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Study notes

Tolerance (Liberalism)

  • Levels: A Level
  • Exam boards: AQA, Edexcel

The liberal position on tolerance may at first appear quite straight-forward. In everyday language, to be liberal is to be tolerant of diversity.

Everyone holds an equal moral worth and everyone should therefore be granted the same rights as others. Consequently, a liberal society is entirely comfortable with what the liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill called “experiments in living.”

Liberals loudly celebrate the right of the individual to chart their own path in life. Human beings possess free will and we should all be allowed to make the very most of our abilities and potential. Ultimately, society must welcome the vast array of lifestyle choices provided no-one is being harmed by such actions. We should therefore adopt forbearance towards those who differ from the norm no matter how eccentric or strange. This argument also applies to diverse cultures. Liberals are comfortable within a multi-ethnic society in which immigrants celebrate their own distinct cultures. The only proviso here is that such actions are consistent with liberal principles. To illustrate the point, laws to prevent arranged marriages or FGM are entirely consistent with the ideology of liberalism. This is because liberalism seeks to enable us to pursue our own path rather than being coerced into the supposedly proper way to live.

The reality of implementing the liberal stance on tolerance is of course not so straight-forward. Whereas liberals fully accept a wide diversity of lifestyle choices they do not tolerate the intolerable. This line of argument is most readily applicable towards those laws which restrict freedom of speech. It is perfectly fine to express one’s religious beliefs, but not if those beliefs provoke hatred and prejudice against those who do not conform to those beliefs. Another important distinction to be aware of is that illiberal thoughts are tolerated provided they do not in any way influence other-regarding actions. A government that seeks to control or monitor our private conversations would be contrary to liberal principles. It is essential that we have a sphere of privacy that is outside the range of the official authorities.

The argument about the private sphere is particularly relevant to cyberspace. This presents a real and genuine dilemma for any liberal democracy. A balance must be reached between honouring the social contract by protecting the people from terrorism whilst respecting our right to online privacy. For example, the state needs to protect its people from harm and therefore has a legitimate interest in monitoring Internet chatter on hate-fuelled websites. However, it should also ensure that those who seek to cast light upon the secretive decision-making process such as Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and the website WikiLeaks have a forum by which to do so. Finding a balance is essential towards the maintenance of a truly liberal democratic society.

To tolerate is to show a degree of forbearance of the immense diversity of human life. Liberals are comfortable with such diversity because it reflects an expression of the individual. They also believe that exposure to diverse ways of living is beneficial towards society. This ‘marketplace of ideas’ is an essential feature of a liberal democracy. In the classic text On Liberty (1859), John Stuart Mill famously argued that “if all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he - if he had the power - would be justified in silencing mankind.” This is a seminal argument within liberalism and one worthy of further reflection.

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