What’s wrong with tolerance?  To even suggest there could be something wrong with it—the premier political virtue of our age—is heretical to the Politically Correct.  In fact, there is nothing wrong with tolerance as long as it doesn’t cause us to make wrong choices.  The great error occurring in the American cultural debate is the assumption that tolerance for a pattern of behavior makes that pattern “right.”  Political leaders are measured by their degree of tolerance, not their degree of rightness.  Conduct is measured by how much it is tolerated, not whether it is right or wrong.

“Tolerance” and “right” or “wrong” deal with different issues.  A relevant definition of tolerance is “sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own.”[i]  It has nothing to do with what is right or wrong.  It merely describes how we respond to those we don’t agree with.  Indulging those who believe in something wrong does not make it right.  While we might cheerfully tolerate those who believe two plus two equals five, we certainly would not want them designing bridges we were expected to use.  Two plus two does not equal five—it never has nor ever will.

The terms “right” and “wrong” are essentially predictors of results.  Something is right when it is true—that is, in harmony with reality.  Choosing what is right means to base our actions on reality so that our bridges won’t collapse.  Choosing what is wrong means many lives will be needlessly lost due to faulty bridge construction.  To exalt tolerance to the point where those who claim two plus two equals five must have their views treated as equally valid with those who know the correct sum is four—is to court disaster.  Tolerance for bad math does not make it right.  In fact, our degree of tolerance is completely irrelevant.  Only those whose designs are based on correct addition can be trusted to make the blue prints for our bridges—regardless of how offended the two plus two equals five
crowd might be.

To claim that there is no “right” standard for either personal behavior or national action requires a belief that all outcomes are equally desirable—because differing behavior will bring differing outcomes.  If there is no wrong, then there can be no right.  If there is no wrong, then actions which lead to tragedy and pain must be equally desirable to those leading to happiness and health because those differing results result from what choices are made, not on how tolerant we are of differing belief systems.

To claim that once having arrived at a state of tolerance all will be well is foolish.  Tolerance for differing opinions is good because it provides the forum for civil discussion about what outcomes the country should seek and the best way of achieving them.  But the real goal is to arrive at a course which is right.  Even if everyone wholeheartedly supported a cause that was wrong—certainly the ultimate in tolerance—it would not prevent that cause from bringing ruin because “wrong” is, by definition, not in harmony with reality.  Reality always wins.

[i]  Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition, 2007 “tolerance”.

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  1. Daniel says:

    This feels awfully vague. What beliefs that are currently tolerated would you stipulate as also “wrong”, i.e. out of touch with reality, inevitably leading to negative consequences, etc.? A critique of tolerance as an absolute principal is well and good, but you’d only make such a critique if you felt tolerance was leading to the embrace, or at least preventing the condemnation, of beliefs that are wrong by your definition.

    In that same vein, who are these people and what are the beliefs extant in political and social discourse that you equate with “exalt[ing] tolerance to the point where those who claim two plus two equals five must have their views treated as equally valid with those who know the correct sum is four”. That feels hyperbolic, especially as I think most of the people supporting the beliefs you presumably disagree with do so, not out of some fetishistic support of tolerance but out of a genuine belief that such things are either right or, more likely, not wrong.

    Finally, are you positing a purely consequentialist definition of right and wrong? Because how would that play out in a pluralistic society like ours? I think a lot of the things you and I believe to be “right” don’t necessarily lead to positive outcomes within mortality, and in a pluralistic society where multiple competing narratives about eternity exist, you can’t draw upon eternal consequences to justify something as “right” in conversation with a heterogeneous audience. So is something right only if it leads to positive results?

    Thought provoking as always.

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