Tolerance, toleration, and the liberal tradition

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The tendency to use tolerance and toleration as roughly interchangable terms has encouraged misunderstanding of the liberal legacy and impeded efforts to improve upon it. We can improve our understanding by defining "toleration" as a set of social or political practices and "tolerance" as a set of attitudes. This distinction reveals the possibility of four clusters of attitudes: tolerant toleration, exemplified by John Locke; intolerant antitoleration, exemplified by the first generation Massachusetts Puritans; tolerant antitoleration, exemplified by Thomas Hobbes; and intolerant toleration, exemplified by Roger Williams. An exploration of their views suggests two things for contemporary societies. First, universal tolerance is both impossible and unnecessary; location and neutralization of those strains of intolerance that threaten to deny citizenship rights to vulnerable groups is sufficient for maintaining social stability. Second, since universal agreement is unlikely, the political task of liberal societies involves creating standards of behavior that permit fellow citizens to negotiate their inevitable differences peacefully.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)593-623
Number of pages31
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1997
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Sociology and Political Science

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