Essay / Misc.

Brad Stetson on Intolerably Intolerant Tolerance

Brad Stetson gave a lecture at Biola this week on the virtue of tolerance. Stetson, a PhD in social ethics from the University of Southern California, co-authored a widely-praised book on this subject last year. In just about 40 minutes, Stetson can put thoughts in your head that burn away the enveloping fog of confusion on this subject.

The most helpful thing I heard Stetson point out to the Biola undergrads who gathered to hear him was that since tolerance presupposes disagreement, it can only come into play when two parties hold conflicting views of what is true or good. If you subtract the commitment to truth, tolerance evaporates. Since that is the case, isnt’ it odd that people who earnestly believe in something are considered by that very fact to be intolerant. If tolerance is “a policy of patient forbearance in the presence of something which is disliked or disapproved of,” only people with opinions ever get a chance to be tolerate each other. The presence of disagreement is a presupposition of tolerance. The more committed you are to truth, the more times a day you have a chance to put up with people who don’t see it your way.

How, then, can tolerance be employed so often as a virtue which demands the sacrifice of truth commitments? Stetson thinks this abuse of tolerance is (highly successful) move of manipulative deception. It involves a particular sleight-of-hand called “value formalism.” There is a cluster of values which have no content of their own, but are merely the shapes that values can be exercised in: chief among them are change, choice, diversity, and tolerance. Change in itself cannot be a good; it is a form which has to receive its goodness from some material good (“I am healthy, but I will add the virtue of change to that and become sick”). Similarly, the value (moral or otherwise) of a choice is determined not by the act of choosing, but by the moral value of the ends chosen. Diversity is likewise relative (“There’s too much human decency in here, we need the diversity of some real bigots”), and tolerance functions the same way: merely formal in themselves, but tremendous virtues if oriented toward a more solid material good.

I have long thought that tolerance, though a virtue, is not a cardinal or hinge virtue. It just can’t bear the weight of anything else turning on it; it must turn on other virtues. Stetson’s The Truth About Tolerance took that germ of an insight and develops it at worthy length.

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