Reason as the Leading Motive

The Virtue of Intolerance

Posted by Jerry on July 12, 2007

In a private e-mail conversation with someone, I came to realize that the notion of tolerance has the connotation of adopting the moral high ground, of being an act of virtue that needs no explanation and no substantiation. The view seems to be that tolerance is unarguably a good thing–the implication being that to be intolerant is to be a tyrant.

The notion of tolerance comes in the whole package deal of other corrupted concepts like diversity, multiculturalism, extremism, moral complexities and grayness, etc. The problem with all of these is that their essential defining characteristics are removed from any context that make them meaningful. For example, “extremism” or to be an “extremist” is de facto an undesirable quality; its essential characteristic of holding one position to the utter exclusion of the other is divorced from the context of what the positions actually entail and why would that exclusive position be wrong.

However, the concept of tolerance suffers from an added unique distortion. Not only is the concept usually divorced from any particular context and is enshrined as an unquestioning companion of benevolence, tolerance is always used in the acquiescence of the bad and in a compromise of the good.

Notice how the good, the true, or the rational never requires toleration, it is only the opposite of these that do. No one ever tolerates the good while simultaneously identifying it as the good. However, the contradiction of “tolerating the good” escapes most people. When one is asked to “tolerate differences of opinion” or “diversity” one is implicitly branding the differences of opinion and diversity as bad. This not only corrupts the meaning of the concept “tolerance” by misusing it but also paints a broad brush over the concepts of diversity and opinion. If by rational and objective judgment, the opinions are valid and the diversity of people beneficial, then the question of tolerance simply does not arise. With regard to the good that is objectively identified, there is (and properly cannot be) any need for tolerance.

However, when a racist spouts hatred, I have the moral high ground in not tolerating his views and explicitly condemning him for it. To tolerate racist views is to betray your commitment to reason and justice. To tolerate evil is to shortchange on your commitment to the good. Ask yourself why would you need to ever tolerate something that was good and rational anyway? Then, why are you asked to tolerate the irrational, the untrue, the dishonest, and the evil? What virtue lies in tolerating these, and by what standard is it a virtue?

A virtue is that which you do to gain and keep your values. If you hold that the defense of your values (the act of keeping and protecting your values) is your moral obligation, then the condemnation and refusal to tolerate those that go against your values or directly threaten your values is merely a corollary of the same moral obligation. Intolerance is then a virtue when practiced in safeguarding your values.

Intolerance does not mean resorting to violence or the violation of rights but a clear and firm statement of denunciation, a refusal to sanction and endorse, and a commitment to not cooperate.


15 Responses to “The Virtue of Intolerance”

  1. Shyam said

    What about ‘not dealing with them’ as the great lady mentioned in one of the interviews.
    them = Rascists, or rasicsm (for example)

  2. Shyam said

    Sorry for the typos 🙂

  3. Ergo said

    Shyam, I think the “not cooperate” phrase subsumes “not dealing with them.” If you know you’re explicitly dealing with–say, an avowed racist–and that you can do well without having to deal with him, then you shouldn’t. This principle is the same as the principle of not sanctioning evil. However, there are cases when having to deal with a racist (as an example) may be unavoidable or at a greater sacrifice of your own values, in which case, you will have to deal with him at the minimal level possible. Note, however, such scenarios simply never arise in a free society.

  4. Priya said

    Hi Ergo,

    I read your latest article on the virtue of intolerance. It was really great read. It was like reading Ayn Rand’s philosophy. From now on, I’m going to read your blog. I’m new to objectivism. It seems like the thing that I always had in mind but just didn’t know how to express it was what Ayn Rand’s objectivism is all about. Thanks for the article:)

  5. satyajit said

    While in school, I remember having read that Akbar was a tolerant emperor by virtue of giving his consent to his subjects to practise any religion of their choice. However, “tolerance,” here, did not connote an “acquiescence of the bad” and “a compromise of the good.” Instead, it stood for a breadth of mindset, rather than a largess of it. Very often (and I’m having to take recourse in weasel words), this aspect–the crux of tolerance, really–is shorchanged for a better-known tone of condonation or allowance.

  6. Ergo said

    Hi Satyajit.

    The example you give of Akbar is just another example of misuse of the word ‘tolerance’ by historians. Rand pointed out that definitions are the mind’s last barrier against cognitive anarchy. Increasingly, words and concepts are losing their essential differentiations. Tolerance is now increasingly used to mean “acceptance” or even “freedom” (like, a “tolerant society” comes to mean “free society.”) In turn then, the opposite of tolerance becomes denial of freedom or non-acceptance–intolerant society, i.e., unfree society.
    Notice how the corruption of any one concept adulterates the meaning of so many other related concepts. This is the anarchy of the mind.

    Tolerance is essentially a concession to the bad and a compromise of the good. You tolerate only that which aggravates you or annoys you. There is no question about tolerating the good. In Akbar’s case, the freedom of religion is an objective good–therefore, why tolerate people’s freedom? How does the issue of tolerance even arise? Why use that word?

    The thrust of my article is to point out that the good, the rational, the honest, the virtuous never needs to be tolerated. And these are identified objectively with life qua man as the standard. And the assertive denunciation and non-cooperation of the bad is intolerant of the bad, a refusal to concede to evil, a denial of any compromised legitimacy to the bad. Insofar as intolerance is in the defense of one’s objectively identified values, it becomes a virtue.

  7. Colin Downes said

    Toleration is not always in compromise of a good. One can tolerate an evil as a means to achieving a greater good. For instance, one might tolerate a friend’s bad breath because they value their conversation.

  8. Ergo said


    Yes, in your given example, one does tolerate a friend’s bad breath for a good conversation. Although, I’d hardly classify that as an “evil” as a means to achieving a greater good. Nonetheless, the “toleration” in this case is never indefinitely granted; if he were really your friend, and if you really loved engaging in conversation with him, there will (indeed should) be a point when you let him know–gently–that his breath stinks: for your own good as well as his. What the example shows, therefore, is precisely the point I highlighted, that the “good” never requires toleration. That bad breath can get aggravating and can tax one’s limits of accommodation, which would then require a statement indicating that the friend do something to address the bad breath (in effect, refusing to “tolerate” the annoyance).

    I simply do not like the use of the word “tolerate” in this context. I’d prefer “accommodate” or “put up with”, only because I think “tolerate” is a strong word that connotes some truly bad, immoral, or despicable behavior. For example, a wife tolerates her drunken husband’s behavior, not merely “accommodates” or “puts up with” him. Bad breath is relatively innocuous on that scale. Which is my point: the word tolerate has been so often misused that its definitions and connotations have become blurry (like the word selfish)–and now, coming to mean the exact opposite of its intended use: that to tolerate is to be virtuous (given the word’s use in such mild situations as bad breath) and to be intolerant is to be evil.

    Having said all that, my intent in the article was to refer to moral and ethical issues (such as racism, homosexuality, etc.) vis-a-vis tolerance. Bad breath is not an ethical case.

  9. Rambodoc said

    As a keen student of the language, let me present this from my dictionary:
    “tolerate |ˈtäləˌrāt| verb [ trans. ] allow the existence, occurrence, or practice of (something that one does not necessarily like or agree with) without interference : a regime unwilling to tolerate dissent. • accept or endure (someone or something unpleasant or disliked) with forbearance : how was it that she could tolerate such noise? • be capable of continued subjection to (a drug, toxin, or environmental condition) without adverse reaction : lichens grow in conditions that no other plants tolerate. DERIVATIVES tolerator |-ˌrātər| noun ORIGIN early 16th cent.(in the sense [endure (pain)] ): from Latin tolerat- ‘endured,’ from the verb tolerare.

    tolerate verb 1 a regime unwilling to tolerate dissent allow, permit, condone, accept, swallow, countenance; formal brook; archaic suffer. 2 he couldn’t tolerate her mood swings any longer endure, put up with, bear, take, stand, support, stomach, deal with; abide.”
    So why do you associate the word with morality? It could be something entirely physical and devoid of a moral stature.

  10. satyajit said

    Hi Ergo,

    Tolerance has been synonymous with acceptance, endurance, weathering, swallowing, etc. However, what I wanted to say is that it also stands for ‘allowing the existence of something without interference’–something that has been brought out in historical records as far as I can remember. This, precisely, is revealed in phrases like “tolerant society” (free society). and i agree that with time words have been turned upside down.

    However, it is not that “Tolerance is essentially a concession to the bad and a compromise of the good.”

  11. Ergo said


    Given the definitions you cited, there is no doubt that the word “toleration” has definite moral connotations in several contexts. For example, to “allow the existence of something” like say homosexuality in a society is a legal and moral issue for many societies–and indeed, the intolerance of homosexuality in some is an immoral position. Or, similarly, the tolerance of religious fundamentalism in government policies is an immoral position. All of these uses of the word require a moral evaluation of the context in which it is used and the act/object/phenomena being referred to, which is what I meant in my article by saying:

    “The problem with all of these [concepts] is that their essential defining characteristics are removed from any context that make them meaningful… the concept [of tolerance] is usually divorced from any particular context and is enshrined as an unquestioning companion of benevolence.”

    Having said that, I would concede that “tolerance” (and its variations) as used in most scientific contexts (as just one example) usually has no moral connotations: for example, the tolerance level of a certain mechanical lever.


    Blurring the meaning of concepts like tolerance, acceptance, freedom came about mostly with the rise of multiculturalism and cultural relativism: the notion that cultural mores and practices are sacred and immune from moral evaluation. They should be tolerated at least if not celebrated at best. As a stark example of this phenomena, recently in Germany a judge ruled that an African man (from Nairobi, I think) should be permitted to beat his wife if that kind of punishment was permitted by his cultural and religious norms.

    As a personal example from my own experience, I had embittered my Cross-cultural Communication professor in college when I refused to agree with her that there are no superior or better cultures than others–that all cultures are merely different and there is no standard of moral evaluation that one can use to categorize them in a hierarchy.

    She was from Sweden (well-known for their socialist leanings). She failed me on the paper I wrote arguing against her notion of “cultural differences” and then later gave me a failing grade for the entire course! Now, let me tell you, it’s too DAMNED difficult to *FAIL* a Cross-cultural Communication course; at worst, people get Cs in it. By her own subjective standards, it should have been impossible for her to morally evaluate my position on cultural differences and left me to hold my opinion and a passing grade.

    In any case, I had to re-take the course, this time with a different professor. Needless to say, the second time around, I got an A in the class.

    Now, *this* absurd level of moral concession to (even defense of) the bad in the name of “cultural differences” or multiculturalism is what I target as the dogmatic and vicious tolerance demanded from one and all towards immoral practices of cultures. This is what I mean when they label those who refuse to agree with their cultural relativism as “intolerant tyrants.”

    This is what I mean when I say that tolerance is properly used only in the allowance of the bad, because you never have to tolerate anything (morally) that is good and rational in the first place.

    My article excludes references to optional values which are good values subjective to each individual based on his objective assessment of his personal goals in life.

  12. satyajit said

    I get your point, and I agree that tolerance is used in the allowance of the bad. What I differed on is the definition of tolerance because it does not make a distinction on the basis of good and bad. It merely implies an acceptance, regardless of the moral value of the entity being accepted. However, all said and done, the general tone in which tolerancet is used today connotes an acceptance of the bad precisely because of which you say that nothing morally good needs to be tolerated.

    Good job in your cross-cultural class!

  13. Ergo said

    Satyajit, if I may so say, the unique insight of my article was precisely to reveal that the word “tolerate” necessarily implies moral connotations (when used in non-scientific contexts).

    I point out that the word’s definition already implies a “distinction on the basis of good and bad” and implies *more* than just merely an acceptance, and implicitly *does* comment upon the moral status of that which is being accepted (or tolerated).

    I made this insight on the basis of the principle that nothing of moral good is ever (required to be) tolerated and the use of the word “tolerate” is never used in relation to the good (unless the word is being misused, which is what I say the multiculturalists are doing).

    Thus, when I see that I never need to use the word “tolerate” in relation to something I have identified as a good or a value, I begin to realize that the *only* instances when I *do* need to use the word “tolerate” is in relation to something I do not approve, have not identified as good, and perhaps is a threat to what I hold as good.

    Note, Rambodoc offered some dictionary definitions, but dictionaries are little more than records of the meanings people ascribe to words at a certain time. The proper definition of words come from a process of differentiation and identifying the essentials. “Acceptance” is an inessential element of the concept “tolerance.” Notice how you can say, “I accept the good,” but you never (properly) say “I tolerate the good.”

  14. satyajit said

    Ergo, like Rambodoc, I went by the dictionary more than I went by any other usage. That explains my stand. However, your statement about how “tolerance” has moral connotations is valid, given the way it is used today.

  15. Bill said

    Excellent article. To your list of examples I would add open- and close-mindedness. These are used in a similar way, albeit with less of an ethical connotation and more of an epistemological one. Being “open-minded” is always considered a good thing, while being “close-minded” is always bad, with no reference to the particular ideas one is willing to entertain.

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