One of the reasons why toleration seems to be, as a collection of essays puts it, an ‘elusive virtue’, is because the borderline between toleration and indifference is a continuously shifting one, so that while, for instance, a hundred years ago it may have been meaningful to speak of Anglicans ‘tolerating’ Roman Catholics, in present-day England people are sometimes indifferent to their neighbour’s religious affiliation. Notwithstanding the open-ended nature of toleration, some scholars have argued that it involves minimally an individual’s exercising restraint from intervening, obstructing, or regulating a view or activity that is believed to be incorrect or immoral, by appealing to second-order reasons such as the value of autonomy, respect for persons, the overall value of the world-view which has the belief or action, and so on.
More precisely, an individual is said to tolerate X by exercising self-restraint towards X which is otherwise believed to be deviant, by providing higher-order justifications for this restraint of power. It might seem that there is a contradiction between believing an idea to be false and accepting it, in the minimal sense of not seeking to root it out. The air of contradiction can be removed, however, by noting that the virtue of tolerance should be located within a system of ranked priorities: though we may object to X because we believe it to be false, we may nevertheless accept it on the grounds that we have a yet greater objection to eradicating X. For instance, one might strongly dislike a child’s choice of music, and yet accept the harsh sounds that emanate from her room, because one has a stronger opposition to the imposition of one’s personal musical preferences on other people. That is, a ‘tolerant’ person does not indiscriminately accept all opinions, views, or actions as correct but is willing to accept some of the above when she believes that this acceptance can be justified in terms of her ‘higher order’ ethical, religious or political ideals.
Nicholson, Peter P., ‘Toleration as a moral ideal’, in John Horton and Susan Mendus (eds), Aspects of Toleration: Philosophical Studies (London and New York: Methuen, 1985).
Raphael, D.D., ‘The Intolerable’, in Susan Mendus (ed.), Justifying Toleration: Conceptual and Historical Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).