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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 freedom.

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?

Individual Liberty

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 state.

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 moral growth.

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 moral appreciation.


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 culture.

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.

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