Contested Toleration


Toleration appears to be of prime importance for peaceful coexistence. This holds especially in modern, pluralistic societies, which are characterized by a plurality of cultural values and ways of life and in which not everyone agrees with the values and ways of life of all others. Accordingly, it seems that the state should be tolerant so that everyone can live the way he or she likes, given that this does not harm anyone else. Moreover, in addition to questions of legislation and state practice, if we had to choose, we would presumably prefer a tolerant society, i.e. a tolerant social interaction between citizens, to an intolerant one, as well, even if only to minimize the danger of being the object of intolerance ourselves. And even on the small scale of personal relationships, we would, for example, like our neighbors to be tolerant when we throw a party.

However, it is also obvious that some actions or practices should not be tolerated, namely those that unduly harm others. Yet, it is far from clear what “undue harm” exactly amounts to. Given that, for example, my neighbor needs a good night’s sleep for health reasons, can he really be expected to tolerate me partying all night long? More general problems arise when it comes, for instance,  to the question of what freedom of speech should cover—in contrast to not tolerating hate speech. Yet, how exactly can we decide on where to draw the line? For example, should there be laws or, more informally, social conventions banning certain actions or practices just because a majority—or a sufficiently influential minority—of people feels uncomfortable with them? Should feeling uncomfortable already count as being harmed? Hence, the limits of toleration need to be carefully argued for and are a matter of constant substantial dispute. This is at least partially due to the fact that the reasons put forward usually refer to values only shared by a specific group of people in society and which are, therefore, itself up for debate when it comes to their suitability as basis for deciding on where to draw the line between toleration and non-toleration.

In any case, in addition to this contested question of what should and should not be tolerated, there is an even more fundamental problem with toleration, namely: what exactly does it mean to be tolerant? And is toleration really all we would like our neighbors, society, or the state to be? Already Goethe has stated that toleration has to lead to recognition (“Anerkennung”), for mere toleration resembles an insult (cf. Goethe 1981, 385). Imagine, for example, a state being tolerant of homosexuality. In this state, homosexuality is indeed not criminalized, but gay people do not enjoy a number of civil rights that heterosexuals do, like the right to marry or to adopt children. And the state’s reason for refusing gay people these rights is that homosexuality is considered to be something “unnatural” or “abnormal,” which should not be encouraged, but also not be persecuted. So, while we may reasonably say that the state is tolerant of homosexuality, its practice of treating gay people still obviously lacks something essential, namely a basic moral recognition or respect, i.e. treating all people equally, regardless of their sexual orientation. Should we, thus, simply abandon the idea of toleration altogether and replace it with a notion of fundamental moral respect?

Yet, what about the neighbor’s case? Even if I sincerely respect my neighbor and he respects me, this does not change the fact that he needs his rest and likes it quiet while I like to party all night long. He may even think that I am wasting my life, while I think his life is boring. To be sure, referring to moral respect is of crucial importance, but this does not mean that we are expected to like each other’s lifestyle. Being tolerant of it, therefore, does not seem to be such a bad idea of getting along, even if referring to the idea of toleration as such does not already solve our practical problem. The content of toleration, as mentioned above, remains contested. However, neither is the concept of moral respect as such capable of solving our immediate practical problem. The idea of toleration, therefore, at least provides us with an important additional concept in order to work out a practical solution which may be acceptable to everyone concerned—and this holds for society at large.

Consequently, and contrary to Goethe, it seems that toleration and moral respect are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Hence, toleration may still play an important role in getting along peacefully, so it would be helpful to know in more detail what it exactly amounts to. How does it relate to moral respect? And what about the apparently important aspect of disliking or objecting to something when tolerating it?

Most basically, toleration may be characterized by the following combination between objection and acceptance (see, e.g., Forst 2012): while one has serious and reasonable objections against the matter in question, one also has overriding reasons to accept it nonetheless, thereby tolerating it. Accordingly, my neighbor has serious and reasonable objections against me partying all night and disturbing his sleep. Yet, he may also have overriding reasons to accept it nonetheless, say because we agreed on some general arrangement on the matter. Hence, it may be said that he is tolerating my party.

