Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Respect, Tolerance & War

Respect and tolerance are often conflated. But I think we would do better to keep the two concepts distinct. 'Tolerance', as I use the term here, simply requires that one be willing to coexist (relatively harmoniously) with the subject. 'Respect' goes beyond this bare requirement, for it also implies some degree of positive sentiment on your behalf. Respect is tolerance that is happily, rather than grudgingly, granted. Or, to adopt a militaristic metaphor: tolerance is a non-aggression pact; respect is closer to an alliance.

If I hear someone suggest that (say) homosexuality is immoral, my immediate reaction is to label them 'intolerant'. But that would clearly be a mistake according to the explication above. Most anti-gay conservatives are willing to tolerate homosexuals in the weak sense of allowing them to co-exist (though the political actions of some may put strain on the 'harmony' requirement). The fact that they don't respect (approve of) homosexuality is an entirely different matter.

In a pluralistic society like our own, tolerance is more than a virtue - it's a civic duty. I don't think the same can be said of respect. It might be virtuous to respect others (within reason), but I don't think it's obligatory in any strong sense. It certainly isn't a political obligation; who we respect is none of the State's business.

I note here that I mean for the possible subjects of toleration to include not merely people, but also ideas. (It's clear that the Nazis were intolerant of Jews; but a useful definition must also extend to less extreme cases.) That is, one can be intolerant through refusing to allow an idea to openly co-exist in the 'marketplace of ideas'. "Political correctness" may be seen as intolerant in this way - it seeks not to critically engage harmful ideas, but to quash them entirely.

Such ideological genocide may sometimes be warranted (however distasteful I may find it). At least, I wouldn't want to rule out the possibility a priori. Occasionally right-wingers can be heard to complain, "But you're being intolerant of my intolerance!", as if their opponent was somehow inconsistent or hypocritical because of this. I think Doing Things With Words has the right sort of response to this:

I'd tentatively suggest a criterion like this: we tolerate all and only views that are themselves tolerant under this criterion. Aside from indulging my love of recursion, this criterion lets us exclude both intolerant views and views that tolerate everything. That seems worthwhile, since it lets us avoid charges of relativism.

For the sake of freedom, you are not free to sell yourself into slavery. This is no contradiction, it's a necessary protective measure. Similarly for tolerance: we cannot tolerate the intolerant. Were we to do otherwise, tolerance itself would suffer - and the rest of us with it!

A similar case could probably be made for a widespread respect which is still selective enough to disrespect the disrespectful. Politics aside, we might well have a moral duty to subscribe to such a rule. I'm not sure about that though, I'd be curious to hear others' thoughts.

So, what do you think? Where should we draw the line(s) between respect, tolerance, and full-blown ideological warfare?


  1. Richard, great post, one of my favourite topics...

    I'm not so sure I agree with your definition of respect. I think what you mean by respect is either acceptance or assent, though i'm not sure which. I think respect is less than that. It is nothing more than the amount of freedom necessary to allow another to express their view. I to agree with you that the term 'tolerance' is often conflated, much to the chagrin of social conservatives. For more explanation of exactly what I mean, see my post on the matter here.

    I agree with you on the idea of being intolerant of the intolerant: as long as we have a pure conception of what tolerance is, and that that conception does not rule out another's ability to freely disagree or to present counterarguments. I know that here in Canada, it can be very dangerous to say that you think homosexuality is immoral, you are immediatly tagged as being intolerant. But as I understand tolerance, my ability to say that homosexuality is immoral does not entail me making a value judgement on the person himself, but rather on the action or lifestyle. You cannot make the the logical leap from the statement "Homosexuality is morally wrong" to "Homosexuals deserve to be hated" or Homosexuals go to hell" without some sort of argument for that conclusion. However, it seems that on our society's definition of tolerance, the latter statements are thought to be equivalent to the former statement.

    I also do not think that a similar case can be made for respect(at least on your definition of respect). I think that respect (as you describe it) is something that comes from the volition; voluntary actions cannot be morally mandated, at least on my understanding of volition and morality. If action X is morally wrong in the first place, then there are no requirements placed on me to respect action X. If action X is morally neutral, we might be able to find something. If action X is morally right, then we might say that we have a duty to give respect to that action. However, that gets into the nature of morality, which i suppose is a different question all together.

    Looking forward to your response,

    Posted by Peter Thurley

  2. "I think respect is less than that. It is nothing more than the amount of freedom necessary to allow another to express their view."

    How does that differ from tolerance, then? I don't mean respect to entail fully-fledged assent - one can still respect views that one disagrees with and even argues against. I guess the tricky thing, then, is positioning this concept somewhere useful between the extremes of assent vs. bare tolerance. Your suggestion of "acceptance" may come close. If you think that's a better word for the concept I have in mind, by all means use that instead.

    An example may help clarify what I have in mind. I tolerate religious fundamentalism, but I have no respect whatsoever for it. Liberal Christianity, by contrast, I both tolerate and (to some degree) respect - though of course I still don't agree with it.

    I should also clarify how I think 'respect' ought to be applied. I think it would be a good think to have widespread respect for people. I think it's plausible to say that (generally) respecting others counts towards having a virtuous character. We'd all be better off if everyone respected each other more. However, this does not extend to ideas. Some ideas are just plain bad, and it would be wrong not to recognise this. To modify the favourite Christian phrase: "respect the thinker; not the thought". 

