Symposium Introduction

If a house divided against itself cannot stand, then America’s house needs urgent repair. According to some scholars, Americans are more divided now than they have been since the Civil War and Reconstruction (McCarty et al. 2016; Paisley 2016), and such polarization is not limited to the United States. Across continents, from Africa and Asia to Europe and South America, ideological, political, and cultural divides continue to sow division and distrust, leading to hostility, cruelty, and contempt. Tolerance, it seems, is in short supply.

Critics of tolerance may think that is for the best. Like polite calls for “civility,” some argue, pleas for tolerance reflect morally shallow responses to evil, further entrenching the status quo and encouraging complicity with injustice. Others worry that tolerance authorizes an “anything goes” approach to social life, licensing a laissez-faire indifference to all that is wrong with the world. Still others worry that tolerance is condescending, patronizing, and presumptuous. It is not enough to merely tolerate difference, they argue. We must respect and celebrate it. These diverse critics—both liberal and conservative, religious and secular—view tolerance as a problematic response to the deep differences that define our pluralistic age.

John Bowlin’s Tolerance among the Virtues seeks to transform these debates. Drawing on philosophy, theology, and political theory, Bowlin offers a sophisticated and original analysis of tolerance and its related virtues. Incisively analyzing contemporary debates between tolerance’s defenders and detractors, he highlights how these debates often rest on a confusion between acts of toleration and the virtue of tolerance. Acts of toleration, Bowlin argues, are not always just or appropriate. Some objectionable differences should not be tolerated. And some differences, such as those of race, gender, and sexual orientation, are not objectionable and thus not an appropriate matter for tolerance. The virtue of tolerance accounts for these distinctions. In fact, one function of the virtue is to help us distinguish between tolerable and intolerable differences and ensure that acts of toleration are fitting and just. As a virtue of the will, tolerance disposes us to patiently endure objectionable differences for the right reasons, in the right ways, and at the right times. And as a virtue annexed to justice, it requires us to patiently endure objectionable differences only when such endurance is due as a matter of justice—when it functions to set relationships right, promote the common good, and preserve the autonomy of the tolerated. When such patient endurance is not just, tolerance is not the appropriate response. Instead, contestation, correction, coercion, resistance, or expulsion may be required. And when the differences that divide us are not actually objectionable, as in the case of race, gender, and sexual orientation, justice requires mutual recognition and respect, not tolerance. A person with the virtue of tolerance recognizes these distinctions and has the stable and settled disposition of character to respond reliably and appropriately to them.

Bowlin makes a rigorous case for the virtue of tolerance, providing conceptual distinctions that distinguish the virtue from its acts, semblances, and siblings. Along the way, he offers examples—from history, literature, and personal experience—to illuminate these distinctions and give content to the acts and attitudes that tolerance requires. The result is a nuanced account of a moral virtue that we all need to respond properly to disagreements that threaten a just peace.

Tolerance among the Virtues deserves a wide readership in philosophy, theology, and political theory. It also demands careful reading, which is one of its strengths. In an age of decreasing attention spans and increasing tendencies to make impetuous judgments based on passion or prejudice, Bowlin’s book requires readers to slow down and follow each conceptual distinction with care, pausing to register its implications and evaluate its significance. Moreover, he frequently repeats these distinctions, applying them to new examples, virtues, and circumstances. This repeated application encourages readers to recognize and apply these distinctions across multiple contexts and to respond with patience, perseverance, and prudence. In both content and form, Tolerance among the Virtues not only explicates the virtue of tolerance but also helps to educate it. That is one of the most subtle and significant contributions of this timely and intelligent book.

