Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Is Tolerance a Virtue?

Over the course of my life I have noticed that the quality tolerance has been morphed into a virtue right up there with the cardinal and natural virtues that were taught in my childhood as standards by which to measure behavior. This has created created confusion in those who have not explicitly defined their morality, and it permits people to unconsciously—or even worse, consciously—slip into the error of moral equivalence.

Years ago when my daughter was in her middle childhood, she took part in a model lesson taught by a Jewish master teacher at a National Association of Temple Educators (NATE) conference when it was held here in New Mexico. The master teacher was modeling a Jewish version of the Socratic questioning method on the topic of a particular blessing in the weekday morning Amidah. Although I have forgotten the name of the master teacher, and even though I have little opportunity these days to use the method he modeled, I will never forget the lesson.  It was the first time I explicitly understood that tolerance is no virtue.

In recent days and weeks I have thought about that lesson often as I have watched the sloppy thinking that is moral equivalence being deliberately used to confuse people. Moral equivalence is used to excuse every type of lawless and craven behavior from the publication of vicious lies about Sarah Palin to the murder of innocent civilians by Hamas and Hezbollah. In responding to a well-written commentary at Sultan Knish Blog about this problem, the memory of that lesson returned full force and allowed me to identify tolerance as an ersatz virtue that has opened to door to the use of moral equivalence without argument and to silence any opposition to it.  

The discussion text for the model lesson selected by the master teacher was about the blessing that includes a supplication for protection against “bad friends and evil companions.” “What,” the master teacher asked his model students, “is a bad friend?” The students gamely came up with all manner of examples.

According to the kids, a bad friend would get you to sneak a cigarette, would sell you drugs, would steal your homework, would talk you into all manner of childishly unrighteous behavior. After each such example, the master teacher would say: “That’s a friend?” His point, which the kids took a while to get, was that in the examples they were giving, the person in question was not really a friend, and therefore the supplication does not apply to such people.

When the kids got it, there was a long silence, which the master teacher—being a master teacher—allowed to stretch out in order to increase the tension of the unresolved question. He then led the kids through a sequence of questioning that began by getting them to define what is a friend, and continued until they determined that a bad friend is someone who’d rather be liked and would rather conform than confront his friends when they depart from the path of virtue. Even a child can recognize someone who is not a friend, someone who deliberately attempts to lead him astray. It is sometimes much harder to recognize the bad friend, the one who tolerates sloppy thinking and bad behavior in order to remain agreeable, the one who would rather be liked in the moment than protect a friend from the path of destruction. 

The sloppy thinking that leads to moral equivalence begins with the belief that tolerance is a virtue, although it clearly is not. A virtue is a particular moral standard that, according to Webster’s New Universal Unabridged English Dictionary (2003), allows a person to “conform one’s life to moral and ethical principles; uprightness, rectitude.” On the other hand, tolerance is the amount of variation from a standard that is allowable under certain circumstances. For example, in engineering, tolerance is the range of variation in physical characteristics of a material such as weight or hardness that can be allowed for a particular use. In the sciences, tolerances in measurements are expressed as error bars and must be included in order to be truthful about the precision that a particular instrument allows.

The point here is that tolerance is a measure of allowable variation from a standard, and therefore cannot be the standard itself. Tolerance is not a virtue because it is not an absolute; rather it is an allowable deviation from an absolute. Even the editors of Webster’s do not get this difference entirely, although the contradiction is apparent within the mess of definitions they provide. Their first definition of tolerance is:

"A fair, objective and permissive attitude toward opinions and practices that differ from one’s own.”

Here the words “fair” and “permissive” are operative, and the use of the word “objective” is misleading. If one is being fair and even permissive about an opinion or practice then the differences between one’s own opinions and practices are being tolerated.  the objective reality of the standard is unknown,or does not exist, or one allows that it is disputed in particular instances.

For example, preferences in matters of the sense of taste are dependent on variations in physiology and culture and there are few objective standards. I may enjoy chocolate ice cream and you may enjoy vanilla, and as reasonable people we would tolerate that difference as being unimportant. Here, there is no objective standard that requires that we agree that my preference is good and yours is bad or vice versa.

But there are some physiological standards of taste. All human beings who can  smell and taste react with disgust to rotten meat, for example. Disgust is an inborn physical and emotional reaction to substances that if ingested or touched are bad for us, and that can make us seriously ill or even kill us. We have little to no tolerance for these things. And because the standard here is the allowance of poison into our systems, little to no tolerance is a good thing.

The same play of tolerance and standards is operative when we deal with other kinds of behavior in our relationships with others. We might tolerate certain annoying behaviors in children that we would not for adults. Children are young and have a lot to learn. In fact, there is so much behavior to teach that one could end up correcting children all the time in everything they do. This is not good pedagogy. The focus on correcting everything leads to lack of confidence in the student and perfectionism in the teacher. Nobody is satisfied and everyone is unhappy. Nobody learns. Much of good parenting and good teaching involves determining what to correct and what to ignore. One can for example, ignore a child’s impulsive blurting out of answers while correcting his impulsive darting out in front of cars. The first can be dealt with more gradually, but the learning curve on the second behavior is entirely too steep. The first behavior is tolerable—at least for a while—while the second leads to such immediate bad consequences that it is intolerable.

The same is true in other relationships. Take for example, a facet of the Webster definition of tolerance. One might indeed have a “permissive attitude” toward certain opinions and practices of another with whom one disagrees, while withholding such permissiveness towards other of their opinions and practices. For example, certain people believe that their religious opinions and practices apply universally to all human beings. (I am not talking about ethics and morality here, but rather specific religious opinions and practices. They are not the same thing and should not be conflated). Although I disagree with such a proposition, I can tolerate that some of my neighbors believe it, and I can even live side-by-side peacefully with them. I am tolerant of their wrong (in my eyes) opinions and practices within limits, however. So long as they want to tell each other than I am going to a mythological “hell” because I disagree, I have no problem tolerating them, although we are unlikely to be friends. However, should one of those neighbors decide that his religious happiness requires me to adopt his opinions and practices by force, then I can no longer tolerate it, because it interferes with my rights. Such behavior is intolerable, and it is no virtue to put up with it. The standard here is respect for each person’s liberty, and tolerance is how much deviation can be allowed, without destroying the standard. Force obviates liberty, and cannot be tolerated in the name of multiculturalism or any other ersatz virtue.

In sum, tolerance is relative to the standards and conditions and consequences of particular ideas and behaviors, it is not an absolute. It is not a virtue. It is simply an estimation of how much one can deviate, if at all, from from a particular virtue or other standard without destroying it.

A bad friend is not one who eggs one on to do wrong—that is not a friend;  rather a bad friend  is one who tolerates ethical sloppiness and questionable behavior in others and does not expect better.  Those who preach tolerance as a virtue and who excuse faulty ideas and bad behavior in those who agree with them politically through moral equivalence are the “bad friends and evil companions” that we need to avoid. Through such tolerance they nurture evil in others and use them as means to their own ends.