Tolerance is more than putting up with things – it’s a moral virtue

Fairness and empathy are closely connected to moral development and reasoning. George A. Spiva Center for the Arts

Tolerance is more than putting up with things – it’s a moral virtue

Fairness and empathy are closely connected to moral development and reasoning. George A. Spiva Center for the Arts

We hear a lot about tolerance these days.

Tolerance is a moral virtue best placed within the moral domain – but unfortunately it is often confounded with prejudice. Much of the psychological research about tolerance generally and about the development of children’s understanding of tolerance of others who are different from them has been examined through research about prejudice – and not through the moral domain. The assumption made is that absence of prejudice by default means a person is tolerant.

Prejudice and tolerance are actually theoretically different concepts – and not the opposite of each other. In fact, they coexist in most of us.

Tolerance is difficult to define, which may have led to limiting the study of tolerance in psychology in favour of studying prejudice. But, unlike prejudice, tolerance can be grounded in the moral domain which offers a positive approach to examining relationships between groups of people who are different from each other.

Based on its Latin origin, tolerance, or toleration as philosophers often refer to it, is most commonly viewed negatively as “putting up with” something we dislike or even hate. If a person is prepared to “put up with” something – along the lines of, I do not like the colour of your skin but I will still serve you not to lose your custom – that person is someone who does not discriminate but remains intolerant in thoughts and beliefs.

Besides, who wants to be tolerated or be “put up with”?

At the same time tolerance cannot be indiscriminate. Indiscriminate acceptance in its most extreme form could lead to recognition of questionable practice and human rights violations – for instance, child marriages and neo-Nazi propaganda.

Tolerance as a moral virtue

An alternative way for us to think of tolerance is to place it within the moral domain and recognise that it is what it is, a moral virtue.

Many recent philosophers have linked tolerance with respect, equality and liberty. Those such as Michael Dusche, John Rawls and Michael Walzer among others, argue that we should regard tolerance as a positive civic and moral duty between individuals, irrespective of colour, creed or culture.

In other words, it is a moral obligation or duty which involves respect for the individual as well as mutual respect and consideration between people. Tolerance between people makes it possible for conflicting claims of beliefs, values and ideas to coexistence as long as they fit within acceptable moral values.

So while different marriage practices fit in within acceptable moral values, sexual abuse of children is immoral and cannot be tolerated. I believe tolerance is an essential component in social unity and a remedy to intolerance and prejudice.

The idea that tolerance is a moral duty had been acknowledged by earlier civil libertarians, such as John Locke, Baruch Spinoza, John Stuart Mill and others. They argue that tolerant people value the individual, his or her independence and freedom of choice.

When tolerance is placed within the moral domain relating to fairness, justice and respect and avoiding causing harm to others, it can only be viewed as a positive moral virtue.

Psychological research supports the idea that tolerance is better placed within the moral domain. My own research with my students shows the best indicators and predictors of tolerance to human diversity are fairness and empathy.

Fairness and empathy are also very closely connected to moral development and reasoning. They are fundamental to any coherent moral philosophy.

Empathy and morality

Psychologists such as Johnathan Haidt believe empathy is the most important motivator for moral behaviour. Others such as Martin Hoffman argue empathy is a motivator of prosocial and altruistic or unselfish behaviour.

Empathic people are sensitive to the thoughts, feelings and experiences of others. They are able to place themselves in someone else’s shoes or understand how it would feel to be treated badly. Placing oneself in someone else’s shoes is the essence of tolerance.

My research shows that people of all ages including children have a strong sense of fairness and empathy towards others different from them in colour, creed or culture. They reject prejudice and intolerance between 70% and 80% of the time affirming tolerance based on fairness and empathy.

Moral values such as fairness, justice, empathy, tolerance and respect are shared, if not universal, values relevant to dealing with human diversity

Tolerance examined as separate concept could have unique implications for education and social policy. Education aimed at promoting a harmonious society could do well to focus more on the relationship between morality and tolerance. Grounding tolerance in theories of morality allows for an alternative educational approach to promote harmonious intergroup relationships.

Part of this education would involve developing a strong sense of fairness and justice and the ability to empathise with the plight of others who are different in racial characteristics, ethnicity or nationality.


This article is part of a series on public morality in 21st-century Australia.