On the unvirtuousness of tolerance and moral value of respect

martin tricosy

Far best is he who knows all things himself;

Good, he that hearkens when men counsel right;

But he who neither knows, or lays to heart

Another’s wisdom, is a useless wight.


A very important debate in moral philosophy is that of intrinsic virtues (or, interchangeably, “goods”). In Western thought, the notion of intrinsic virtues dates back to Plato. As Aristotle wrote in Book I of Nicomachean Ethics while attempting to unravel the nature of Good, “[…] the Platonists have not been speaking about all goods, […] the goods [which] are pursued and loved for themselves are called good by reference to a single Form, while those which tend to produce or to preserve those somehow or to prevent their contraries are called so by reference to these, and in the secondary sense. Clearly, then, goods must be spoken of in two ways, and some must be good in themselves, the others by reason of these.” This debate between Aristotle and his mentor sparked a long tradition of attempting to classify virtues (or goods) as either intrinsic or instrumental, where the latter simply advance the former.

When I was in law school, Professor Martin Farrell, one of the most distinguished minds in legal and moral philosophy in the country, taught us a hack for differentiating between intrinsic and instrumental virtues. Farrell proposed parting from the good you are trying to classify and asking yourself why. If the question makes sense, the virtue is instrumental. If the question does not make sense, it is intrinsic.

Imagine the good in question were happiness, does it make sense to ask “why do you want to be happy?” Of course, it does not. Happiness, therefore, is intrinsic. Now imagine the good in question were education. Does it make sense to ask “why do you want an education (instead of, say, a job)?” Of course, it does. One may want an education for many different reasons from “having a better future” to “using my knowledge to help others” and pretty much anything else in between. Conversely, one may have no interest in getting an education at all and simply choose to exercise the right to design your own life plan without exercising the right to an education; thus it follows that education is an instrumental good that will help further whatever virtue we are ultimately trying to achieve with that education, regardless of whether our inner motivations are purely personal and perhaps even self-interested or collective and aimed at benefiting society as a whole. (Needless to say, in this example we are assuming the moral agent is not being deprived of an education in any way and that the subject is freely exercising a choice.)

But let us not be fooled, claims Farrell, some alleged goods are neither intrinsic nor instrumental; their moral value depends on how we use them. Take loyalty as an example. We intuitively believe loyalty is a virtue. Some will argue that it is an intrinsic good. We may be tempted to think loyalty is an intrinsic good when we think about loyalty to our family, our community, or other things we hold dear. But what of loyalty to Hitler? What of loyalty to a gang? What of loyalty to a drug cartel? Loyalty can be good or bad depending on the object of our loyalty, thus loyalty is not a good at all, it is a way in which we relate to goods. The same can be said about perseverance. It is one thing to persevere in the quest for finding the cure for polio, but an entirely different thing to persevere in the genocide of Jews, Roma and other ethnic minorities.

This philosophical exercise helps us put virtues in perspective. One such “virtue” is tolerance. While one could argue that tolerance is indeed a virtue, I argue that it is not. Allow me to explain.

Merriam-Webster defines tolerance as follows:

  1. capacity to endure pain or hardship: endurancefortitudestamina
  2. a:  sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own b:  the act of allowing something:  toleration
  3. the allowable deviation from a standard; especially: the range of variation permitted in maintaining a specified dimension in machining a piece
  4. a(1):  the capacity of the body to endure or become less responsive to a substance (such as a drug) or a physiological insult especially with repeated use or exposure developed a tolerance to painkillersalso:  the immunological state marked by unresponsiveness to a specific antigen (2):  relative capacity of an organism to grow or thrive when subjected to an unfavorable environmental factor b:  the maximum amount of a pesticide residue that may lawfully remain on or in food

For the purpose of this post, only definitions 1 and 2 are relevant. Let’s take a look at number one. While one could imagine the capacity to endure pain or hardship is a virtue, is it still a virtue if that pain or hardship is being endured to advance an unjust cause? It’s not difficult to think of situations in which soldiers, for example, endure pain and hardship, and not necessarily in the name of freedom or justice or any other virtue a healthy society should strive to advance. Now let’s take a look at definition number two, which tells us that tolerance is “indulgence” for (i.e. giving free rein to) ideas or beliefs that conflict with ours; as if freedom to have conflicting views were really ours to give in the first place. In view of these definitions, tolerance seems to have no intrinsic or instrumental value whatsoever. Instead, its worth depends solely on what is being tolerated and why. Like loyalty and perseverance, tolerance is a way in which we relate to virtues, be them instrumental or intrinsic.

What is a virtue, however, is respect. While it may not be clear whether it’s instrumental or intrinsic, I will argue it is the former. The question of why I should respect another human being can often be a legitimate question and it’s at the core of our Criminal Law Systems. Why should I respect someone who is rude to me? Why should I respect someone who hurt me? Why should I respect someone who does not appear to be my intellectual equal? Why should I respect someone whose actions I find offensive or perhaps even abhorrent? Why should I respect someone who seems unworthy of my respect for (insert subjective reason of choice here)? In other words, why should respect someone who deem unworthy of respect? (When you extrapolate these questions to the legal plane, they take forms like “why should States give humane treatment to criminals?”).

While asking such questions may not speak well of us from the point of view of those standing on a moral high-horse, these questions are legitimate because they touch on a core question we’ve been asking ourselves since the beginning of time: What makes us human? Respecting another human being, even one that has harmed us, one that professes a religion with which we disagree, one that seems unintelligent or “animal-like,” even one whose mere existence is threatening, is essential to advancing an intrinsic moral value that benefits us all as a species: human dignity.

It does not make sense to ask why someone would want dignity. Asking “what will you do with your dignity?” is like asking “what will you do with your life.” You may disagree with what a person does with her life, but that does not give you the right to kill her. Similarly, you may disagree with what a dignified human being is, but that does not give you the right to rob a person of her dignity, to treat her with disrespect, to humiliate or belittle her, or to otherwise deprive her of her humanity. Too much of this is going on in the world and look at where it’s gotten us. Too much of this is going on in our profession. And, honestly, too much of this is going on online when translators discuss the issues that matter to them.

Every time we treat another human being with disrespect because we disagree with their views or the way they live their lives, or even the way they exercise our beautiful profession, we are attacking them on an intrinsic human level.

In disrespecting others, we are ultimately also hurting ourselves. When we fail to communicate our ideas rationally, to listen to others and allow their views to challenge or strengthen our own, we fail as human beings. We fail to exercise the one distinctly human trait that is at the heart of our moral, social, and legal systems: our moral agency anchored in our capacity for empathy and rational thought. Let us not allow the distance and apparent anonymity of social media turn us all into Plato’s featherless bipeds who have forgotten what it means to be human.


One thought on “On the unvirtuousness of tolerance and moral value of respect

  1. Ana Gauz says:

    Indeed, Paula, in today’s world where interactions are becoming more and more virtual, lack of respect for different views can be seen too often.

    Far from the deep thoughts of your dear philosophers, but very close to the same values, is this excerpt from Bernie Sanders’ book “Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In”, which I’m currently reading:

    “(…) it is vitally important for those of us who hold different views to be able to engage in civil discourse.

    Too often in our country – and I think both sides bear responsibility for this – there is too much shouting at each other. There is too much making fun of each other.”

    He is obviously talking about politics, but his words could easily apply to any framework of human interaction.

    Important to remember, too, that when we disrespect and belittle other people, we alienate them. We lose that person and waste the chance of building a dialogue and achieve any meaningful change.


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