Tolerance: For a Minimalist Definition of Pluralism

Adam B. Seligman

[Editors’ note: The following is adapted from an article in the April 2003 issue of the Cardozo Law Review. We present it here because it offers a significant, thoughtful, and principled view of pluralism that runs counter to the dominant perspective in common discourse.]

By the end of the evening, however, after quite a few parents had given vent to their feelings on how the curriculum did not adequately express their religious commitments and needs, this parent (and others) came to think that maybe tolerance was not such a bad thing after all. Perhaps a minimalist virtue was in fact precisely what was called for. As these parents came to realize just how long the way was to actually embracing difference, they came around to the idea that until such time as this could be realized–if it could be realized at all—it might not be such a bad idea to promulgate the virtue of tolerance. While it seemed a second-best solution, it was one that seemed realizable and would contribute to the conduct and culture of the school.

Toleration, as philosopher Bernard Williams once remarked, is an “impossible virtue.” It is impossible because it involves accepting, and abiding or accommodating views that one rejects. It calls us to live in cognitive dissonance and presents contradiction as a sought after goal. We are obliged to “bear” what in fact we find unbearable. Of course, if we did not find this, that, or the other word or deed objectionable, there would be no call to tolerate them.

From another perspective, tolerance is far from being sufficient a virtue. It is deemed too vapid, too thin, and far from adequate to the construction of a civil order or civil society of mutual appreciation and recognition. Tolerance, with its historical associations of suffering the presence of what is detestable (in the eyes of G-d and mankind), in this reading, is too feeble a thing to promote. Pluralism and the celebration of difference and otherness is what is called for rather than the insipid call to tolerance.

Complicating this picture even further is that whether we view tolerance as either impossible or insipid, argument can be made that in neither case does it take us very far. For almost all would agree there are actions (and perhaps words as well, though that is much debated at present) that are beyond any moral compass and should not be tolerated. Accordingly, we are left with the need to define the boundary of what can and cannot be tolerated. It is far from clear what criteria would be used to define this boundary; such a task seems then but to push the problem of tolerance up one analytic level, but not to solve it.

Despite these problems, I will make the argument for tolerance, as indeed a minimalist position, though for all that one not easy to attain (though not impossible either). In addition, I will claim that what passes for tolerance in contemporary modern societies is often not tolerance at all, but rather some mixture of indifference, Realpolitik, and the denial of difference (that is, the denial that there is really something else, other, different and thus perhaps threatening that I must engage with in a tolerant manner).

The denial of difference comes in many forms, most often as what may be termed the aesthetization of difference. Differences are a matter of tastes, not morals, and as there is no accounting for tastes, no real tolerance of difference is called for, merely a recognition of each individual’s “right” to their own opinion. The aesthetization of difference is often accompanied by a trivialization of difference. Here the differences, or the arenas of difference, are not deemed important enough to merit a principled tolerance. Your rather poor taste in neckties is not something that demands of me a tolerant attitude, though I find it both offensive and in bad taste. Precisely because this is a matter of taste (aesthetics) and of no great significance (trivial), tolerance does not effectively enter the picture. This is a form of denying difference rather than engaging it. Furthermore, we do this all the time—it is of the very stuff of our social life.

It may be useful to recall here that in medieval cannon law, tolerance was practiced towards two groups of people: Jews and prostitutes. Both were groups who were indeed tolerated, and for whom tolerance was seen as a second-best solution. Better would be to do away with them, but the consequences would have been too detrimental to society. Of course, these origins give rise to the very negative associations we have with the word toleration, whose cultural baggage includes some very horrible episodes in the historical relations of Jews and Christians. The point I wish to stress here, however, is that tolerance—and intolerance for that matter—does inherently have to do with groups and with individuals as existing within groups, rather than with individuals as autonomous, self-regulating moral agents, endowed with individual rights, and acting as such on the public stage.

It is important to point out that tolerance is a very circumscribed virtue. It is not the solution to all evils—it is not a panacea. Nor is it without boundaries. Clearly some types of behavior are intolerable, though it is not absolutely clear how one would go about defining what is beyond that pale. Certain religious and philosophical categories come to mind—ideas of natural law or in Jewish context, the Noahide commandments, present some useful general orientation. However, within these limits there is certainly great room of disagreement for rejection of much of what one considers as misguided, immoral, reprehensible—hence for the need to tolerate what one believes to be wrong and that which makes one uncomfortable.

Groups have boundaries, and cannot exist without these boundaries. One cannot make claims to any type of identity without that identity being defined, which in some sense involves it being bounded and circumscribed as well. To ask a group to tolerate what threatens that identity, is to ask the group to dismantle itself—to make itself cease to be. If anything is a model of intolerance it would be this eradication of existence. Tolerance then is a virtue that has everything to do with boundaries and margins.

If we follow this logic to its conclusion we reach a very interesting finding: the thicker the boundaries, the greater number of individuals, behaviors and attitudes will reside on that boundary; the thinner that boundary, the fewer. Hence, the thicker the boundary the more issues of tolerance and intolerance are raised, becoming relevant, and the greater chances one will come into contact with behaviors and beliefs that one finds objectionable (without them necessarily threatening one’s identity, though perhaps causing one to make endless calculations as to the existence or non-existence of such a threat). And of course it is once again clear why tolerance was such an important theme in societies with strong group identities—these are societies with very thick boundaries, with very wide corporate identities and group definitions that necessitate such tolerance however often and tragically it may be defined by its empirical absence or failure.

My point here is that modern societies do not so much make societies more tolerant, but rather do away with group boundaries. Recall the classical enlightenment response to “the Jewish Question,” given by Count Stanislav de Clermont-Tonnerre in 1789: “We must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation, and accord everything to the Jews as individuals.” This became perhaps the paradigm statement of attitudes toward the other—his and her constitution solely as individual entities rather than as members of corporate groups. In the public sphere, boundaries are parsed into razor-thin edges; group identities have been replaced by individual identities, and the problem of tolerance of difference has been replaced by the legal recognition and entitlements of rights. In the process, tolerance goes from being a community-centered act to an individual, almost psychological attribute or personal characteristic.

Of course there is nothing wrong (practically or morally) with “solving” the problem of intolerance by removing the social conditions that make tolerance necessary. On the contrary, when it is possible it seems to work well. Nevertheless, my feeling is that the conditions that defined the modern, Western nation-state are currently changing. Return to group-based identities and to religious commitments in many parts of the world, the growth of transnational identities predicated on religion, as well as ethnicity and nationhood not dependent on statehood, are all calling into question the type of individual identities that stood at the core of the modern idea of citizenship.

To the extent that these developments are indeed challenging existing ideas of citizenship and tolerance, we will have to reinvent a language of tolerance not predicated on liberal and modernist ideas of the self and of the interaction between selves. To do so, I believe we will need to have recourse to religious foundations for tolerance. ♦

Dr. Adam B. Seligman is Professor of Religion at Boston University and Director of the International Summer School on Religion and Public Life (, a laboratory for the practical pedagogy of tolerance and living with difference in a global society. He can be reached at

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Winter 2009