The thoughtful essays in this symposium highlight additional contributions. Emily Dumler-Winckler, Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics and Constructive Theology at St. Louis University, celebrates how Bowlin’s book informs contemporary debates about democracy and pluralism, challenging the liberal assumption that tolerance is a modern invention, providing a sophisticated moral vocabulary that can guide the analysis of other virtues, and informing discussions about the moral and theological status of civic virtue. Keri Day, Associate Professor of Constructive Theology and African American Religion at Princeton Theological Seminary, praises Bowlin’s “exacting and rigorous” account of tolerance as a natural virtue, one that challenges a common conception of tolerance as an indifferent or condescending attitude to deep difference. Similarly, Sheryl Overmyer, Associate Professor of Catholic Studies at DePaul University, focuses on Bowlin’s creative use of Aquinas to develop an “elaborate and careful conceptual framework” that places tolerance in the virtue tradition, even against doubts that it belongs there. Meanwhile, Kamila Pacovská, a philosopher at the University of Pardubice, highlights the timeliness and importance of Bowlin’s account, particularly after Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and the global rise of demagogues who proclaim and practice intolerance. Finally, Cary Nederman, Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University, lauds Bowlin’s attempt to construct a more robust account of tolerance by drawing on medieval sources that contemporary political theorists often neglect.

To these contributions, I would add another: by transgressing disciplinary boundaries and drawing creatively on ancient, medieval, and modern thinkers, Bowlin highlights the value of constructive, interdisciplinary engagement in addressing contemporary concerns. Bowlin’s use of Aquinas is particularly instructive. Within philosophy and political theory, Aquinas’s political thought has often been reduced to his abbreviated and often misunderstood account of natural law. While Bowlin engages this account and offers an alternative interpretative of it, he also highlights what contemporary philosophers can gain from analyzing and adapting Aquinas’s systematic account of virtues, passions, and acts—concepts that, as Bowlin deftly shows, have significant implications for how we understand and enact citizenship in our own time. Moreover, Bowlin executes this conceptual retrieval without succumbing to the temptation to nostalgically appropriate Aquinas’s premodern ethics without incorporating modern commitments to justice, equality, and liberty for all. Bowlin exemplifies how to glean valuable insights from historical thinkers and adapt them for our own purposes.

In addition to highlighting these contributions, the essays in this symposium also offer questions and comments intended to extend the conversation. Dumler-Winckler draws parallels between Bowlin’s work and that of “womanists, feminists, and those concerned with power, sacrifice, and love.” She highlights the need for scholars and citizens from diverse traditions to identify and elevate their own exemplars of tolerance and forbearance. Day queries the effects of cultural pluralism and wonders whether the “opacity” of the moral life and the “incommensurability of moral worlds” precludes some of the shared judgments that Bowlin assumes. She also raises questions about the relationships between tolerance and forbearance and asks whether friendship with the most intolerant is an appropriate goal or practical possibility. Meanwhile, Overmyer, an Aquinas expert, pushes further into Bowlin’s Thomistic account. After exploring whether he has appropriately identified tolerance’s corresponding vices, she invites him to say more about tolerance as a virtue of the will rather than the intellect and questions the relationship between the virtue that perfects external acts and the passionate responses that often accompany those acts. While Overmyer sympathetically engages Bowlin’s Thomistic analysis, Pacovská casts more doubt, wondering whether his Thomistic moral psychology limits his inquiry. In particular, she worries that Bowlin’s account of tolerance as a virtue of the will does not account adequately for diverse emotional responses to objectionable differences. Patient endurance, she argues, may not be the only or even paradigmatic expression of tolerance. Finally, Cary Nederman puts Michael Sandel’s account of “judgmental tolerance” in conversation with Aquinas and Las Casas to ask whether Bowlin’s account is “judgmental” enough—whether, in patiently enduring another, Bowlin’s virtue of tolerance fails to issue proper judgments when a “greater evil” is at stake. Here, Nederman’s emphasis on the consequences of tolerance invites us to consider the differences between Bowlin’s virtue approach and a more consequentialist account.

Bowlin replies to each of these responses with characteristic precision and grace, drawing analytical distinctions and practical conclusions that help to elucidate and expand the discussion. He raises important issues about the individuation of particular virtues, the distinctions between acts of tolerance and the passions that accompany them, and the relationship between tolerance, forbearance, and the boundaries of membership. His careful and systematic replies highlight what is at stake—conceptually, practically, and politically—in understanding and applying these concepts well.

