Religion is a good to be embraced and defended — not an evil to be put up with. No one speaks of tolerating chocolate pudding or a spring walk in the park. By speaking of religious “tolerance,” we make religion an unfortunate fact to be borne — like noisy neighbors and crowded buses — not a blessing to be celebrated.
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If tolerance is a virtue, it is a decidedly modern one. It appears in none of the classical treatments of the virtues: not in Plato, not in Seneca, not even in Aristotle’s extensive list of the virtues of the good citizen in his Nichomachean Ethics. Indulgence of evil, in the absence of an overriding reason for doing so, has never been considered virtuous. Even today, indiscriminate tolerance would not be allowed. A public official tolerant of child abuse or tax evasion would hardly be considered a virtuous official.
The closer one examines tolerance and tries to apply it across the board, the more obvious it becomes that it’s simply insufficient as a principle to govern society. Even if it were possible to achieve total tolerance, it would be exceedingly undesirable and counterproductive to do so. In his play Saint Joan, George Bernard Shaw wrote, “We may prate of toleration as we will; but society must always draw a line somewhere between allowable conduct and insanity or crime.”
Moreover, as a virtue, tolerance seems to have distanced itself so far from its etymological roots as to have become another word altogether. Thus the virtue of “tolerance” no longer implies the act of “toleration,” but rather a general attitude of permissiveness and openness to diversity. A tolerant person will not tolerate all things, but only those things considered tolerable by the reigning cultural milieu. Tolerance therefore now has two radically incompatible meanings that create space for serious misunderstandings and abuse.
Tolerance and intolerance have no objective referent, but rather can be applied arbitrarily. Thus the accusation of intolerance has become a weapon against those whose standards for tolerance differ from one’s own, and our criteria for tolerance depend on our subjective convictions or prejudices. Thus Voltaire was able to defend the actions of the Roman Empire in persecuting Christians and blamed the Christians themselves for their martyrdom because they failed to keep their religion to themselves. He avers that the death of Christians was a consequence of their own intolerance toward Rome, and not the other way around. Such sophistry is part and parcel of many of today’s debates on tolerance as well, and flows from the ambivalence of the term.
The affair grows even muddier when the “acceptance of diversity,” present in modern definitions of tolerance, is thrown into the mix. The UN Declaration of Principles on Tolerance incorporates a prior statement from the UN Declaration on Race and Racial Prejudice, which states: “All individuals and groups have the right to be different” (Article 1.2). Taken at face value, that is a ridiculous claim. Suicide bombing is different, as are genocide and sadomasochism. To say that one person has a right to be bad, simply because another happens to be good, is the ludicrous logic of diversity entitlement.
The sloppiness of these definitions is unworthy of the lawyers who drafted them and cannot but lead to the suspicion that such ambiguity is intentional. This vagueness allows tolerance to be applied selectively — to race, sexual orientation, or religious conviction — while other areas — such as smoking, recycling, or animal experimentation — stand safely outside the purview of mandatory diversity.
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More than anything else, tolerance is banal, and it serves to allow us to be that which disallows the human person to fully flourish:
The phenomenon of freedom seems then to imply on the one hand the absence of coercion, the absence of a foreign will. On the other hand we define freedom in relation to an interior will. An animal is free when it can roam without the restraint of a chain according to the interior impulse of his instincts that exercise in it the function of the will. Shall we say of a human being that he or she is free in the same sense?
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The way in which a being can be free strictly depends on its nature. A dog is free under conditions that would make a wolf unfree. This concept of nature is not strictly biological. Biological drives and presuppositions are here very important, however there are other factors that are equally relevant. Biologically a wolf and a dog belong to the same species but they are different because of a different historical development.
Shall we consider human freedom in the same way in which we consider the freedom of animals? In one sense yes, in another no. For man as well as for all animals to be free means to be able to act according to nature. We cannot say what is human freedom without considering human nature. Human nature is different. Not only from the nature of any other animal species but from the nature of all other animal species considered together. The difference is so great that in one sense only of man we can properly say that he/she is free.
