The Limits of Tolerance
by Paul Kurtz
The following article is from Free
Inquiry magazine, Volume 16, Number 1.
Humanists have consistently defended tolerance, the free mind, free inquiry, and the
need for moral freedom in the great battles over the years for a free society. There are
certain limits, however, that a reflective humanist will grant applies to the principle,
for it is not an absolute.
The principle of tolerance entails toleration of a wide range of beliefs and moral
values, and it would allow individuals and groups the opportunity to express fully their
diverse beliefs, practices, and life-stances. This principle presupposes an open,
pluralistic, and democratic society, which respects civil liberties and human rights. It
also encourages intellectual, artistic, scientific, religious, philosophical, and moral
What is the justification for the principle? John Locke, John Stuart Mill, and other
civil libertarians have argued that tolerance presupposes the value of the individual, his
or her autonomy, and freedom of choice. And it recognizes that a tolerant society will
more likely tend to be a creative and innovative society, for it is open to new
discoveries of truth and new insights, thus expanding the reservoir of human experience. A
tolerant society is more likely to engender mutual trust and cooperation. It tends towards
a more peaceful society; insofar as we are willing to learn from others, we are more able
to negotiate and compromise our differences. In a tolerant society there is thus apt to be
less cruelty, hypocrisy, and duplicity, less dogmatism, hatred, and fanaticism. In short,
the principle of tolerance contributes to the common good and to a more humane society,
and it is justified on pragmatic, consequential, and utilitarian grounds.
Given the importance of tolerance to a humanistic democracy, are there limits to be
placed on it? Yes, though this must be stated with caution. Let me suggest why. It is
clear that tolerance does not apply to all actions; we are tolerant of beliefs and the
expression of beliefs, of thought and conscience, and speech. But where belief or speech
translate into action, a civilized society has the right to regulate conduct and to enact
legislation to protect the public good. We cannot, for example, condone violence; nor can
we allow people to do whatever they wish if this will harm others, or prevent them from
exercising their rights, as Mill has pointed out.
The principle of tolerance, I reiterate, is not an absolute. In fact, it is difficult
to find any absolutes. Even the statement that there are no absolutes is not an absolute
statement. On the other hand, tolerance is a prima facie general principle that we are
prepared to live by and defend. Under certain limited conditions we can overrule it, but
we have to have good reasons to do so. This may occur when there is a clash with other
general principles to which we are committed. There are many values and virtues we believe
in — truth, for example. What do you do when tolerance conflicts with other viable
virtues or goods that are at stake?
Let me focus this question on two areas that are intensely debated today. The first
concerns individual liberty. This relates to a great struggle between libertarians and
conservatives. An unfortunate illustration of this is the United States, where for thirty
or forty years the libertarian ideal had been expanding. A new conservative Supreme Court,
which disturbs us greatly, is now embarked upon an agenda to greatly restrict individual
moral liberty in the name of good.
A second area for contention concerns multiculturalism. These are clashes between
ethnic and national groups today in the United Kingdom, France, Eastern Europe, the United
States, Canada, and around the globe. How shall we reconcile their differences?