    Posted by Richard

  3. Thanks for the clairifications, Richard, I think you and I are on the same page then. And I certainly agree with you about ideas.  

    Posted by Peter

  4. Um. The Antonym-Synonym polemics of Latin or Romance Anglo-Latin constructions often fails to translate in a meaningful or useful way to modern English. I think the "tolerance-intolerance" example is one that's particularly abused.

    The verb, 'to tolerate', negates with a regular 'not'. When one uses the adjectival modifier, "tolerant" substantively, it negates into "intolerant" using inconsistant grammar. (I tolerate. I do not tolerate. He is tolerant. He is intolerant. 'Intolerant' people are XYZ, 'tolerant' people are ABC). Look at a casual breakdown and think about it...

    "tolerate" vt
    1. To be willing to allow something to happen or exist; 2. To withstand the unpleasant effects of something; 3. To recognize other people’s right to have different beliefs or practices without an attempt to suppress them

    [Latin tolerre, tolert-, to bear. See tel- in Indo-European Roots.]

    "tolerance" n
    1. The acceptance of the differing views of other people, for example, in religious or political matters, and fairness toward the people who hold these different views; 2. The act of putting up with something or somebody irritating or otherwise unpleasant; 3. The ability to put up with harsh or difficult conditions

    "toleration" n
    1. Official acceptance by a government of religious beliefs and practices that are different from those it upholds; 2. The act of tolerating something

    "tolerant" adj
    1. Accepting the differing views of others, for example, different religious or political beliefs; 2. Able to put up with harsh conditions or treatment

    "intolerant" adj
    1. Easily angered or annoyed when things do not go as expected or desired; 2. Refusing to accept people who are different or live differently, for example, people of different races or religions; 3. Not able to endure or tolerate something

    There's always a personal test that determines what one will or will not tolerate, as well as the extent and conditions and qualifications that define said test. No one is perfectly 'tolerant', just as no one is perfectly 'intolerant'. Hopefully it occurs to you that as I read your post it strikes me that YOU are the person who is expressing a limit to what you will tolerate, or bear, and have not tried to reason or clarify definitions (although I think that's what you're getting at). I'm very interested in just HOW you plan on stomping out 'intolerance' or why you believe such a thing should be viewed as a desirable state of affairs in general.

    For example, I have no clear idea what Peter means by "religious fundamentalism". The term 'fundamentalism' is defined by MS dictionary as:

    1. A religious or political movement based on a literal interpretation of and strict adherence to doctrine, especially as a return to former principles; 2. The belief that religious or political doctrine should be implemented literally, not interpreted or adapted.

    Yet I don't know if Peter agrees with this definition. Personally there's any number of cases where I won't tolerate Fundamentalist practices, like pedophilia or witch burning... Yet I actually do respect people of strong and sincere faith, even when they cross over into weird zealotry. So what's to be the measure of what is or isn't deserving of toleration and/or respect?

    Furthermore, just what does it mean to NOT 'tolerate' something or some practice? If we cannot agree on commonly defined terms, and if we cannot agree to disagree and leave each other to our respective follies, then what recourse is left open to us? We cannot use reason without first agreeing on the definition of terms and appropriate bounds and forums for discourse. So... at what point should we acknowledge that we're going to have to fight to settle the matter?


    Posted by A. Scott Crawford

  5. I think respect could be present without tolerance. For example I respect certain oponents for their conviction but I may also not tolerate them because I believe thay are wrong or dangerous. All that that takes is a little bit of authoritarianism combined with a slightly philosophical outlook. 

    Posted by GeniusNZ

  6. GeniusNZ, I think we can avoid that possibility by distinguishing between respect for a person (or character trait), and respect for their particular beliefs

    Posted by Richard

  7. Unless I misread the post of Richard there appears to be a contradiction btween what's said of respect in para 3 and para 8. Para 3-- I don't think it's obligatory in any strong sense,para 8---we might well have a moral duty etc. A moral duty implies an obligation although we can knock around different concepts of morality. Besides,and I might get clobbered on this,I always thought that respect was earned perhaps with the actor not even being aware of it. It entails spcecific recognition of values/worth more dificult to grant on any wide spread basis and ought not to be based on some general attitude one carries around like a wallet.  

    Posted by john t

  8. I'd call it a change of emphasis, rather than a contradiction :)

    Para 3 was focussed on civic (or 'political') obligations, which is what I meant by obligation "in any strong sense". Para 8, by contrast, was speculating as to the possibility of a weaker sort of obligation - a private rather than public one.

    Your points about widespread respect are well taken. What I was really getting at there is the idea that we should treat others from a default position of 'good faith'. But perhaps 'respect' is something that goes beyond that? 

    Posted by Richard

  9. OK how about this... a reasonably common scenario..

    you have two coaches - each wants to win the "game" and each has a strategy. They both have "respect" for each others methods/solution but think that their solution is better and that their strategies are incompatable (ie you cannot do half of a flat back-line).
    Coach 1 then kicks coach 2 out informing him that "too many cooks spoil the broth".

    Is that respect without tolerance ? 

    Posted by GeniusNZ

  10. Assuming you're talking about the one 'team', then I'd say that's just respect without assent. I assume coach 1 would tolerate any other team adopting coach 2's methods. He just doesn't want to use those methods himself

    Posted by Richard


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