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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXIII, No. 4
Advent - Christmas 2008

Whether Tolerance is a Virtue

by Elizabeth McFadden

Elizabeth McFadden, from Cleveland, Ohio, is currently a freshman at Franciscan University of Steubenville where she is majoring in social work. She enjoys traveling and learning about different cultures. This essay was written as a senior thesis while Elizabeth was in high school at The Lyceum.

[Details about the Young Writers Award.]

Tolerance is commonly acknowledged as a necessary part of a good community and nation. As Americans we are taught that all men are created equal and that one person’s opinion is just as valid as another person’s opinion. How are we expected to be united as a country if we impose different religions or opinions on one another? We turn to tolerance as a way to respect and handle differences of opinions and beliefs. We see how tolerance aids in accepting different beliefs at school, the workplace and in politics. One does not want to be at odds with someone who holds beliefs that are different from his own. Instead of fighting with each conflicting view one respectfully accepts that another person may have his own opinion. Tolerance seems to bring about a more ordered environment, with fewer conflicts and arguments, and it allows for freedom of thought. Is tolerance, however, truly what makes a society strong and united? Does tolerance entail respect for others and give a person the freedom to do as he pleases? I say that tolerance, as it is commonly understood, is not a virtue.

One might object, however, to this statement. “Virtue”, Aristotle, explains, “is the mean between two extremes”. For example, temperance is the mean between desiring too much and too little. Tolerance, then, is the mean between hatred and indifference. If an individual is faced with beliefs that are different from his own beliefs, he can act in three ways. A person might despise another for his beliefs or he could decide to ignore the person, not accepting or condemning his beliefs. The third option is to tolerate that conflicting opinion, to accept that a person can have opinions of his own, free from persecution and without ignoring the opinions or the person. Tolerance is a fair and interested, permissive attitude toward different opinions or beliefs. Therefore, tolerance as the mean between the extremes of hatred and indifference is a virtue.

Further, there are many different religions, opinions and beliefs. We teach children to tolerate and respect people no matter what they may look like or what they may believe. As Americans we take pride in being a free country and we encourage others to form personal opinions and credos. Since our country strives to be accepting of differences we are ultimately more united. We are not divided like other countries who are intolerant of various religions, as in Saudi Arabia’s Sharia law, which condemns a Muslim citizen to death for converting to Christianity. Our country’s unity comes through the habit of tolerance. As the Catechism says “Virtues are good habits, the fruit and seed of morally good acts”. Since tolerance is a habit that brings about a good end through good means, tolerance is therefore a virtue.

The agnostic might object and say that tolerance is a virtue without regard to truth. The agnostic who does not have an objective truth must tolerate all opinions and religions, since he cannot say what is ultimately the truth. Since he does not have an underlying truth from which all of his beliefs stem, he does not have a truth to defend. Until the agnostic discovers what is universally true it seems that tolerance would be a virtue. Tolerance is a necessary habit for one who does not have an absolute truth since accepting different opinions and beliefs would be a part of his daily life. The man who does not believe in a certain religion or philosophy would need a virtue that would help him accept different opinions or religions but still be able to say that he does not favor one over the other. For the man who does not have a truth for the basis for his opinions and beliefs, tolerance is a virtue. Through tolerance the agnostic might even come to find truth on his own.

On the contrary, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now our beloved Pope Benedict XVI, said, “Truth and love are identical. This sentence — if the whole of its demand is understood — is the surest guarantee of tolerance; of an association with truth, whose only weapon is itself and, thereby, love.” For Pope Benedict XVI, truth and love are not two contradictory values. To be loving is to want what is truly best for a person. This requires having a correct understanding of truth. In other words, tolerance is not a virtue, but it can assist virtue when it is associated with what is truthful and what is loving. The only way for tolerance to be good is for it to be united with truth and true love.

Let us now look at the true definition of tolerance. Tolerance is allowing, accepting but not in an inviting way, a belief or opinion that goes against what one thinks is true. When one is tolerant he decides to be passive toward the conflicting view and not defend his opinion. Tolerance begins when a person judges that a different opinion is wrong. Then one decides not to say or do anything against that opposing opinion. Tolerance is acknowledging another’s opinion that is contrary to one’s own.

The Catechism says, “Virtue is an habitual and firm disposition to do the good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself.” The good that one does through virtue is a true good, not just an apparent good. A man might automatically tolerate different opinions and religions because he believes that tolerance is for the good. That, however, should not exonerate the man from judging what is true and what is good. There must be some objective way of knowing what is good and what to tolerate, rather than blindly deciding that something should be tolerated. A virtue in its pure form seeks to do what is truly good not simply apparently good.

Now that we have established what tolerance is — that is, acknowledging and enduring another’s opinion that is contrary to one’s own opinion — how does it relate to virtue? Silently enduring another’s wrong opinion has the potential to be detrimental. One might think that by tolerating another’s opinion, he is allowing that person to think freely. However, tolerating another’s opinion can prevent the truth from being shown, which is harmful to the one believing in the deceptive opinion.

A virtue, as we said before, is a habit directed toward the good. A virtue always remains a virtue; it is always a habit that is ordered toward the good. Tolerance, however, is not always ordered to a truly good end, but instead it can potentially harm the person being tolerated. Thus, tolerance is not a virtue since it is not always a good habit.