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Like all other animals, man has in himself instinctual drives that incline him towards action. We feel hunger and then look for food. We are afraid and run away from the source of our fear. We are angry and attack those who make us angry. We feel sexual desire and try to copulate with the subject of the opposite sex that arouses our desire. But is this an accurate description of the properly human form of behavior? No, it is not. Other animals behave in that way. Humans do not. At least humans do not always act like this.
Whilst we all feel the instinctual drives of other animals we are also subject to another law, the law of conscience. We ask ourselves questions like: is it good, just, proper, correct, to act in this way, to follow the pressure of our instinctual drives? Sometimes the answer is yes, and sometimes the answer is no. Humans have a moral conscience. They are really free when they obey the inner voice of moral conscience and are not subject to the absolute preponderance of their instincts. Human nature encompasses a quest for the moral good that is foreign to mere animal nature (even if some forms of behavior of higher animals might bear a certain similarity to humans).
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Now a paradox arises. Whilst for all (other) animals to be free means to act according to instinct, for man to be free means to be able to act according to reason. The instinctual side of man must be convinced to obey to reason.
Animal freedom can be defined against external pressure. If I am left to my instincts I am free. For man it is more complicated. Human freedom is defined in opposition to two different kinds of pressure: external pressure but also the internal pressure of the instinctual drives trying to avoid the control and disavow the primacy of reason.
Human freedom, therefore, demands the self control of the person, who can do what he or she sees to control his or her own passions. Immanuel Kant stresses the social relevance of his specific human freedom in his concept of the transcendental I. The transcendental I is the subjectivity in which man acts without the conditioning of passions only guided by the idea of the good (actually for Kant it is rather the idea of duty, but now we cannot deal with the difference between these two ideas). This subjectivity is easily directed towards the common good. Man cannot see anything as good if it is only his own individual selfish good opposed to the good of others. The so called Kantian imperative always tries to preserve the social character of the good.
The experience of the value of the person, and in particular the experience of the value of the other person, induces me to recognize that I cannot define my individual good in opposition to the good of the other. Hence the rule: consider always the person, in yourself and in others, always also as an end and never only as a means. A society in which this rule is not acknowledged cannot be a truly human society.
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Freedom is not only the fact of not being subject to the will of another but also the capacity for making one’s own passions obey to one’s will oriented by the knowledge of truth. Here lies the paradox of human freedom. On the one hand freedom demands the absence of external coercion. On the other hand it requires the capacity to lead one’s own actions according to objective truth. Objective truth cannot be imposed upon the will; it demands according to its inner nature to be recognized and accepted and loved. Without objective truth, however, man cannot be free. Education is such a fascinating task, at the same time necessary and impossible, because it has to do with freedom and love. It has to do also with credibility.
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Now it seems that this process has been interrupted in our civilization. After the war the generation that had made the war found it difficult, in Germany and in Italy, to tell their children what they had gone trough. Sometimes the horror was unspeakable. The generation of the fathers of those who are about sixty today, had earnestly believed in the religion of nationalism and that religion had failed, leading millions of men to war to sacrifice their lives and destroy the lives of others in a massacre without example in history. This has created a spiritual vacuum in which only material values survived. Our fathers worked hard for us and to rebuild Europe — but the question on why this was worth the while remained largely unanswered. With the student revolt of ’68 this break between the generations became apparent: the older generation could not consign the values they cherished, because they could not explain the reasons underlying those values and could not make sense of their own life experience. And the new generation rejected them without having any idea what could be substituted for them. The living process of tradition was interrupted.
As I said, only vital values survived this devaluation of all values (Max Scheler speaks of the Entwertung aller Werte but we have lived this experience in a form that was much more radical). T.S. Eliot explains, that when all values are dead what is left is only “usury, lust and power”.
