Tolerance and Virtue

by Andrew Simmons                                                                           Friday,  March 20, 2015

When Socrates spoke on the two principles of knowledge and ignorance, there is the notion that sound ethical behavior arises from knowledge and evil by the latter. Morality becomes centered on the progression towards knowledge.For Aristotle, this was the point of pure contemplation upon one’s existence. In order to produce a ethical modern society, we are encouraged to go out and learn about the cultures that compose our communities. This coincides with Augustine’s statement, which is also used by Aquinas, that “one cannot love what they do not know”. Yet, when confronted with ideas that one does not like, we are told to practice tolerance as a form of social virtue. The problem is the emphasis on tolerance does not work with the pursuit of knowledgable love. Rather, it does that opposite by acting as a censure in which we force ourselves to be ignorant of another.

Tolerance is defined primarily as accepting the existence of traits and practices that one does not approve of. But what is happening in order to allow communication between two individuals tolerating the other? In the theoretical scenario of an African-American citizen conversing with a racially biased individual, is it just these two simply accepting, as a present reality, the conflicting differences between the two? I say no, as, especially in situations of race and prejudice, the conscious awareness of these traits cannot be simply accepted. If communication is possible, it is only because these negative characteristics are pushed into the background. We know they are there, but we choose to not let them immediately dictate the current situation. As such, one is never fully addressing another as they are in their totality.

This is important in terms of the inability for tolerance to fully resolve the problems of social communication. This can be seen explicitly in the growing circular arguments of “You are not tolerant” followed by “You are not tolerant of my intolerance”. What is happening here is not a rhetorical means of evading tolerance, but a showing of tolerances own limitation. Tolerance, as a permanent means of creating peace, becomes obstructed by its own intolerance towards the intolerant. Within any social relationship, there is this initial moment of tolerance in which one differs their attention away from traits they do not like. But, in the growth of knowledge and communication with that individual, there arises this point in which tolerance of these characteristics is no longer possible. There is this process by which those who promote tolerance must become intolerant of another’s refusal to be tolerant. In dialogues concerning sexuality for instance, there is this necessary moment in which the conservative and liberal can no longer tolerate the other.

What should not be concluded from this is intolerance being the more lasting method of communication. It does not follow that the limitations of tolerance should lead to an opposite unlimited intolerance. Intolerance is just as limited as it focuses on changing perspectives of individual characteristics. What truly elevates relationships within society is the application of the virtue. With specific differences in mind, the general definition of the virtues are that they are dispositions/attitudes towards life that allow for one to be a good person. To understand its relationship to tolerance and intolerance, virtue acts as a mediator between when to reasonably be tolerant or intolerant. The mediating principle of virtue is important as it clarifies my view of tolerance: it is inherently pragmatic. It is important, but its importance should be understood within the confines of pragmatism. Virtues provide a means of elevating relationships outside of a tolerance/intolerance dynamic. In lifting one up towards goodness, there is an ethical condition that goes beyond needing to tolerate.

Andrew Simmons is a graduate from Aquinas College and  a student of the Ukrainian Catholic University. He is working on a masters in philosophy <and theology>, but has to go through a lot of language courses. He finally remembered that he has his own blog


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