preference, difference of opinion, or, if wrong at all, is not so bad as would be the discord over it. To tolerate behavior is to permit it or to put up with it or to allow or to accept it (in some limited sense of acceptance) even though one disapproves of it or thinks it is distasteful or wrong.

Therefore it is not helpful to accuse someone of intolerance who thinks you are arguing for acceptance of a behavior s/he believes is wrong, and sufficiently bad to reject, even if that causes discord. They can merely turn the accusal around to say you are too permissive or have no sense of morality or decency as in the above "declensions". It is mere name-calling either way.

The problem is, of course, that we don't disagree about the importance of tolerance; we disagree about what ought to be tolerated. And that is because we disagree about what is right and wrong and, sometimes, about which wrongs are worse than others. For example at the personal level, one might tolerate a 4 year-old's choice of clothing for a given day, or a teenager's choice of date, not because one approves of the choice, but because voicing such disapproval might cause more harm than good. So one tolerates the choice even though one might disapprove of it or wish it were different. However, if we think a choice of outfits is totally inappropriate for, say a wedding, or if we think a particular person may be totally unsuitable for dating a minor child, we might say tolerance is inappropriate in such a case, and would itself be wrong, even if it provokes deep disappointment, anger, or a quarrel.

The telling case is, of course, that people don't tend to preach tolerance for murder or embezzlement of their money. So it is not everything which one should be tolerant of. And, of course, one doesn't need to preach tolerance for charity, kindness, honesty or any other virtues; it would be strange to say they should only be "tolerated". Tolerance is about the things we don't prefer or approve but which are not so egregious that they require being forbidden or eliminated.

Hence, arguments about tolerating other religions or certain practices of other religions are not really about the need for tolerance in general, but they are arguments to the effect that a given religious practice is not really so bad that it needs to be prohibited or its adherents put at a disadvantage (by the state). Arguments about tolerating homosexuality or homosexuals, really simply are claims there is nothing wrong with permitting homosexuality, or with permitting homosexuals to, say, teach school.

So the real issues are not about whether someone or some group should be more "tolerant" but whether the behavior or characteristic is one that deserves to be tolerated or whether it is so wrong or so bad that it ought not to be tolerated. To argue for tolerance is to imply or to assume that the behavior or characteristic in question is either right or at least acceptable in the first place. But that is not necessarily a correct or reasonable assumption to make. It is particularly not usually reasonable to expect the person who disagrees with you about tolerating a behavior to agree with you that the behavior is acceptable or right in the first place. Most likely his/her assumption is that it is definitely not. That is why s/he does not think tolerance is an appropriate response to it.


Privacy is about at least two things: (1) doing what you don't want others to see or hear, even if they would not disapprove of it or find it distasteful (for example, when you want to be left alone to think in private or to write or work in private), and (2) doing what others might disapprove of or find distasteful. It is the second sense of privacy that I am discussing here.

I believe that the "right" to privacy and tolerance are related, in that privacy is about allowing others to do, not what is wrong (or terribly bad), but what is tolerable, as long as they do it neither publicly nor in a way that requires witnessing by those who find it distasteful or who disapprove of it in some way or other, or who would rather not be reminded of its occurring. Hence, what individuals or groups do behind closed doors may be condoned even if it is not considered desirable or desirable for others to have to witness.

Moreover, some behaviors may be tolerated only if they are done in private. In most circles of society currently, people don't condemn married couples having sex, or their parents having sex; they just don't want to have to witness it or perhaps even hear about it.  Similarly generally with someone's having to go to the bathroom.  It is not that anyone would say that is wrong, but only that it should be done within reasonable privacy so it doesn't have to be witnessed by anyone who doesn't want to see it.

But again, privacy only condones or tolerates what is right, not what is wrong; or it condones and tolerates behavior that is perhaps bad, but not so bad that it would be better for people to have the right to spy on each other in order to discover or prevent. In other words an act might be wrong but not so bad or wrong as would be allowing surveillance or intrustion to prevent it.  Tolerating it might be a lesser evil than intrusively and aggressively trying to prevent it.  (Also, one, of course, may have a right of privacy from one person or group, but not from another. E.g., parents generally have rights to look into behaviors of their children that the government might not have. A parent might search a younger child's room for signs of drug activity with far less suspicion or "probable cause" than the police might need to obtain a warrant to search that same room.)

It is therefore my belief that privacy issues often will ultimately depend on whether the activity in question is right or wrong or not, and whether if it is wrong, it is therefore bad enough to permit others to discover; and, if so, what sorts of means of discovery would be commensurate to permit. (For example, if you good reason to believe your neighbor is about to murder a child or is about to be murdered by an assailant, you have ground to break into their home that you don't have if you only have good reason to believe they are about to watch a TV show you think has too much sex or violence.)

Hence, for U.S. abortion policy to be based on privacy, without convincing large segments of the population that abortions can be right or tolerable (under certain circumstances) is to beg to prolong the controversy. As long as (particularly, substantial) segments of the population see abortion as wrong, and essentially as murder, they will not believe the right to privacy should be allowed to permit it. To simply rule by fiat that it, or any issue, is a matter of privacy, without showing that it is "right enough"(1) to be tolerable, and ought to be tolerated, is not to give the grounds of justification for it. It is only to say it is no one else's business, or at least not the government's business. But it is not to say why that is.