Under these circumstances it is easy to lose memory of the greater freedom and to reduce freedom to the lesser freedom. We do not feel bound to search for truth and we do not want to live the experience of belonging to a person (or to a community, a nation, a church or a great ideal) in an act of self giving love. We rather want to be left alone and to be able to follow the impulse of the moment. We are concentrated on ourselves and, at the same time, we are completely exposed to the manipulation of our sentiments and ideas (if we still have any) through the media. We do not seek our inner truth and we are prone to assume the imitation of the protagonists of the star system as core of our life experience. As a result, we do not really love our life and we are not really interested in entering into ourselves or to our true happiness.
The idea of tolerance is directly connected to the idea of freedom. Man must seek truth in order to be a man but must be free from external coercion in order to be able to search for truth. The lesser freedom is an unavoidable presupposition for the greater freedom. If I am compelled to act according to freedom, because of the pressure brought to bear on me by an external power, then I am not a free subject but a slave.
A world in which people obey the objective truth because of fear and not because of intelligence and love, would not resemble paradise but rather hell. I am bound to act, moreover, according to the truth I have freely recognized. This means that I must obey my conscience, even in case that it be wrong. What is typical of our age is not the fact that we hold as true a lot of false presuppositions. This happens more or less in all historical epochs. What characterizes our current crisis is rather the fact that many of us use their lesser freedom in order to disengage from the moral duty of searching for truth. We think that there is no truth and it is not worth the while to search for something that does not exist. We cannot, of course, coerce the lesser freedom of others in order to compel them to be free according to the greater freedom. The only way open for a recovery of our civilization is the way of witness.
This means that we must tolerate error in order not to destroy freedom. Tolerance is the simple recognition of the fact that I cannot think truth in the place of another. I can help another to discover truth through argumentation, example and witness but I cannot recognize truth in her or his stead.
In an age, however, in which the idea of truth seems to have been abolished, some may argue that this is not enough. We are required not to be judgmental, that is not to pass any judgment since the distinction of good and evil seems to have been obliterated and has lost its firm foundation in the nature of things. This leads to a kind of tolerance that is different from the one I have explained on the basis of the nature of truth. One is not satisfied with the fact that I recognize his right to error. He does not recognize the right of someone else to think and say that he is wrong. Any judgment based on the presumption of the existence of an objective truth must be excluded from the public square and those who uphold such judgments are labeled as enemies of democracy.
It is apparent that this pretension is self-defeating. If there is no objective truth I have the right to my private truth but since there is only one world in which we all live I have also the right to impose this truth on others, if I have a chance to do it and if the balance of power is in my favor.
The very expression “right” is misplaced in this context. The lion does not have a “right” to kill a gazelle. It just does it. A world without truth is a world where the words right and wrong have become devoid of meaning. It never occurs, however, that a supporter of moral relativism really thinks his or her intellectual stands coherently up to the last consequences, since this is really untenable in real life.
In current cultural and philosophical discussion the aggressive side of moral relativism is usually set aside to concentrate on the pretension that the non-relativist has an inner drive towards the repression of the freedom of those who do not stand in agreement with him/her. We have already explained why this is not the case. The respect for the freedom of the other is a consequence of the reverence for the dignity of the person. I do not need to doubt my convictions to recognize your right to hold a dissenting opinion. It is enough to know that God wants you to come to truth through a free act of your conscience. If I do not have the right to compel, to coerce, to threaten the dissenters, I nevertheless have the right to argue with them and to try to convince them.
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(Read the whole thing, which I could not completely post here.)
Therefore, even if we grant that one society has better values than others, that does not mean that we convert the world by force. Human freedom plays an integral part of who we are as God’s creation, and it should be respected until people have the foundation that will allow them to flourish as they are meant to. The logical end of “tolerance is not the right approach” does not have to be “let’s force our values on others.” That would be an immoral means, and it is time we recognize all of the bad we are doing in the world by seeking to impose Western ideals in places that do not have the foundation for them: