On Toleration

by Don Boudreaux on December 10, 2013

in Civil Society, Curious Task, Hubris and humility

My note here on toleration is inspired by reflections on Mario Rizzo’s post, which serves as today’s Quotation of the Day.  My note is unoriginal, but perhaps the point is worth making here.

To force through physical coercion – rather than to persuade through example, civil conversation, and the expressed attitudes of others - A to ‘tolerate’ B is to use physical coercion to endorse and enforce B’s intolerance of A.  In a liberal and open society in which individual freedom and toleration are held in high regard, such a use of force is wrong.  It is immoral.  It is, indeed, intolerance that ought not be tolerated.

To force through physical coercion, say, a baker to sell cakes to customers whose sexual orientations (or politics, or religious beliefs, or fashion sense, or lifestyles) offend him is to use physical coercion to endorse and enforce those customers’ intolerance of the baker’s beliefs and lifestyle choices.  To use physical coercion in this manner is to force the baker to ‘tolerate’ aspects of his customers’ lives that he finds objectionable.

Although used to bring about a facade of liberal outcomes, such uses of physical coercion are deeply illiberal – and deeply dangerous to civil society.  The reasons such a use of physical coercion is dangerous are numerous.  I’ll not attempt in this post even to begin to catalog those reasons.  But four such reasons warrant mention here.

The first reason is the most obvious: no one deserves accolades, applause, or praise for tolerating only that which he or she approves of.  No society deserves the name “liberal” or “open” or “civilized” if physical coercion is regularly unleashed in that society to quash peaceful activities that the majority, or the elite, in that society find objectionable.  The true liberal is someone who tolerates all peaceful and consensual activities – all activities that do not involve Jones forcing Smith to act against Smith’s conscience and self-determined best interests.  To deserve to be called “liberal,” someone must consistently tolerate peaceful and consensual activities that offend him or her.

To tolerate activities does not mean to approve of them.  Nor does it mean that one should avoid using peaceful means aimed at reducing the occurrence of such activities.  If you’re like me and don’t like the baker’s refusal to serve gays, then you can organize a boycott against that baker.  Speak out against him.  Advise your friends to patronize other bakers.  But do not summon the police to impose your values upon the baker.

The second reason why the use of physical coercion against peaceful, if objectionable, activities is dangerous is that it creates and strengthens not only the means in government to police against peaceful activities, but also a precedent for government to do so.  This precedent might tomorrow turn on those who today want government to stamp out some activities and attitudes that they dislike.  Perhaps tomorrow a baker in Colorado will refuse to sell pastries to, say, anti-abortion protestors.  It’s hardly out of the question that a shift in political alignments in that state will result in another judge there declaring that the baker cannot refuse to serve those protestors.  This judge might even – indeed, almost surely will - approvingly cite the case in which a baker was forced against his will to serve gay couples.

The third reason is that tolerance is not furthered by force.  It is diminished.  If people are forced against their will and conscience to act as if they approve of same-sex marriage, they are unlikely to thereby look kindly upon the forces that prevent them from acting peacefully on their own beliefs and convictions.  They will likely (and understandably and justifiably) grow angry and resentful.  They will feel oppressed.  Such sentiments are hardly ones to encourage, or even to permit, the growth over time in these people of beliefs and convictions that are more in line with the beliefs and convictions of the majority or the elite who eagerly employ force to oblige everyone within the political jurisdiction to behave as this majority or elite demand.

The fourth reason is the most important of the ones that I list here: we might be mistaken about what are and what aren’t the ‘best’ sorts of beliefs and convictions that people should have.  A decent sense of humility – one that reflects the reality of the human condition – should prevent any civilized person from being so confident in his moral sensibilities that he thinks it to be advisable to force other people to hold, and to act in accordance with, the same values that he holds.  A decent sense of humility, in other words, should counsel every civilized person that his or her beliefs and convictions might be in error.  That person should then, being civilized, refrain from endorsing the use of force to oblige others to act in accordance with his or her beliefs and convictions.  That person, aware of his or her own imperfections and ignorance, will not, if truly civilized, wish to force others to act in ways that might prove in the future be perilous.  That person will, if truly civilized, tolerate all peaceful actions of others if for no reason other than that person understands the limits of his or her own knowledge, information, and judgment.

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