Still, the matter is a bit more complex. According to Forst, first of all, the context of toleration has to be acknowledged. It needs to be specified who may be the subject of toleration, i.e. who tolerates, who or what may be the object of toleration, i.e. who or what is being tolerated, and in which relationship both may stand to each other. The subject of toleration may be a specific person, a specific group of persons, society as whole, or its majority, or the state. The object of toleration may consist of individual persons or groups as well as of personal characteristics, beliefs, whole systems of beliefs, individual values, whole ways of life, specific actions, or certain practices. The most important thing, however, is to specify the relationship between the subject and the object of toleration, i.e. to give a more detailed account of the interplay between objection and acceptance, for it may range from mere endurance to more demanding conceptions including moral respect or even esteem.

Giving such a more detailed account, in turn, crucially hinges on the kinds of reasons that are in play when it comes to objection and acceptance. At least three kinds of reasons can be distinguished: firstly, prudential reasons basically amount to instrumental reasoning, i.e. it is about employing the best or at least appropriate means to realize one’s ends or interests, whatever these may be. As such, neither means nor ends are further reflected upon, for example from a moral perspective. Accordingly, my neighbor might have prudential reasons to send me a fake invitation to a great party elsewhere in order to have some quiet time when I am on my way to it.

Secondly, value based reasons: in contrast to purely prudential reasoning, we also tend to reflect on our ends, interests, and the appropriateness of the means to achieve them. When doing so, we usually invoke certain values or whole conceptions of how to lead a good life. Accordingly, my neighbor might value honesty, which would give him good reasons not to send me a fake invitation. As noted at the beginning, such value based reasons are usually not shared by everyone and are, thus, to a good part responsible for society’s pluralism.

Thirdly, moral reasons typically amount to a basic and narrow understanding of providing universally and objectively valid claims about what we owe to each other. In this regard, honesty might also be regarded as a moral value, obligating my neighbor not to send me a fake invitation. On the other hand, I am, in turn, obligated to take his interests seriously and respect him, as well. Accordingly, when toleration is meant to accompany a basic moral respect, the reasons for acceptance have to comprise moral reasons. Still, this does not imply that moral reasons are a necessary part of the acceptance component. Toleration is, thus, not necessarily a moral concept.

Based on these three kinds of reason, all combinations between reasons for objection and reasons for acceptance are, in principle, conceivable, thereby defining the relationship between objection and acceptance in more detail. Traditionally, people or the state had—and to a great amount still have—value based reasons, most importantly religious reasons, to object to others and their preferred way of life. Nevertheless, in cases of toleration, they typically have outweighing prudential reasons for refraining from interfering with these others and, for example, persecuting them because doing so would simply mean more trouble than it’s worth to them.

It is essentially this combination of reasons that led Goethe to claim that toleration resembles an insult, for in this combination toleration would neither include nor need the idea of moral respect. Accordingly, it is exactly this morally insufficient conception of toleration that is invoked in the above example of a state being merely tolerant of homosexuality but lacking moral respect. Moreover, given that the cost-benefit analysis of persecuting vs. enduring the so far tolerated minority might change over time, so would the—now probably no longer outweighing—prudential reasons for acceptance. Put generally, toleration based merely on prudential reasons for acceptance is not only a morally dubious but also a highly fragile matter.

Still, keeping the peace in society might be considered as outweighing moral reasons for objection in severe cases. For, what if acting according to moral reasons for objection were to lead to outright violence? Tolerating what is clearly morally wrong, in the sense of prudentially enduring it or in the sense of valuing peace higher than justice, might be a sensible option, after all. Current examples for such a practice are reconciliation commissions, which, given the actual circumstances of the society in question, aim primarily at preserving or facilitating a peaceful coexistence after a time of cruelty and injustice (see, e.g., Eisikovits 2014 and Radzik/Murphy 2015). However, such reconciliation commissions face the challenge of having to be successful on two levels, namely on the level of a state practice, on the one hand, and on the level of social interaction between citizens, on the other hand.

This latter distinction is also of crucial importance for the idea of toleration in general and raises another fundamental conceptual question: how plausible is it to think that the state and individual persons can be tolerant in the exact same sense? Usually, both levels are kept separate, in that toleration practiced by the state is considered to be a political-judicial practice, e.g. in granting certain rights or in refraining from prohibiting certain actions, while toleration practiced by individual persons is considered to be a personal stance or virtue, like in the example of my neighbor who refrains from interfering with my party.

