- Tolerance among the Virtues by John R. Bowlin
When Karl Popper said that we should "claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant," he illustrated well the confused and confusing relationship that liberal society has with the very notion of tolerance. On the one hand, we are inclined to think of tolerance as something praiseworthy and admirable. On the other, there are a great many things that even the most tolerant of us feel unable or unwilling to tolerate. In Tolerance among the Virtues, John Bowlin examines the complicated notion of tolerance. In spite of the many confusions that surround it and in spite of the many criticisms leveled against it, Bowlin argues that tolerance, rightly understood, is [End Page 480] not only a virtue but one that fits well into the landscape of virtue described by Aquinas. The book consists of an introduction, six chapters, and an epilogue.
Any attempt to locate tolerance as a virtue must first address the vexed question of what tolerance is (and is not). Aristotle does something similar when he describes the virtue of courage: he takes care to distinguish the genuine article from its several false forms or "semblances," which resemble the real thing but which fall short in crucial respects. Bowlin argues that many of tolerance's critics make a similar mistake: they are rightly critical of something, but the object of their criticism is not tolerance itself but a false semblance of it. Tolerance, Bowlin argues, is typically (wrongly) characterized as a kind self-restraint, where we unwillingly stifle our opposition to what we despise in order to achieve some other good. If this is what tolerance is, then it certainly is problematic: we can only practice tolerance by going against what we desire, a practice which can only lead to resentment. Bowlin proposes that we approach tolerance from a different angle: that we assume that tolerance is a virtue and that we attempt to give an account of it.
As one might expect, the meat of Bowlin's book consists of an attempt to offer a substantive account of tolerance as a natural virtue, one that, if not found in Aquinas's lengthy lists of virtues, is at least Thomistic in spirit. The qualification "natural" merits attention. Bowlin uses the term in the first place to refer to what makes a virtue a virtue in the first place. A virtue is "natural," he says, "whenever we locate an activity characteristic to our kind that cannot be performed well and a pursuit that cannot succeed without the habitual perfection it implies" (64). Tolerance will be a natural virtue, then, insofar as there are human pursuits that cannot be performed well without it. But, as becomes clear later in the book, Bowlin also uses the term "natural" for a separate reason, namely, to distinguish the virtue he wishes to describe from supernatural virtues: those virtues that are ordered to our supernatural fulfillment and that are bestowed along with sanctifying grace. Bowlin will ultimately argue that there is also a supernatural version of the natural virtue he describes.
What then is the virtue of tolerance? Tolerance, Bowlin proposes, is a disposition to "endure the objectionable differences of others in order to maintain the society they share, the peace that abides between them, and the autonomy each enjoys with respect to differences in dispute" (118). Perhaps most important, the tolerant person does these things not primarily for himself but for the person he tolerates. He renders it to him as his due: "tolerance, like justice, sets a relationship right, and the relationship set right is the end that the tolerant hope to achieve, the common good they hope to secure and share with the person they tolerate" (119). Why do we owe others tolerance of their objectionable differences? Because, Bowlin argues, the society we share with them and the respect their autonomy deserves demand it. We cannot live peaceably in society with others or give them the autonomy...