Ultimately, these essays reveal what makes a Syndicate symposium so valuable. Unlike shorter book reviews in disciplinary journals, Syndicate encourages an extended debate between and across disciplines, illuminating the distinctive issues and contemporary concerns that arise from the exchange of diverse perspectives. Moreover, it allows authors to reply to each review, enabling a more robust dialogue across disciplinary divides, providing opportunities to address ambiguities and concerns, and illuminating differences of opinion with rigor and respect, all while drawing readers into a community committed to charitable interpretation and deepened understanding. Such an approach is especially fitting for Tolerance among the Virtues. By giving others the respect they are due and patiently enduring differences in pursuit of a common good, our contributors enact the virtue of tolerance even as they analyze it.


Works Cited

McCarty, Nolan, Keith T. Poole, and Howard Rosenthal. Polarized America: The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches. 2nd edition. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016.

Paisley, Laura. “Political Polarization at Its Worst since the Civil War.” USCNews, November 8, 2016,

Emily Dumler-Winckler


Tolerance and Forbearance

A Double Victory

Tolerance gets a bad rap these days. Its foes are many and vocal. Traditionalists suspect that tolerance ends in relativism, indifference, or what they deem the intolerant tolerance of liberals. Liberals lament the unjust distribution of tolerance among conservatives: “zero tolerance” for some, “maximum tolerance” for others.1 The tolerated, in turn, denounce tolerance as so much liberal condescension. They want acceptance and affirmation, not tolerance. Christians join the chorus with calls to replace tolerance with love and forbearance. Still, others contend that tolerance is difficult to sustain and generates resentment among the tolerant and tolerated alike—hardly a tonic for the ails of pluralistic democratic societies. Conversely, friends of tolerance tend to exacerbate the concerns of its foes, even as they offer, at best, a weak endorsement. In their view, tolerance is a modern invention that enables us to preserve some measure of peace despite our disagreements. If we could get by without it, we would. They do not imagine that it is a timeless virtue that perfects all citizens, a good of all political communities. Given the disputes among friends and foes of tolerance, among the other differences that divide, our situation may appear bleak.

A wise writer bestows hope, Ralph Waldo Emerson suggests, by revealing new regions of thought and so imparting “new activity to the torpid spirit.”2 John Bowlin’s original and sophisticated book, Tolerance among the Virtues, does just this. Drawing on the work of Thomas Aquinas and Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bowlin places tolerance among the virtues and so sheds considerable light on disputes among its contemporary friends and foes. By identifying tolerance as a moral virtue annexed to justice, he distinguishes the virtue of tolerance from the acts it perfects, the imposters it resembles, and its sibling virtue, forbearance. In doing so, he provides a nuanced moral vocabulary for talking about the differences that divide us and the proper response to these differences. Some differences are objectionable. Some objectionable differences deserve tolerance. The tolerant habitually discern which objectionable differences deserve tolerance and willingly respond with acts of tolerance, of which patient endurance is paradigmatic. The truly tolerant, Bowlin writes, “object to the right differences, intend the right ends, take note of the right circumstances, and respond with the right actions, all with the ease of habit” (165). By placing tolerance among the virtues, this book makes a considerable contribution to several important conversations today. I will mention a few of these, and suggest some new regions of thought and activity that this text generates.

First, perhaps it goes without saying that this book contributes to conversations in political philosophy, theology, and ethics about pluralism, democracy, and the common good. How should we respond to the facts of pluralism, to the differences—moral, religious, political, racial, and ethnic—that characterize our shared life? Some fear that pluralism and democracy undermine the common good, while those with dystopic leanings dismiss the ideal of the common good as mere fantasy or dangerous ruse. Both perspectives produce resentment about tolerance. Bowlin, rather, argues that the virtue of tolerance perfects citizens and their relationships, constituting a common good of all political communities. It enables citizens to respond to objectionable differences with patient endurance, to act justly and so enjoy the common goods that are shared when relationships are set right (95). He accepts pluralism as an ordinary fact of life, present to some extent in every time and place (18).