Although both levels appear to have much in common, especially when it comes to refraining from interfering, making sense of the objection component in a modern and explicitly value-neutral liberal state, i.e. a state which includes the idea of moral respect but does not refer to value based reasons, poses a serious conceptual challenge. It would seem that for such a state, if a certain action or practice is objectionable—which for a value-neutral liberal state can only mean being morally wrong—, this action or practice has to be rejected, i.e. it has to be prohibited, and can, thus, not be tolerated. If, on the other hand, a certain action or practice is not morally wrong and could, therefore, be a possible object of toleration, it is also not objectionable and, thus, has to be allowed. Consequently, it would seem that there is no longer any conceptual room left for such a state to be tolerant in the above sense, for such a state by definition lacks any further evaluative grounds, i.e. value based reasons, for the objection component, and thus toleration, to take hold—aside maybe from using prudential reasons for acceptance to trump moral reasons for objection, as mentioned above with regard to reconciliation commissions. Consequently, if such a state shall still be deemed a tolerant one, then the notion of toleration involved would, for the most part, either have to be defined differently than the notion of toleration in the sense of an individual virtue or this would lead to a substantially confined application of toleration in the sense of a state practice.

In any case, this conceptual challenge might seem to be of interest for philosophers only, for even if the need for introducing two distinct concepts of toleration were granted, the actual practical problems of toleration in society on both levels would not just vanish. We would still have to argue, on both levels, about where to draw the line between what should and what should not be tolerated—and what should be a straightforward matter of acceptance. However, and defending the philosophical work involved, I think we are better equipped to argue about these matters if we are getting our concepts right beforehand. For, the crucial question is what kind of solution we should look for on these two levels, i.e. when it comes to state practices and social interaction.

Accordingly, while it makes sense, for example, to say that my party is a possible object of toleration from my neighbor’s prudential or value based point of view, so we may—at least also—look for a practical solution in terms of toleration, this does not make sense from the perspective of a modern, value-neutral liberal state. Throwing a party is obviously not morally wrong per se, and there are per definition no value based reasons for objection available on the level of state practice. Hence, throwing a party is not a reasonable object of toleration from the point of view of state practice. If it is of interest to the state at all, it might be regulated by some kind of legislated compromise on the exact times when partying is allowed and when it is forbidden. However, this would obviously not be a matter of toleration in the above sense. At most, the state would act as a kind of mediator between conflicting interests of its citizens, but without taking up a stance on the matter as such. Still, given that value based reasons play an important role for individuals and, thus, for how they interact with each other, toleration may still be the best way of ensuring peaceful coexistence in a pluralistic society on the level of social interaction, even when it comes to toleration in the sense of a morally dubious endurance merely for prudential reasons.

To sum up, toleration remains a contested idea and practice, not only regarding the scope of its content, i.e. what should and should not be tolerated and what should be a matter of straightforward acceptance, but also already regarding its conceptual meaning. Still, assuming that getting along peacefully is a goal worthwhile striving for, so is having a continuous—and peaceful—debate about the concept and scope of toleration, for toleration is, in addition to basic moral respect, still of prime importance in this regard.

Michael Kühler is currently research fellow at the University of Twente, the Netherlands, and Associate Professor (“Privatdozent”) for Philosophy at the University of Münster, Germany, where he is also an associated member of the Centre for Advanced Study in Bioethics. His research interests include ethics, metaethics, and political philosophy.


Eisikovits, Nir (2014): “Transitional Justice,” in: Zalta, Edward N. (ed.): The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Winter 2014, URL:

Forst, Rainer (2012): “Toleration,” in: Zalta, Edward N. (ed.): The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Summer 2012, URL:

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von (1981): Werke. Hamburger Ausgabe in 14 Bänden, ed. by. Erich Trunz, vol. 12, München: Beck.

Radzik, Linda/Murphy, Colleen (2015): “Reconciliation,” in: Zalta, Edward N. (ed.): The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Summer 2015, URL: