I've been back and forth in a discussion of the suggestion that tolerance is a virtue.  A speaker to our community said "Tolerance is not a virtue" -- by which I understood him to mean, and readily affirmed with him, that the cultural mentality that suggests simple co-existence with those with whom one differs in belief is the essence of peace, thereby excusing moral relativism, is not manifesting the essence of virtue.  Well, another member of our community approached the speaker afterwards and said, "But tolerance is a virtue!"  She explained that she had shared the speaker’s understanding until she read your article from First Things, "The Illusion of Moral Neutrality," and came to understand tolerance as a virtue.  And thus the debate began!

I respect both her and the speaker, but I am fairly convinced that one cannot actually substantiate tolerance as a moral virtue in the scheme St. Thomas sets forth in the analysis of the virtues in the Secunda Secundae of the Summa Theologiae.  But I might be wrong.  The first difficulty I found in the discussion was in identifying the object of the supposed virtue of tolerance.  The second difficulty I have is in identifying to which of the four cardinal virtues tolerance would rightly be allied; you have suggested a connection with prudence, but prudence is a general virtue, and so will come into play in all virtues.  A third difficulty is that the things that are put forward as appropriate acts of tolerance are already parts of several other virtues, such as charity.  Finally, I am concerned that you seem to suggest that untruth can be tolerated by weighing the level of evil against the evil that might result – but surely untruth is a greater evil.  I wonder whether the error of proportionalism may be involved.

As fellow Thomists, I presume we are both lovers of truth!  I have found the whole debate with my friend to be quite ... fun!  So I hope you may also find it stimulating, and not a nuisance.  God bless you.


My article “The Illusion of Moral Neutrality” was published in 1993, when I was very much a novice in the study of Thomas Aquinas (if indeed I will ever be more than a novice).  I have written about toleration since then too, but I have never precisely identified the place of toleration in St. Thomas’s scheme of virtues, and it is long past time that I do so.  To say that it is virtuous to tolerate those things which ought to be tolerated is one thing; to decide whether tolerance is a distinct virtue with matter of its own is another; and it is still another to determine to what place, or even to what places, the proper practice of tolerance should be assigned in St. Thomas’s scheme.  You raise another important issue too, concerning truth.  So I very much appreciate the stimulus of your thoughtful letter – I should say letters, because for purposes of this post I am condensing a series of exchanges which took place over a number of days.  Besides, all this comes at a good time, because my new Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Virtue Ethics will be published by Cambridge this spring.

We must distinguish the question of whether indiscriminately tolerating is virtuous from the question of whether properly tolerating is virtuous.  I happen to know your speaker, and respect him highly.  When he says toleration is not a virtue, I take him to be thinking of indiscriminate toleration, and if we take the term in this sense, he is surely right.  Just as you propose, the relativistic outlook which undergirds that understanding of toleration is entirely mistaken.  When I suggest that toleration is a virtue, however, I am thinking of what I have called “true” or “proper” toleration, the disposition by which we tolerate just what ought to be tolerated for the sake of the good.  Like other moral virtues, proper toleration is a mean between extremes – in this case, tolerating what should not be tolerated, and failing to tolerate what should be.

I first wrote about proper toleration in order to criticize the liberal, neutralist theory according to which the basis of toleration is suspending moral judgment.  The neutralist view is utterly incoherent; if we really did suspend moral judgment, then we would have no way to know whether anything at all that is offensive, wrong, or mistaken should be tolerated, and if so, what.  Neutralism is also a fraud, because in the name of nonjudgment, it always imposes a particular moral judgment, sparing itself the need to defend it by denying that it is a moral judgment.  Thus, for example, a judge who insists that we suspend judgment between the view that marriage requires a man and woman, and the view that it does not, is in fact enforcing the view that it does not.

In place of the liberal, neutralist theory, I have defended the classical theory, according to which the basis of tolerance is not suspending moral judgment, but exercising better moral judgment.  I call this theory “classical” because it was proposed by diverse early Christian writers, although in recent times the Church has reaffirmed it, especially in Dignitatis Humane.  Lactantius, who is speaking of religious toleration, is a good example:

There is no occasion for violence and injury, for religion cannot be imposed by force; the matter must be carried on by words rather than by blows, that the will may be affected.  Let [the pagan persecutors] unsheath the weapon of their intellect; if their system is true, let it be asserted.  We are prepared to hear, if they teach; while they are silent, we certainly pay no credit to them, as we do not yield to them even in their rage.  Let them imitate us in setting forth the system of the whole matter: for we do not entice, as they say; but we teach, we prove, we show. And thus no one is detained by us against his will, for he is unserviceable to God who is destitute of faith and devotedness; and yet no one departs from us, since the truth itself detains him. . . . Why then do [the persecutors] rage, so that while they wish to lessen their folly, they increase it? Torture and piety are widely different; nor is it possible for truth to be united with violence, or justice with cruelty.