Given this fact, citizens of modern democracies need to discern which differences are objectionable and which are not. Among objectionable differences, they must distinguish which are tolerable, and which require a different response, such as contestation, coercion, constraint, expulsion, or withdrawal. Membership in any moral, political, scholarly, or ecclesial community requires this discernment. Readers seeking a definitive list of tolerable and intolerable actions, views, or policies will search in vain. All such lists are contingent and open to revision. Instead, Bowlin provides examples: from the Civil Rights era (66, 132ff.) to Uncle Halvor’s unsavory bigotry at holiday dinners (120), from his son’s taste in music (130–41, 239) to the Cockfights at the Collinsville Game Club (242–49). The book begins and ends with his visit to a cockfight in Collinsville, Oklahoma. He uses this example to demonstrate how the distinctions drawn throughout the book matter for the sorts of differences democratic citizens face. And this new region of thought—tolerance as a virtue—generates new activity for the torpid spirit. Rather than resentment about the challenges of pluralism, we find hope. Bowlin’s examples are splendid, but they are not our own. His account of tolerance gives readers the tools to reflect more deeply about the need for tolerance among all citizens, and what the virtue demands in light of the objectionable differences we face in our own time and context, given our own roles and responsibilities.

Second, this book contributes to conversations about modernity and its continuities and discontinuities with its premodern past. Friends and foes alike tend to think of tolerance as a modern, liberal invention, a response to the religious wars generated by the Protestant Reformation. This standard history generates their disputes: both assume that tolerance just is a liberal innovation and censure or endorse it as such. But Bowlin aptly notes that tolerance has a much longer, indeed ancient, legacy. So too, Aquinas commends acts of tolerance in medieval times, even if he does not theorize it as a virtue. Given that pluralism is to some extent a feature of all societies, we should expect to find discussions of tolerance across time and place. And indeed, Bowlin confirms, we do. But if the standard history does not hold, then neither do the standard assumptions about tolerance. If rather tolerance is a natural virtue that comes packaged with our humanity—along with certain concepts and judgments—then it perfects human beings in all times, places, and societies, modern and premodern alike (see especially chapters 2 and 5).

This revisionist history opens new regions of thought and inquiry. Tolerance is not new. Nonetheless, we might query, is there anything novel or distinctive about the role of tolerance, as a central feature of our discourse, or legislation, in modern democracies? Is the modern addition simply “the relatively long list of courses and lives that liberals are willing to tolerate” (191)? If so, how do these lists, these social and legal norms, change over time? For instance, what does the long history of increasing legislative religious toleration in England—from the Toleration Act in 1689 to the Unitarian Toleration Bill of 1813 and the Roman Catholic and Jewish Relief Acts (1832, 1858)—reveal about the process of increasing social and legislative toleration, of social and legal transformation? Put differently, what are the relations among law and virtue? Can just laws be a tutor of the virtues? Do laws of toleration help to form tolerant citizens? Or do tolerant citizens and legislators form more tolerant laws? Given that the transformation from unjust to just laws is often the result of pressure from dissenters and nonconformists, how do we form citizens in the prudence and justice required to tolerate and protest the right things, in the right ways, at the right times? For good reason, Bowlin does not fully address all of these questions, but his work encourages others to take them up anew.

Third, this book makes a significant contribution to conversations in virtue theory and Christian ethics. Jeffrey Stout, on the back cover, calls this “the most original and instructive account we have of a single virtue.” By focusing on this single virtue, Bowlin sheds light on conversations in virtue ethics about action, habits, character, moral formation, perfection, virtues’ semblances, the unity of the virtues, and pagan and Christian virtues. Like Aquinas, Bowlin is a master of distinctions. Consider the distinction between acts and habits. An act of tolerance does not always indicate a virtue of tolerance. An act may or may not reflect a settled, habitual disposition of the will. Likewise, one may act tolerantly for a number of reasons, motivations, and aims that are more or less just. An act of tolerance may reflect indifference or acceptance, rather than the patient endurance of an objectionable difference. At the same time, what may appear to be an act of tolerance does not arise from the virtue of tolerance if the difference patiently endured is not objectionable. The virtue of tolerance is rather a habit that disposes one to respond to objectionable differences with patient endurance, among other acts. In this way, Bowlin distinguishes the virtue from its semblances. Confusing the semblances, vices dressed in virtue’s garb, for the virtue itself fuels the resentment of tolerance that Bowlin aptly describes (chapter 1). Using Aquinas’s distinctions, he argues that tolerance is a natural virtue that perfects human beings in all times and places (chapter 2). So too, he clarifies that tolerance is a moral virtue, a perfection of the will, annexed to justice. These matter for distinguishing tolerance which pertains to justice from forbearance which, in its natural and graced forms, grows out of love and friendship (see chapter 6, to which I will return).

By placing tolerance among the virtues, Bowlin illumines this single virtue as well as its relation to other virtues. We should hope, as he does, that this new region of thought, “the determinate account of tolerance [he] provide[s] and the vocabulary of virtue that [he] develop[s] can be used as models for those who might work up these other virtues” (10). There is work to be done, and it would be a great service to citizens who are torpid in spirit, tired by the challenges posed by our differences. For, tolerance stands, he notes, “among a number of moral virtues that matter for those of us concerned with educating students, building teams, exercising citizenship, forming coalitions, and maintaining friendships” (10). Yet at this point, one may wonder, why so much attention to one virtue? What is to be gained by such a detailed examination? Does having a robust moral vocabulary which the virtues provide help one to cultivate the virtues themselves? Surely, throughout history, long before this excellent account of tolerance arrived on the scene, there have been tolerant persons (Bowlin provides examples, but with one exception no exemplars). Will reading his account make us more tolerant? As suggested above, it may at least cause readers to desire to become more tolerant. This book is not primarily about the formative practices, exemplars, and communities that, as the author knows, form us into more virtuous persons. Nonetheless, the hope throughout seems to be that a better moral vocabulary and examination of the relevant distinctions moves the conversations about tolerance forward, beyond resentment and toward an appreciation for the just, even loving, patient endurance of objectionable differences on which all societies depend.

Fourth, this book contributes to conversations in Christian ethics, specifically with regard to pagan and Christian virtues. The questions are various: what, if anything, is distinctive about Christian virtues? What are the theological or infused virtues and what is their relation to their pagan or acquired counterparts? Do the theological virtues (faith, hope, and love) have natural analogues? Are acquired, pagan virtues true virtues or mere semblances? In Christian theology, these are questions about the relation between nature and grace. Bowlin’s account of toleration and forbearance bears on each. Pace Christians who would replace tolerance with forbearance or love, he preserves their distinction (to a point) and insists on the need for both. This means that tolerance is a true virtue given the kinds of creatures we are and the differences that characterize our earthly life. In the final chapter, Bowlin provides an account of tolerance’s natural sibling, forbearance. Whereas tolerance is annexed to justice, natural forbearance is annexed to love and abides in ordinary friendships. Both are distinct from the forbearance annexed to charity, to the friendship for God and neighbor that comes by grace alone. What distinguishes the tolerant and forbearing is not only the form of their patient endurance—whether out of justice or love, duty or gift—but the distinct hopes they have, sorrows they endure, and the social relationships in which these virtues reside. Having brought the reader this far, this master of distinctions softens them by considering “(1) the effects of friendship’s love on tolerance and (2) the effects of divine charity on the naturally acquired versions of both tolerance and forbearance” (212). The one exemplar of the book, the person who embodies the perfection of forbearance, is, Christ. What does Christ’s forbearance mean for Christ’s followers?

Again, this new region of thought generates new work. Here I have in mind the concerns of womanist, mujerista, feminist, queer, black, Latinx, and other Christian theologians and ethicists. And, so does Bowlin (even if he does not elaborate them or develop the implications of his account of forbearance with regard to them). By point to Christ as the perfection of forbearance, he does not want to encourage masochism or sadism (230n28, 231). He is well aware that “inequalities of power and the lust to dominate only encourage [the] misuse” of the “theological symbolics” of Christ’s passion (231). His account of love, friendship, and forbearance is meant to guard against these tendencies. But Christ’s example of forbearance complexifies things. With tolerance, the waters are not so murky. “The tolerant,” Bowlin says, “have a list of actions and things they find so objectionable that the relationship must be abandoned . . . but those who endure with the forbearance of Christ proceed with no equivalent list” (225). They must distinguish between “sins that harm persons or threaten the common good” and those that do not (225). Those that do such harm, require in addition to charity’s forbearance “the just correction that protects persons and safeguards the common good as it restrains the sinner and deters those tempted to emulate his sin” (225). Those who have lived on the underside of oppressive relations and institutions can appreciate such safeguards. But these distinctions seem to be somewhat in tension with Christ’s example, at least in the passion. Christ’s negative velleity toward his death answers one set of questions (see 230n28). Nonetheless, we might ask, did not Christ forebear all sins to the point of death, without either just correction that protects persons or seeking to safeguard the common good?

