I'm an economist and follower of Natural Law idea.  What do you think about Thomas Mann's statement that "tolerance becomes a crime when applied to evil"?



Good question.  The statement is made by a character in one of Mann’s novels, but let’s leave aside what Mann himself might have thought, and consider the statement itself.

If it means that some evils must never be tolerated, then it is true.  Only a madman, a thug, or a fool would boast of his “tolerance” for rape, murder, or pillage.

But if it means that no evils should ever be tolerated, then it is false.  One must balance the evil of the thing itself with the evil that might be brought about by legal prohibition.

Some evils cannot even be detected – a law that fined people for having nasty thoughts would merely increase hypocrisy.  Prohibition can also provoke people into greater evils, whether by making the forbidden things glamorous or by making those who love them rebellious.  At times, the prohibition of an evil even risks destruction of nearby goods.  Suppose we tried to encourage faith by outlawing the expression of doubt.  Unable to ask questions, could anyone ever find his way to God?  Or suppose we tried to suppress avarice by outlawing the making of money.  As an economist, how long do you think it would take until the economy collapsed and the population was starving?

Now about some matters, there is no such thing as “just enough.”  The classical example is that we should not praise a man for committing “just enough” adultery.

But about other matters, there is such a thing as “just enough.”  Courage, for instance, lies in a mean between cowardice and rashness.  The coward has too much fear, the rash man too little.  You could also say that the coward has too little audacity, and the rash man too much.

The virtue of tolerance also involves a “just enough,” because it lies in a mean between excessive severity and softheaded overindulgence.  We can err either in failing to tolerate what we should, such as chewing too loudly in restaurants, or in tolerating what we shouldn’t, such as using violence for political gain.

One of the lessons to be drawn from all this is that contrary to common opinion, the virtue of tolerance is not attainable by relativists, but only by those who believe in moral law.

For in order to know when to tolerate, to what degree, for what reasons, and in what ways, we have to judge real goods and evils.

Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Virtue Ethics