(The Carillon, June 18, 2009)
More Critical Thinking Clarifications: Tolerance vs. Tolerance
In previous installments of Apologia we disentangled three blurred conceptual distinctions which hinder the art of argument and critical thinking: judge vs. judge (i.e., damn vs. cognitive discernment), argument vs. argument (i.e., quarrel vs. premises supporting a conclusion), and opinion vs. opinion (i.e., mere guess vs. reasonable belief).
This week we will disentangle a fourth blurred distinction: tolerance vs. tolerance.
“Be tolerant” is today’s oft-heard moral imperative. This principle of tolerance sounds good, but critical thinkers should ask: Is it sound?
Answer: No and yes.
It turns out that there are two senses of “tolerance.” Let’s call them tolerance 1 and tolerance 2. (If my labels seem to lack imagination, blame Dr. Seuss.)
Tolerance 1 is the contemporary popular understanding of tolerance. On this understanding, all views or lifestyles are accepted as somehow equal and true and good. “It’s all interpretation,” so a view/behaviour may be “true for you, but not for me” (and vice versa).
According to tolerance 1, you are intolerant if you disagree with someone’s ideas or conduct, that is, if you think someone is actually mistaken or wrong. According to contemporary popular culture, such intolerance is always a sin.
Sin or no sin, tolerance 1 is false. From the point of view of reason and morality, it’s simply not the case that all ideas and acts are equal, it’s simply not the case that all interpretations are equal.
Think about it. That the Holocaust occurred is true and well supported by evidence, whereas the belief to the contrary is false and not well supported by evidence. That 5+5=10 is true logically, whereas 5+5=11 isn’t true logically.
Think about it some more. Western democracy is a better idea morally than a Nazi government (because the former tends to respect the intrinsic moral worth of people whereas the latter does not). Talking with one’s spouse to resolve a dispute is a better idea morally than beating one’s spouse (because ditto). Child care is a better idea morally than child abuse (because ditto). You get the picture.
Now, consider tolerance 2, which is the classic understanding of tolerance. Tolerance 2 is the practice of forbearance (i.e., patience, self-control, and respect in the face of provocation) toward other persons who hold beliefs or engage in conduct with which we strongly disagree. It’s a willingness to accept a person’s right to espouse a view or engage in a behaviour even though we think the idea is mistaken or the conduct unwise or even immoral.
According to tolerance 2, intolerance is not always a sin. We may be appropriately intolerant of an idea if the idea is truly false and can be shown to be false, and we may be appropriately intolerant of a behavior if the behavior is truly harmful to others and can be shown to be harmful to others.
For example, according to tolerance sense 2, teachers are appropriately intolerant of false answers on an exam and of bullies on the school playground. Also, judges are appropriately intolerant of perjury and of murderers. Also, citizens are appropriately intolerant of governments or other organizations which engage in disinformation or commit (or prepare to commit) genocide.
Clearly, the classic understanding of tolerance (tolerance 2) is superior, intellectually and morally, when compared to the contemporary popular understanding of tolerance (tolerance 1).
Of course, the question now arises: Who’s to say what’s true and good? That is to ask: How do we arbitrate between competing claims about what’s true and good?
Answer: We are to say what’s true and good. How? By discerning what’s true and good via critical thinking—i.e., careful investigation coupled with a humble and truth-seeking heart.
Prayer is helpful too.
(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is assistant professor of philosophy at Providence College, Otterburne, Manitoba. The views in this column do not always reflect the views of Providence.)
P.S. The photo above is of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., shortly after white supremacist Holocaust-denier James W. von Brunn went on a shooting spree, killing security guard Stephen T. Johns.