Bowlin grants that victims of these symbolics, those who have suffered under their misuse, will reasonably want to do without them. But he thinks that virtue’s ideal offers another response. After all, “forbearance always comes with voice, with criticism and correction that accompanies its willingness to endure” (231). “Forgive them father,” is surely as profound a protest as one could utter from a Roman imperial cross. Greater love has no one than this. Yet virtues’ ideals seem more manifold than this exemplar suggests. In an age of #metoo, police brutality, church sex abuse scandals and coverups, and a perduring epidemic of domestic violence, the work of discerning the ideals and naming exemplars of forbearance remains. Martin Luther King Jr. is certainly one. In “Loving Your Enemies,” a sermon delivered at the Detroit Council of Churches’ Noon Lenten Services, he argues that Jesus’ command to love one’s enemies is not “the pious injunction of a utopian dreamer” (422). In a quintessential display of forbearance with voice, criticism, and correction, he proclaims: “Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we will still love you. . . . And we will still love you . . . and we will still love you. . . .” comes the refrain (428). “But be assured that we will wear you down (Yes indeed) by our capacity to suffer (Yes) And one day we will win our freedom, but not only will we win freedom for ourselves. We will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process (Yes, Lord) And our victory will be a double victory. . . . Love is the absolute power” (428). Here love perfects, not tolerance, but protest or criticism. So too, womanists, feminists, and those concerned with power, sacrifice, and love may help us to understand how it is that in tolerance and protest perfected by forbearance and charity, we gain a double victory.

  1. Vesla Mae Weaver, “The Kavanaugh Hearings Show Who We Afford a Second Chance and Who We Don’t,” Vox, September 28, 2018,

  2. Ralph Waldo Emerson et al., The American Transcendentalists: Essential Writings, ed. Lawrence Buell, Modern Library edition (New York: Modern Library, 2006), 45.

  • John Bowlin

    John Bowlin


    Response to Emily Dumler-Winckler

    Every writer, I suppose, works with a certain reader in mind, a certain audience in view. We tap on keyboards and scratch on notepads, all in the hope that we will be read, and read well, and that the audience we hope to have will appear and receive what we offer. As we all know, not all such hopes are fulfilled. In my case, with this book, I hoped for a reader who could see that tolerance was not my only topic, someone who could take note of my many aims and ambitions, the many conversations I hope to influence, and who could, in a forum like this one, show me what topics I missed or passed by, what aims went ignored or unmet, and how a conversation started might be extended and improved when taken up by other writers.

    In this forum, I have been blessed with five such readers. I am grateful for the careful attention each has given to the book I have written, and I am especially grateful for Emily Dumler-Winckler’s remarks. She is precisely the kind of reader that I hoped my book might have. She understands that my effort to theorized tolerance as a virtue of the will has required attention to a number of other topics: how reason functions as a norm of right action; how just actions generate rightly ordered relationships; how a rightly ordered relationship is a good held in common by the parties to it; how relationships and roles are sources of obligations and entitlements; how mutual well-wishing, desire for union, and willingness to suffer loss for the sake of a beloved create the relationships within which tolerance and other aspects of justice operate; how grace assumes, heals, and elevates our actions, virtues, relationships, roles, and requirements; and how these features of our life are also a kind of grace, one that comes by nature. Crucially, she understands that I hope to open up a number of conversations that many had considered closed, concluded: how to theorize a disregarded moral virtue; how to distinguish different virtues and coordinate their work, how to regard the relationship between modern and premodern moral discourses, and how to recast (perhaps redeem) and put to use certain dangerous moral terms and ideals—not just toleration’s endurance, but also patience, sacrifice, and emulation.

    With this last thought in mind, let me say something in reply to Dumler-Winckler’s important remarks on law, toleration, and formation, and then (related) something briefly about exemplars of forbearance.