Tolerance is intimately related to individual liberty, and especially to the right of
privacy. What does that entail? It means that those things that concern an individual
alone ought not to be regulated by the state or society, but those things that are public
can be regulated. The public sphere includes the protection of individuals from violence,
the ensuring of public health, and use of taxation to fulfill public services, such as
education and transportation. These are all within the sphere of public concern. What
libertarian humanists insist upon as part of the private sphere are inner thoughts and
conscience, religious belief or unbelief, control over one's own body, sexual preference
between consenting adults, abortion, reproductive freedom, euthanasia, the right to die
with dignity, artistic expression, and so on. In the moral domain individuals have the
right to choose how they wish to live, the values that they wish to cherish, even the
mistakes that they may freely choose to make, without any interference by society or the
It is clear that tolerance and the right to privacy cannot be appealed to in order to
condone any and every course of action. To function smoothly certain other social
conditions must be present. Those of us who have been on the barricades defending moral
freedom recognize that we have another battle to elevate the level of taste and
appreciation in society. We have been open to the criticism that merely to be free is not
enough. For you cannot have genuine moral freedom unless you have moral education for the
young. We thus need to focus upon moral growth and development. We need to cultivate the
best within the young: to guide them so that they are morally compassionate and
empathetic, and have developed some sort of reflective moral wisdom. The idea that
"anything goes" is something that we ought to criticize. In the United States
the secular humanists are blamed for everything. Our critics maintain that we've corrupted
the young. Perhaps I have done my share of that in the universities where I have taught by
undermining students' religiosity, and developing the capacity for moral reflection and
Civic And Moral Virtues
In a free society where racists abound, where a drug culture runs rampant (I am in
favor of the decriminalization of drugs), where promiscuity, violence in the media, and
wasted lives are everywhere in evidence, humanists need to defend moral excellence, noble
deeds, and qualitative standards. Libertarianism will not work if we do not at the same
time develop moral responsibility. Conservatives wish to regulate conduct under the aegis
of the Church or the State. We oppose this authoritarian approach. But, if we are against
the legislation of morality, the only alternative is to develop the civic and moral
virtues by means of moral education.
Pure tolerance thus has its limits; it cannot succeed unless it is accompanied at the
same time by a commitment to raising the level of appreciation. Media-driven,
consumer-oriented societies are all too often vulgar and banal, and they lack standards of
taste or decency. We have a hard task and a double battle — for moral freedom and for
improving moral standards. Although we do not wish to legislate morality, this does not
mean that we should not criticize the vulgar excesses of modern consumer-oriented culture.
This should not be left to the conservatives railing from the pulpits. We have an
obligation to encourage the finest cultural expressions, intellectual, aesthetic, and
A second problem — multiculturalism — is a far more difficult one. Colleges and
universities throughout America have witnessed a battle during the past decade over
attempts to reform and undermine the curriculum in Western civilization. Educators in the
United States have believed in general education courses; that is, they try to expose
students to a whole range of Western writers — from Socrates to Montaigne, from Keats to
Kant. There has been a tremendous assault on this curriculum from critics who maintain
that we do not give sufficient appreciation for literature by women and non-white
populations. These critics say that if you are going to have something by Aristotle you
should have something by a Nigerian poet or a feminist in order to develop an appreciation
for the multiplicities of civilization. They demand that diverse points of view should be
represented in the curriculum. Why should Western scholars impose their values on others?
Why not hear from Africa, Asia, and Latin America? Multi-culturalists appeal to our sense
of tolerance arguing that all points of view ought to be represented in the curriculum.
I submit that this approach is mistaken. Surely students should be exposed to a wide
range of cultural values. They should learn about Pakistan and Brazil, the Watutsi and the
Inuit, and their literature and cultural outlooks. But this does not mean one should
abandon what I consider humanist culture to be and the values of the scientific,
rationalist, and democratic outlook implicit in Western civilization and intrinsic to
world culture. I do not think that all ideas and values are equal in merit and
authenticity. Teaching the great literature of the past does not mean that we are unfairly
imposing our views on everyone.
This is only one illustration of the conflicts caused by multiculturalism in the sphere
of higher education. There is a far more violent illustration — the view that in a
pluralist society all ethnic outlooks and values ought to be equally expressed and/or
supported. How far should this tolerance go? Many regions are faced with cultural and
ethnic clashes. How far do we go in our principles of tolerance?
I believe we need in the current context to criticize the divisive ethnocentrism that
has emerged in the world. I consider ethnocentricism comparable to the old nationalism of
fifty years ago that dominated Europe between the wars. What was once a battle between
England, Germany, and France is now a struggle between ethnic groups.
At this point we ought to recognize that there is a humanist outlook now emerging,
which is transcultural. It cuts across frontiers and the cultural divide. If you tolerate
all ethnic differences equally you are going to conflict. We have to move beyond that.