Concerning trivial, subjective matters, tolerance does have its proper place. When, however, tolerance is applied to grave, objective matters concerning ethics and morality, it then becomes a harmful vice. Archbishop Charles J. Chaput said, “Using tolerance as an excuse for not living and witnessing Jesus Christ in our private lives and in our public actions is not an act of civility. It’s a form of cowardice.”

When we use tolerance in a way that prevents us from stating what is true in the face of opposition, then we are misusing tolerance. When we use tolerance to say that we cannot interfere with, or even object to another’s opinions or beliefs, we are hiding the importance and the existence of an absolute truth. If there is not an absolute truth the need for tolerance increases, since there are many truths and each person may believe whatever he wishes to believe. However, if there is an absolute truth, the need for tolerance decreases. For example one would not let his neighbor hold a wrong opinion on a grave matter without at least defending his own opinion. It seems that this habit of tolerance, which is meant to be good, is a form of sloth, since it is much harder to defend one’s opinion than to tolerate the opposition, ignoring the conflict.

The cause of the exaltation of tolerance seems to come mainly from the claim that one cannot know what the absolute truth is and that if there is truth it is relative. Before he became Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Ratzinger said in his book Truth and Tolerance, “Beyond all particular questions the real problem lies in the question about truth. Can truth be recognized? Or is the question about truth simply inappropriate in the realm of religion and belief? But what meaning does belief have, what positive meaning does religion have, if it cannot be connected with truth?”

Certain opinions and ideas are relative, for example, when dealing with simple and particular things. These are things that concern matters of personal particular tastes or opinions, such as a person’s favorite restaurant. Tolerance, in this situation, can be an aid. The error comes when one says absolutely that truth is relative. Tolerance becomes part of, as Pope Benedict XVI says, a “dictatorship of relativism” where it encourages us to be silent, where lies are spoken instead of the truth and where evil is promoted instead of the good.

The current idea of tolerance easily takes the place of charity. Supporters of tolerance claim that intolerance is a judgmental and hateful attitude. They cite the Nazis as an historical example of intolerance. In fact, Adolf Hitler saw his own intolerant attitude as being consistent with Christianity, when he said, “Christianity was not content with erecting an altar of its own. It had first to destroy the pagan altars. It was only in virtue of this passionate intolerance that an apodictic faith could grow up.” For Hitler intolerance was a noble way to banish certain beliefs or people. From his abuse of intolerance, and many others throughout history, intolerance began to be thought of as cruel, and tolerance as respectful and loving.

On the contrary, tolerance should not be a synonym for charity. Pope Benedict said that if we truly understand truth and love then we are able to use tolerance in its proper form. We do not want to say that we should tolerate, meaning grudgingly enduring people who are different either in their opinions or their religions, but more than that we should love them.

The first objection above stated that tolerance is the mean between the two extremes of hatred and indifference. Since Aristotle said that virtue is the mean between two extremes, tolerance is therefore a virtue. Tolerance, however, is another word for indifference, therefore tolerance cannot be a mean between indifference and hatred. When one is indifferent, that person does not care about what another person believes. Tolerance is accepting a contrary belief without any discord or arguing. Also, tolerance is not the opposite of hatred. Hatred, which many say drives the intolerant man, is completely separate from the true meanings of tolerance and intolerance. The intolerant person can take an opinion that is different from his own and make a statement against it without being demeaning or harsh. The intolerant man takes anything that is not true and strives to make it true or take what is true away from it.

In the second objection it was said that tolerance is a virtue that brings about unity and peace. The error here is that tolerance does not always bring about unity. For a short time tolerance, in its proper form, can unite a people or nation. However, unless the issue that is being tolerated is solved, the issue will continue to get worse. Imagine a family who tolerates the antics of a loud eight-year-old. If the family tolerates her, there will be less fighting in the short term, but she will continue her antics and ultimately cause more conflicts. Tolerance does not bring about unity, rather it covers up the issue at hand without dealing with it. Tolerance prevents unity, since people cannot be united while they have unresolved differences.

The third objection stated that many people do not believe in an absolute truth. They use the virtue of tolerance as a way to accept and live with all the conflicting opinions in the world. This argument stems from the prevalent idea that there are many truths and one does not have a monopoly on truth. Since one cannot know what the truth is, or the one true religion, he must tolerate the conflicting views. The truth, however, can be known. When this is accepted, then tolerance no longer has its place as a virtue.

Tolerance is useful at times when dealing with subjective matters that do not concern morals or principles. Tolerance becomes especially harmful, however, when misapplied to matters concerning ethics and morality. Tolerance does not bring about unity, tolerance is not a form of charity, and tolerance is not a virtue.

When Jesus saw the money changers using His Father’s temple for personal profit, He fiercely and intolerantly drove them out of the temple. Although it might not be immediately apparent, Jesus was showing love to the money changers by driving them from the temple, by showing them the error of their ways and preventing a holy place from being defiled. Tolerance never prevented Jesus from saying what truth is, for He is the Truth. Tolerance can easily be used improperly as a form of charity, whereas it is really a cowardly refusal to stand up for what is true. One can be intolerant of another’s opinion and still be charitable. Ultimately for intolerance and tolerance to be good they must be used with charity. As Saint Augustine said, “In essential things, unity. In non-essential things, liberty. And in all things, charity.”

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