    I’m a scholar of theology and ethical theory, not a historian of law and religion. Still, as far as I can tell, the pleas for religious toleration that we find in Locke’s Letter, Bayle Philosophical Commentary, and Voltaire’s essays are designed to secure membership in a political community for the once excluded, and only then mutual endurance among members. Some commitments, practices, and lives are so unjust, disgusting, or vile that they count as grounds for exclusion, for being denied full standing in the relevant community. In the early modern period, some religious commitments, practices, and lives were regarded in precisely this way. Those who endorsed them could not be regarded as members of the political community, as citizens with full standing. Pleas for religious toleration were made to alter this regard and, if successful, generate legislative efforts designed to secure membership and its entitlements for precisely those persons.

    A central argument of my book is that membership precedes tolerance. We tolerate those with whom we share some sort of society, those who belong to us in some way and live with us in some capacity. But this means that the question of membership, of who has standing and who doesn’t, is always prior, and in many ways, more important than the question of toleration—of what should and should not be tolerated and on what grounds. Membership makes one a candidate for toleration and, in democratic political communities, for voice and authority in the ongoing debate about the tolerable and the intolerable.

    Now, suppose new laws alter the membership criteria of a political community. Suppose the commitments, practices, and lives that were once grounds for being denied standing no longer are—what then? Well, presumably some who share this political society with these new members will continue to find something gravely objectionable about these commitments, practices, and lives. Toleration’s endurance will be required. When they offer it, will it be virtuous? Probably not. If tolerance is a virtue of will, if the tolerant are those who are inclined by habit to want to endure what they must and who do so with an undivided will, then it’s unlikely that their endurance will be truly tolerant. On the one hand, they are likely to act with pained self-restraint, not with habit’s ease and pleasure. On the other, they may regard as objectionable what in fact is not. The commitments, practices, and lives that were once thought to provide grounds for exclusion might not be objectionable after all, and the reasons for considering them so might now be absent. It follows that the toleration offered might be welcome but not exactly virtuous. It might be a semblance of virtue that is not exactly vicious, but nor the real coin.

    What can we say (then) about the relationship between legislated toleration and the virtue of tolerance? As I see it, the laws offer membership to the once excluded. They give legal standing to those who were once denied it, standing as citizens. They create candidates for due endurance, even if the endurance actually received isn’t always virtuous—even if the commitments, lives, and practices that once excluded them from membership aren’t actually objectionable. As Wendy Brown sees it (Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire [Princeton 2008]), this last possibility discounts legislated toleration as a just response to the differences that divide us. The laws create subjectivities across a power gradient, where some are thought to need toleration’s endurance when in fact they do not and others offer it when in fact there’s no need. Relationships are corrupted as these subjects are created.

    I concede the danger, the potential disconnect between law and virtue that Brown identifies, but I also think that there are other possibilities that need to be acknowledged. Surely full legal standing in a political community is better than exclusion, and surely it is better to be endured as a member than to suffer sanction or violence. The laws can accomplish this much. In an age of refugees and walls, this is no small thing. The laws can also create the conditions in which the subjectivities that emerge are both novel and welcome.

    A new citizen has a new persona. She occupies a new role. She plays a new part in the civic body, and certain virtues will be required to play that part well. When her fellow citizens struggle to credit her performance, no matter how well she plays it, contestation and struggle will ensue over recognition and standing. And, if Danielle Allen is right, sacrifice will be a crucial aspect of this struggle.1 A person signals her care for a relationship and her standing within it when she is willing to suffer a loss for the sake of its flourishing, for the right ordering of its affairs. Of course, various conditions must be met before we can count that sacrifice virtuous, too many to consider here. Suffice it to say that they could be met, and that the endurance of the justly tolerant and the truly forbearing can be sacrificial in precisely this way. Legally guaranteed membership of the once excluded makes these sacrifices possible. Failure of due recognition by the other members quite often make them essential.

    Dumler-Winckler understands all this. She notes that exemplars of forbearance, of love’s endurance, will suffer losses for the sake of union with the beloved. This is especially true when their standing in the relationship is denied, their love unrequited, and when their willingness to endure—their refusal to exit the relationship—puts them in harm’s way. Martin Luther King Jr. endured the enmity of white racists even as he contested and opposed their injustice, even as his endurance was designed to claim standing and secure union within a love relationship, and even as this claim, this refusal to exit, was met with violence. Dumler-Winckler is right: this makes Dr. King an exemplar of forbearance. The same can be said of the congregation called by Dr. King in his Lenten service sermon. As they answered his call, they too became exemplars of love’s endurance.