Role Model Influence

There is one particularly interesting, and I think, reasonable, argument for making a distinction between individual tolerance on the one hand, and tolerance as a matter of state or social policy on the other. Or to put the distinction a different way, between tolerating acts done in secret and in private versus tolerating acts that are publicly or openly disclosed. The argument is essentially that while it may be okay to tolerate certain (undesirable, but not evil) behaviors if they are unavoidable, it would be wrong to encourage them if they are avoidable; and that tolerance of such acts as public policy encourages them.

Suppose there is an act, call it Act A, which is one that some, many, most, or even all people in a society or community secretly or anonymously tolerate(2). The question is whether that act then should be openly or publicly declared tolerable as a matter of law or policy. (That is, should the act be legal, and/or should it be considered unlawful or unacceptable discrimination to penalize those who commit the act, or who are thought to commit the act.)

The argument in opposition to having a public policy that tolerates or condones a practice people individually tolerate and condone, and therefore an argument on behalf of a certain kind of justified hypocrisy between private and public beliefs, might go as follows:

1) As long as Act A is done without undesirable or bad consequences for innocent other people, it is right to tolerate it as a matter of social or official policy. 
2) If Act A is a matter of public knowledge, and if it is also tolerated as a matter of social or official policy, that will make, or allow, others (particularly children) to think it is perfectly acceptable or good behavior. 
3) If, and only if, they think it is acceptable or good behavior, they may adopt or imitate it. 
4) More people's (particularly childrens') adopting this behavior just because its example was socially and officially accepted or tolerated would be a bad or undesirable consequence for innocent others. 
5) Act A is right to secretly tolerate or even publicly tolerate by some (non-influential) individuals, but Act A is not right to tolerate as a matter of social or official policy. 

A similar, but slightly different, argument was probably behind the current supposed military "don't ask/don't tell" policy about homosexuality. The alleged bad consequences were things like low morale, personal conflicts, discomfort, and other sorts of problems that risk lowering military effectiveness.

The argument given above - essentially the "it would set a bad example for the children" argument - is often phrased as something like: "I don't care who Jones wants to have sex with in the privacy of his home or what his sexual preferences are as long as he keeps them to himself, but I don't want him teaching (even if just by example) my children that homosexuality is okay for them; and I don't want my children to think that it doesn't matter whether they are homosexual or heterosexual. It matters to me and it matters to a lot of other people in this community, even if they don't say anything; and I don't want to take any chance at all that allowing an open homosexual like Jones' to be their teacher will turn any child homosexual." And absent any proof that role-modeling could not have this effect, the argument may be a quite legitimate one, if homosexuality is a bad thing for people which at best ought only to be tolerated when it can't be prevented. Or parents might have a parallel argument about school-led religious activities or prayers that don't conform to their own religious beliefs, no matter how well-intended the prayers or activities may be and no matter how nice and decent the people are who are interested in having them. Parents might be content to tolerate teachers and other people's religious and ethical views, but not want them to be an unnecessary or undue influence on their own children's spiritual and ethical development -- and not want them to be part of the school program, because it is quite important to them that their children not take on religious or ethical views they think are bad for them.

All this can, of course, be carried to extremist positions. But what allows for the extremism is not that people don't believe in tolerance; it is that they see no reason to be tolerant about some things which are not as bad or as wrong as they believe they are. So what needs to be addressed is whether a trait, behavior, or belief is bad or wrong at all; and, if it is, whether it is so bad or so wrong that it ought not to be tolerated, or whether it ought not to be tolerated under certain conditions at least. If it can be shown to be neither wrong nor too bad, then tolerance would be likely seen to be in order even if it is still something that evokes disapproval or disagreement.

This work is available here free, so that those who cannot afford it can still have access to it, and so that no one has to pay before they read something that might not be what they really are seeking.  But if you find it meaningful and helpful and would like to contribute whatever easily affordable amount you feel it is worth, please do do.  I will appreciate it. The button to the right will take you to PayPal where you can make any size donation (of 25 cents or more) you wish, using either your PayPal account or a credit card without a PayPal account.


1. By being "right enough" I mean either that the act is right or that even if it is wrong, it is not so bad (under certain circumstances at least) that it ought to be proscribed or prosecuted or permit an incommensurate invasion of privacy.  (Return to text.)

2. Notice that "secretly tolerating an act" is not the same thing as publicly tolerating an act which is done in secret or private. When one secretly tolerates an act, it is the tolerating that is secret, not necessarily the act. The act may even be a public one. For example, one could secretly tolerate an act done in the open while one makes public statements condemning the act. One may simply not want to admit publicly to being tolerant of some actions, even though secretly one does tolerate them.

However, it is also the case that one might secretly tolerate certain acts only if they are done in private, while not tolerating those acts at all if they were to be done in public. There are two different kinds of secrecy or privacy involved here: the secrecy of the act and the secrecy of tolerating it.

Also, one might anonymously admit to secretly or privately tolerating an act. That is, one may wish other people to know that the act is tolerated by someone but not know that s/he is a person tolerant of it. (Return to text.)

Reset June 5, 2000