He also responds to the arguments of the persecutors themselves:

But, they say, the public rites of religion must be defended. Oh with what an honorable inclination the wretched men go astray! For they are aware that there is nothing among men more excellent than religion, and that this ought to be defended with the whole of our power; but as they are deceived in the matter of religion itself, so also are they in the manner of its defense. For religion is to be defended, not by putting to death, but by dying; not by cruelty, but by patient endurance; not by guilt, but by good faith: for the former belong to evils, but the latter to goods; and it is necessary for that which is good to have place in religion, and not that which is evil. For if you wish to defend religion by bloodshed, and by tortures, and by guilt, it will no longer be defended, but will be polluted and profaned.  For nothing is so much a matter of free-will as religion; in which, if the mind of the worshipper is disinclined to it, religion is at once taken away, and ceases to exist. The right method therefore is, that you defend religion by patient endurance or by death; in which the preservation of the faith is both pleasing to God Himself, and adds authority to religion.

Obviously, Lactantius does not suspend judgment concerning whether there is a God or what sort of worship is pleasing to him.  It is just because he does make such judgments that he concludes that true religion cannot be defended by cruelty, but only by patient endurance.  Notice too that this point responds to your concern that nothing could be more important than the knowledge of the truth (especially the truth about God).  About this you are entirely correct.  The problem is that some means of resisting falsehood (especially violence) may injure the knowledge of the truth more than help it.  Thus, proper toleration follows from love of truth, not indifference to it.

Now there is a difference between saying that proper toleration is virtuous, and saying that it is a distinct virtue with its own specific matterIt might be argued that the act of properly tolerating may occur in the context of more than one virtue, so that proper toleration is not a single virtue but a sort of “portmanteau.”  I take it that this is your view, and it may be true.  However, it seems to me that proper toleration does have its own specific matter:  Enduring rather than suppressing evil – bearing with human frailty -- just in those cases in which suppressing the evil would either cause greater evils, or do away with greater goods.  So, even though proper toleration may have some relation to a number of virtues – such as meekness, which moderates anger, and charity, which moderates hatred -- we should inquire whether the matter just identified belongs to just one of the virtues already listed in the unsurpassed analysis of St. Thomas Aquinas.

And I think that it does.  In my opinion, the closest fit seems to be the virtue of patience, which is one of the “potential parts” of the cardinal virtue of fortitude, that is, one of the secondary virtues associated with fortitude.  Just insofar as prudence executes and directs the action of toleration, the act of toleration is secondarily an act of prudence, but as you point out, toleration is not unique in this respect.

My reason for locating proper toleration within patience is that the distinctive act of patience is to endure those evils which must be endured.  In one of your letters you responded that that in most contexts, when speaking of patience, St. Thomas is thinking of enduring, tolerating, or bearing with evils to oneself.  This is correct.  But in various contexts, including the context of legislation, he also speaks of enduring, tolerating, or bearing with evils to the common good, whether natural or spiritual.  I do not think it is too much of a stretch to say that when I put up with, say, insults to the truth, just in those cases in which suppression of the insult would incur even greater damage to the general knowledge of the truth, I am exercising a kind of patience.

Then why speak of toleration at all – why not just speak of patience?  Because enduring evils to the individual good and enduring evils to the common good are different exercises of patience, and a person who is good at one sort of endurance – say, enduring an illness -- may not be good at the other sort – say, enduring those who insult the faith.  We are dealing, so to speak, with different subdivisions of the virtue of patience.  Proper toleration is just one of them.

Identifying proper toleration as a subdivision of patience, which is in turn a potential part of fortitude, also helps us to say what human power is perfected – brought to its full development -- by proper toleration.  Fortitude in general tends to perfect the power which St. Thomas calls “irascible.”  So, in a particular way, does patience, and so, in an even more particular way, so does proper toleration.  The irascible power is the one that aims at “arduous” goods, good that are difficult to attain.  This is the power in which such passions as hope, fear, and anger are seated. 

Will the virtue of proper toleration please stand up?  Among the candidates for proper toleration, I don’t think the alternatives to patience are compelling.  For example, although the virtue of charity has a connection with proper toleration, not every exercise of proper toleration is connected with charity, just because not every exercise of proper toleration involves supernatural goods.  So just as we distinguish lower and higher forms of fortitude in general and of patience – the lower form acquired by human effort, the higher infused by divine grace -- we should also distinguish lower and higher forms of proper toleration.  The higher form is related to the supernatural virtue of charity, but the latter is not.

Finally, to say that in some cases goods must be weighed against evils is not in any way to embrace the error which theologians call proportionalism (and which philosophers call consequentialism).  The distinctive mark of proportionalism is to deny that there is any such thing as intrinsic evil.  Thus, for a proportionalist, any act whatsoever might be justified for the sake of a greater good.  This we deny, because we must never do what is intrinsically evil for the sake of good.  But there is a difference between tolerating an evil when the alternatives are worse, and committing an evil.  I will drive my automobile to work, even though doing so involves a certain risk of unintended accident.  But I will not deliberately ram other drivers, or even drive carelessly, just to get to work faster.

I have enjoyed this correspondence – the fun of it is barely suggested by these brief excerpts -- and I thank you for your blessing.  God bless you too.