In This Article Toleration

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Anthologies
  • Classical Texts
  • Conceptions of Toleration
  • Paradoxes of Toleration as a Moral Virtue
  • The Limits of Toleration
  • Critiques of Toleration
  • Toleration, Multiculturalism, and Minorities
  • International Toleration
  • Exemplary Cases of Toleration

Philosophy Toleration
Emanuela Ceva
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 October 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 May 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0064


The idea of toleration (or tolerance—the terms are mostly used interchangeably) plays a paramount role in liberal theorizing with regard to the normative characterization of the relations between the state and citizens and between majority and minority groups in society. Toleration occurs when an agent A refrains from interfering negatively with an agent B’s practice x or belief y despite A’s opposition to B’s x-ing or y-ing, although A thinks herself to be in the position of interfering. So, the notion of toleration necessarily incorporates the three following elements: (1) negative judgment—whether grounded in moral disapproval or “mere” dislike; (2) power to interfere—whether actual, perceived, or counterfactual; (3) reasons for noninterference—whether epistemological (fallibilism, skepticism), practical (balance of forces), or moral (value commitments). Is the forbearance of what one finds objectionable a strong enough normative ideal when it comes to establishing what we owe to each other in circumstances of moral disagreement? Does the request that we (possibly grudgingly) put up with someone’s objectionable lifestyle and convictions render toleration a condescending concession rather than the consequence of the recognition of everyone’s equal rights? In response, some have argued that we should interpret demands of toleration not as mere claims for noninterference but for the public recognition of the equal legitimacy of someone’s lifestyles and convictions (toleration as recognition). A recent line of debate concerns the kinds of relation that the ideal of toleration is apt to inform: is toleration primarily a political ideal qualifying the way in which liberal institutions should treat those who live under them or should toleration be invoked also to characterize horizontal relations between citizens? Whatever response is given to this question, limits to toleration must be established. As toleration is required of us vis-à-vis what we find objectionable, does it entail relativism? Liberals tend to think that reference to the harm principle should work as a limit for toleration: but what does count as a relevant (physical or symbolic) harm? Such questions acquire importance as the domain of toleration extends from the realm of religious conflicts, out of which it originated in the 16th and 17th centuries, to include a number of culture and ethics-related issues: should a liberal state permit pornography? What is the appropriate response to such cultural practices as female circumcision? Should neutral institutions prohibit the exhibition of religious symbols in public spaces? For insightful comments on a previous version of this article, I am grateful to Peter Balint, Andrea Fracasso, Anna Elisabetta Galeotti, and Federico Zuolo. I am indebted also to two anonymous reviewers and to Stefani Wexler for their helpful suggestions.

Introductory Works

Most introductory works offer a discussion of the necessary conditions for relations of toleration to obtain. Although one may find some variations in the terms employed, two agents A and B are thought to be in a relation of toleration if and only if (1) A objects to some feature x of B, (2) A has the power to interfere negatively with B’s x-ing, but (3) A refrains from interfering negatively with B’s x-ing. Forst 2007 calls condition (1) the objection component and condition (3) the acceptance component of toleration and adds what the author calls the rejection component, which qualifies the limits of toleration. Cohen 2004, Galeotti 2008, King 1997, and McKinnon 2006 offer similar characterizations. These works contain also discussions of the different grounds for the justification of toleration (see Grounds for Toleration) and of some paradoxes to which appeals to toleration may give rise (as the so-called paradox of the tolerant racist, see Paradoxes of Toleration as a Moral Virtue). McKinnon 2006 offers also some case-based discussion of contemporary issues of toleration (see Exemplary Cases of Toleration), whereas Forst 2007 presents a history of the concept (see Classical Texts). Respect, Tolerance, and Space: A Conceptual Map provides an online glossary, including definitions of toleration and such cognate concepts as respect. Walzer 1997 discusses various interpretations of toleration ranging from the resigned acceptance of differences for the sake of peace to the enthusiastic promotion of diversity, thus offering a useful map for understanding the various connotations the idea of toleration may take. Although most philosophers employ the terms toleration and tolerance interchangeably, Oberdiek 2001 distinguishes them by using tolerance to mean a virtue and toleration a practice.

  • Ceva, Emanuela, and Enzo Rossi, eds. Respect, Tolerance, and Space: A Conceptual Map.

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    Developed within the framework of RESPECT—Towards a Topography of Tolerance and Equal Respect, a project funded by the European Commission. Contains introductory definitions of the concepts of tolerance and respect and some theoretically engaged accounts of those concepts with regard to issues concerning the allocation of public space.

  • Cohen, Andrew Jason. “What Toleration Is.” Ethics 115 (2004): 68–95.

    DOI: 10.1086/421982E-mail Citation »

    Offers an accurate conceptual analysis of toleration, where by an act of toleration is meant an agent’s intentional and principled refraining from interfering with an opposed “other” in situations of diversity, where the agent believes she has the power to interfere.

  • Forst, Rainer. “Toleration.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2007.

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    Article-length introduction to the concept of toleration and to some of the main issues associated with its limits, justification, and normative connotations. A substantial section is devoted to the history of the concept. The article is followed by a rich bibliography, which, however, includes only works published before 2007.

  • Galeotti, Anna Elisabetta. “Toleration.” In Issues in Political Theory. Edited by Catriona McKinnon, 126–148. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

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    Basic introduction to the roots of the idea of toleration and to the recent developments of the debate revolving around it. Suitable for undergraduates. The article contains also a case study concerning same-sex marriage (see also Exemplary Cases of Toleration).

  • King, Preston. Toleration. London: Routledge, 1997.

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    Second revised edition of a book originally published by Allen & Unwin in 1976. Introductory text for those who approach the topic for the first time. Discusses both the history of the idea and some challenges its justification faces in contemporary democracies.

  • McKinnon, Catriona. Toleration: A Critical Introduction. London: Routledge, 2006.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203300640E-mail Citation »

    Best reference for undergraduates addressing both theoretical and practical issues concerning toleration. The first part of the book discusses different conceptions of toleration; the second part of the book engages with the relevance of toleration vis-à-vis some cultural and political controversies.

  • Oberdiek, Hans. Tolerance: Between Forbearance and Acceptance. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001.

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    Offers a philosophical history of toleration and provides a liberal argument in defense of this idea. Best used as a reference for postgraduate courses engaging with philosophical and theoretical challenges to the moral relevance of toleration.

  • Walzer, Michael. On Toleration. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997.

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    Considers toleration as a political ideal and surveys different institutional arrangements (from multinational empires to immigrant societies) that may realize it at best. Combines philosophical analysis with practical, contextualized discussion of how different “regimes of toleration” have been realized in multicultural societies.

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