Ethnic groupings are accidental, based on geographical isolation, with cultures and
languages developing over a relatively short period of time in human history. We are
reaching a stage where ethnicity can be reactionary, regressive, and divisive. Let me
qualify that: we are opposed to the oppression by the majority of a minority. In the
Soviet Union, for instance, the Russians had repressed the Estonians, Lithuanians, and
Latvians, and in the United States there is a long-standing repression of black culture by
the dominant white majority. We obviously are opposed to this.
We favor liberation and tolerance, but a new planetary society is emerging. This global
culture is authentically humanistic; it goes beyond chauvinistic ethnicity; it opens the
door to a new, more inclusive ethnicity where we are all members of the world community.
What does that entail?
First, a basic democratic principle that the state should be secular. Namely, no one
religious denomination should be established over others. The secular state is important
because it defends the rights of minorities. The secular state does not exist in the
Islamic world. It still does not exist in Ireland. It would not exist in Poland if
nationalistic, ethnic, and religious forces have their way.
Second, we need to make it clear that there are concepts and methodologies that
transcend specific cultural boundaries. Central to this is the growth of science, which
goes beyond ethnicity and is the common heritage of all humankind. There is also a vast
literature of philosophy that is beyond narrow frontiers, and is not nationalistic.
Similarly for the arts, which can be appreciated by the entire human family.
Third, there is a set of humanist values that is an essential part of a new world
morality. This begins with a recognition of universal human rights. You cannot find a
defense of human rights in the Bible or the Koran. They have emerged only with the
democratic and humanist revolutions of the modern era. Included in this are the rights of
the child. The belief that parents can dominate their children is archaic. They surely
have no right to abuse their children, to beat or starve them, or to deprive them of
cultural enrichment. Accordingly, the idea that every group has the right to its own and
distinct school system seems to me to be profoundly mistaken. Humanists ought to object to
the kind of educational curriculum offered in church schools.
Parents have no right to impose their religion on their children or to prevent them
from being exposed to other points of view. A Fundamentalist Protestant, an Orthodox
Jewish, Roman Catholic, or Muslim parent has no right to expect the state to support his
own narrow conception of education, particularly since we all share the same world
There are other essential aspects to humanist morality. Thus, no one has the right to
destroy the environment and to exploit it for his or her own purposes. The growing world
population is a problem that should concern everyone on the planet: does anyone have the
right to prohibit contraception or to block family planning, as the Roman Catholic church
is attempting in many parts of the world? Does anyone have the moral right to flout
excessive affluence, impervious to the impoverishment of others?
The point is: we have now reached a new plane of moral awareness. We ought to
appreciate cultural differences, the wide variety of languages, customs, artistic
expressions, and culinary delights. Let's not destroy diversity, let us savor it. On the
other hand, we have to reach a higher ground, to defend travel and intercommunication, so
there are no barriers anywhere on the planet. I realize the difficulties in this, and that
we are talking about ideals for the future. The highest good, as I see it, is
intermarriage between people of different ethnicities, races, religions, and cultures.
People who intermarry are contributing to the new human species that is emerging on this
planet. You can see it clearly in the United States: in fifty years we will have a
non-white majority. This frightens many people. We can see the same changes in Western
Europe. I was first in London in 1944 at the height of the war at the invitation of the
U.S. Army. What a change racially and culturally has taken place in the great cities of
Europe. In due course, the majority may no longer be white. I think this is wholesome and
good. It is difficult for many people's nervous systems to have this clash of cultures and
races, but we ought to encourage the widespread intermingling of people as we reach a
civilization that is beyond ethnic differences.
In summary, humanists need to defend tolerance provided it is accompanied by moral
responsibility, which should be achieved by education rather than legislation. Similarly,
we need to encourage the development of a humanist culture in which no ethnic, racial, or
religious pockets exist and in which we reach a new planetary culture. In order to
eliminate the intolerance and chauvinism that has existed until now, we ought to take the
lead in defining a non-ethnic global ethic in which we are all part of the human family.
Although we can and should appreciate the multiplicities of cultural expressions, there
are nevertheless basic decencies and values, intellectual and moral standards that cut
across ethnic differences. The humanist outlook, I submit, best expresses this morality.