John Locke hit on the “paradox of tolerance” in his seminal 1689 paper “A Letter Concerning Toleration”
In it, he argues atheists should not be tolerated because
‘Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist’.
What Locke is suggesting is that Religions should be tolerated, because religion has virtue. However, that virtue does not apply to a “lack of religion”. Locke was not the first to be caught up in the fuzzy logic of the “tolerance paradox” and almost 350 years later, we still struggle with its implications.
The tolerance paradox arises from a problem that a tolerant person might be antagonistic toward intolerance, hence intolerant of it. The tolerant individual would then be by definition intolerant of intolerance.
James Madison also struggled with the paradox in dealing with the issue of slavery:
Madison scholar Robert Alley writes that, “toleration presumed a state prerogative that, for Madison, did not exist.” Madison wrote that “the right to tolerate religion presumes the right to persecute it.” Instead Madison argued for “liberty of conscience.” The “natural rights of man,” centering in the concept of “liberty of conscience,” stand, without question for Madison, above and before any other authority.
Madison had found an easy way out. By creating what he called “the natural rights of man” he could enshrine principles he valued as “demanding universal tolerance”, and because these were guaranteed by ‘a creator’ they were absolute. meanwhile, other issues of tolerance he could write off as “man made” and therefore violating “the natural rights of man”. Easy peasy right?
not so fast…..
D.A. Carson argues :
that the “new tolerance” is socially dangerous and intellectually debilitating but also that it actually leads to genuine intolerance of all who struggle to hold fast to their beliefs.
Hear that world? Ya’ll are loving us to death!
Philosopher Karl Popper suggests:
Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.
and he notes :
The utterence of intolerant philosophies should not always be suppressed, “as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion.”
Popper is quite effusive as to the answer :
We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.
Popper is clear, that the limit to tolerance should be ‘suppression of intolerance’ by the state. He is also clear that intolerance should not be tolerated in dialogue, principle, value or ethics, and lays out that discussion and argument in favor of the principles of tolerance as the solution.
Zinnia Jones adds on to this :
If tolerance is a virtue to adhere to because we consider it good in and of itself, an unlimited tolerance of intolerance could lead to intolerance becoming predominant, and a severe reduction in tolerance overall.
Even if this is nominally tolerant, it’s not likely to be the outcome desired by those who support tolerance. On the other hand, we could choose not to tolerate intolerance, and instead do our best to minimize it.
It is possible that intolerance toward even the slightest dissent could become the norm, and thus result in more intolerance than there would be had we simply allowed this lesser degree of intolerance to persist. But perpetrating such a vast campaign of intolerance probably isn’t something that those who endorse tolerance would want.
in relation to religion:
“Each religion includes, more or less, so-called dogmatic attitudes.
Therefore, if we accept a particular religion, it is not enough to believe, we should respect some particular rules, which are considered as an absolute, just and true and are not questioned by reason. But dogma itself has to be based on some reasonable as well as defined moral principles.
Regarding the fact that the belief is an irrational category often far from reasonable consideration, the last arguments look paradoxical.
It is possible to avoid this paradox by bearing in mind that religious feelings are not something that a person is born with. The belief has to be gathered; it has to be created during the lifetime of a person. In order to became a believer, a person has to accept given principles.
At that moment, in order to be accepted, the religious principles have to be based more or less on logical and moral consideration.
That is necessary for the beginning of the belief, but later the faith develops as a strong irrational attitude, independent of reason and logic.
A person can not be forced by the outer effects - such as threats, mistreatment or by any other use of force - to believe.”
Of course, toleration and respect for autonomy are not simple ideas. Much has been made about the so-called “paradox of toleration”: the fact that toleration seems to ask us to tolerate those things we find intolerable. Toleration does require that we refrain from enacting the negative consequences of our negative judgments. This becomes paradoxical when we find ourselves confronting persons, attitudes, or behaviors, which we vigorously reject: we then must, paradoxically, tolerate that which we find intolerable. This becomes especially difficult when the other who is to be tolerated expresses views or activities that are themselves intolerant.
One way of resolving this paradox is to recognize that there is a distinction between first-order judgments and second-order moral commitments.
First-order judgments include emotional reactions and other practical judgments that focus on concrete and particular attitudes and behaviors.
Second-order moral commitments include more complicated judgments that aim beyond emotion and particularity toward rational universal principles.
With regard to the paradox of toleration there is a conflict between a first-order reaction against something and a second-order commitment to the principle of respecting autonomy or to the virtues of modesty or self-control.
The paradox is resolved by recognizing that this second-order commitment trumps the first-order reaction: principle is supposed to outweigh emotion. Thus we might have good reasons (based upon our second-order commitments) to refrain from following through on the normal consequences of negative first-order judgments.
However, when there is a genuine conflict of second-order commitments, that is, when the tolerant commitment to autonomy runs up against an intolerant rejection of autonomy, then there is no need to tolerate. In other words the paradox is resolved when we realize that toleration is not a commitment to relativism but, rather, that it is a commitment to the value of autonomy and to the distinction between first-order judgments and second-order moral commitments.
It is that simple - ethics applies different criteria to different principles. Yes, while this makes the idea of tolerance somewhat subjective, when the ethics tend to be universal the anterior principle should simply not be tolerated.
an example of this is gay rights.
When a religious person attempts to use the ‘tolerance paradox’ to defend their use of discrimination they violate the ‘objective universal ethics of non-discrimination’ and therefore, there simply is no paradox.
Their rights to tolerance apply only insofar as they do not violate the personal rights of another for any reason. It does not matter if the reason is homosexuality anymore than it matters if it is because they have blonde hair. The religious person has violated the others universal ethical principle of not discriminating against anyone for any reason. It is also not redundant to point out that here the principle claimed by the religious person is also highly subjective meanwhile the principle of non discrimination is highly objective.
A simpler understanding could be surmised from music:
You have every ethical right to not enjoy the music of Jon Bon Jovi. while your dislike is highly subjective, it does not violate the universal ethical principles of anyone else, so hate on brother……
however, you have no right to refuse to sell Jon Bon Jovi a samosa simply because you dislike his music. It does not matter if you feel that violates your rights, your hatred of his music is subjective, and his universal right to not be discriminated against is objective.
There simply is no paradox because they exist in different criteria, and therefore are not mutually exclusive.