When Toleration Becomes a Vice: Naming Aristotle’s Third Unnamed Virtue

AJPS Author Summary - When Toleration Becomes a ViceAuthor Summary by Richard Avramenko and Michael Promisel

It is a curious pastime of modern man to profess—and even enjoy—that he faces challenges unparalleled in human history. This certainly may be the case. But when it comes to politics and our everyday relations with others, it often is not.

This presumption is apparent in our conceptions of toleration, the virtue pertaining to relations between individuals in disagreement. Many hold that toleration emerged in the early modern period when pacifists proposed the virtue as a remedy to political violence begotten by religious schism and discord. According to this tradition, toleration means finding positive reasons for putting up with—tolerating—conduct and beliefs we find objectionable.

In recent scholarship, however, toleration means something quite different. The virtue has been transformed to confront the supposedly unprecedented challenges of our time. Toleration now demands more than restraining interference or condemnation; the tolerant citizen, it is argued, should avoid causing the pain associated with uncomfortable conversations, personal criticism or even difference of opinion. The discomfort of ethical disagreement and contestation is now construed as cruelty, and cruelty is, of course, the antithesis of toleration. Should one want to defend some social practice, one need only point an accusing finger and level a charge of intolerance at opposition.

This transformation of a central liberal virtue leads to an unsettling conclusion: toleration has become a vice. Sensing this transformation, many desire a return to toleration’s early modern roots. While important, appeals to early modern conceptions do not mitigate the rise of excessive toleration—an extreme iteration of the original principles. After all, the problematic binary of tolerance and intolerance emerged from this period.

A better answer, we argue, can be found much earlier than the modern era. In fact, if we regard toleration as a virtue responding to a perennial human need—reconciling disagreements—many resources present themselves that were previously unthinkable. One such resource is Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. In fact, hiding under the guise of a “nameless virtue” in Book IV, Chapter 6, is a disposition that looks a lot like toleration, a term unavailable to Aristotle.

When we examine Aristotle’s account, we discover several insights that illuminate the problems with toleration today. Most importantly, Aristotle regards all moral virtues, including toleration, as the balance between two extremes. Toleration is the mean between the deficiency of intolerance and the excess of obsequiousness. This explains how recent iterations can be understood as a vice—they take the virtue too far. Moreover, Aristotle’s treatment of pleasure and pain in social relations offers a nuanced framework for pursuing toleration at a time when emotional pain is often conflated with cruelty. Instead, he demonstrates that pleasure and pain in social relations are secondary to human flourishing and, therefore, that not all pain is cruel.

While his account offers much more to nuance our understanding of toleration, perhaps most striking of all is how helpful such a classical resource can be to diagnose our current predicament and reveal the parallels between political and ethical dilemmas across time.

About the authors: Richard Avramenko is an Associate Professor and Michael Promisel is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Their research, “When Toleration Becomes a Vice: Naming Aristotle’s Third Unnamed Virtue” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

 

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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