For some people, the value of tolerance is simply the opposite of intolerance. But to think of tolerance in simple binary terms limits our understanding of important aspects of the concept.

We gain greater insight if we consider tolerance as the midpoint on a spectrum ranging between prohibition at one end to acceptance at the other:

Prohibition ————— Tolerance ————— Acceptance

The Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle called this middle point of the spectrum, the golden mean. Approaching tolerance this way, makes it what philosophers call a virtue – the characteristic between two vices.

For example, Aristotle places the virtue of courage at the midpoint (or golden mean) between cowardice and recklessness. So, a courageous person has a proper appreciation of the danger to be faced but stands steadfast and resolute all the same.

Cowardice ————— Courage ————— Recklessness

Although Aristotle’s doctrine of the golden mean can help us understand tolerance, quite a bit more needs to be said. Some things deserve to be rejected and prohibited. And some things ought to be accepted.

We should neither accept or tolerate behaviour that denies the intrinsic dignity of people – for example, the defiling of synagogues by anti-Semites. Instead, we should have a general acceptance and respect for everyone’s intrinsic dignity. People should neither be rejected nor merely tolerated.

Unacceptance ≠ Prohibition

However, there are some things you might reasonably not accept, yet not want to prohibit. This is typically the case when you encounter an idea, custom or practice that is either unfamiliar or at odds with your own convictions about what makes for a good life.

For example, a vegetarian might be convinced it is wrong to eat animals. Such a person may never accept the practice as part of their own life. However, they may not want to stop others eating meat. Instead, they will tolerate other people’s consumption of animals.

This reveals an essential aspect of tolerance. Toleration is always a response to something that is disapproved of – but not to such a degree as to justify prohibition. Tolerance is, by definition, a mark of disapproval.

And so some people seek from society something more than ‘mere tolerance’. Instead, they look for acceptance.

Tolerance to acceptance

The word ‘acceptance’ rang out loud when it was revealed a majority of Australian voters answered yes to the same sex marriage postal survey in 2017. For gay and lesbian couples, the result is evidence of wide acceptance of their equality as citizens.

Individuals and communities are not only entitled to think about what should be accepted, tolerated or prohibited. We can also be obliged to consider these things.

Without wanting to confuse ethical with legal obligations, this is the difficult task of parliaments. To continue with the same sex marriage example in Australia, they were obliged to consider what behaviours should be accepted, tolerated, or prohibited in terms of wedding services and religious freedoms.

The ethics of tolerance

Ethics calls upon people to examine their lives – including the quality of their reasons when forming judgements. An ethical life is one that goes beyond unthinking custom and practice. This is why judgements about what is to be accepted, tolerated or prohibited need to be made free from the distorting effects of prejudice. Beliefs, customs and institutions should be evaluated for what they actually are – and not on the basis of assumptions about people or the world. The quality of our judgment matters.

There can be sincere disagreement among people of good will. Respect for persons – and the general acceptance this requires – can sit alongside ‘mere’ tolerance of each other’s foibles.

And that may be the best we should hope for.