    But for whom are Dr. King and these others exemplars and on whose authority are they regarded as such? Dumler-Winckler mentions womanists, feminists, and others concerned with power, sacrifice, and love. I can only agree. At the same time, I’m inclined to think that the members of these communities should identify their own exemplars of forbearance (tolerance too!), describe the actions and circumstances that make them so, and imagine what it might mean to regard their virtues and lives as worthy of emulation. Dumler-Winckler concludes with an expression of hope—that this work might be done. I share that hope. I wrote this book in the service of that work.

    1. Danielle Allen, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown v. Board of Education (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 25–49.

Keri Day


To Tolerate or Not to Tolerate?

After reading John Bowlin’s book Tolerance among the Virtues, my idea of tolerance has shifted. Prior to reading John’s text, I saw tolerance as an ethically weak practice lauded by political and religious liberals, often involving a paternalistic and accommodating attitude toward “others” who are imagined as not having the moral capacity to critically discern right action. John offers a different account of tolerance that is exacting and rigorous, an account that does not easily succumb to my current idea of this term. I want to talk about what I believe John gets right in his book and also raise some lingering questions.

In the introduction, John asks us to rethink our assumptions surrounding tolerance as either a liberal virtue that sponsors democratic exchange or a vice that is oriented toward political utilitarianism. He agrees that when tolerant acts are merely signs of indifference or political calculation, in service to individual freedom or liberal autonomy, it is hard to speak of toleration as an ethical practice that helps us experience moral growth. Instead, John wants us to see tolerance as a virtue that belongs to the sphere of justice and perfects the work of love. This is his thesis. Although he employs a highly analytical method in his discussion of tolerance, John’s thesis has practical importance, as we must find ways to talk about loving and compassionate responses to serious disagreements and objectionable differences (8). And he spends the rest of his time in the book unfolding this argument, attempting to provide evidence that might point to why his account of tolerance is more intellectually honest and rigorous.

John couches his argument in what I would refer to as a critical realism. For him, tolerance is a natural virtue—it’s what we already practice in some measure. As a result, we are unable to simply write off tolerance, as it already finds its way into our lives as human beings. We are already making moral evaluations about when and where acts of toleration are best employed. This means that the debate is not over whether we need to exercise tolerance or not. Rather, John insists that we must attend to the perfection of this virtue by orienting it toward the love of God and neighbor rather than as mere acts of indifference and political expediency.

Because we already exercise tolerance in some measure, John proposes that tolerance as a virtue is only virtuous when understood from within a family of virtues, namely justice, love, and forbearance. He first identifies forbearance as a sibling of tolerance. What if tolerance and forbearance were seen as siblings, both possessing patient endurance in the work of love? Here, he wants to shift toleration from an act or policy to tolerance as a virtue and sibling to forbearance. This is where Thomas Aquinas does significant work for John. John acknowledges that Aquinas does not directly theorize tolerance or forbearance as a virtue. But Aquinas does share an interest in responding well to disagreement and objectionable differences through patient endurance (106). For Aquinas, patient endurance is the end result of love but this patient endurance is only formed within the moral agent through virtues such as forbearance and tolerance. Understanding tolerance as a sibling of forbearance is central to John’s argument, as both contribute to the work of patient endurance (which is necessary to practices of love and justice).

Justice and love are also part of the family of virtues in which tolerance finds its home. John argues that when “tolerance is annexed to justice, it resets its ends and intentions” (110). Justice is about what we imagine is due to each person within society. For John, what is often due one’s neighbor is forbearance or patient endurance to stay present to one’s neighbor despite any serious objectionable differences one might share with her. Tolerance is the natural virtue of having patient endurance in the right circumstances without seeking to convert or punish my neighbor for such objectionable differences. Tolerance therefore can contribute to the work of justice in being able to give people what is due them. It enables us to achieve peace within a society marked by objectionable differences. John emphasizes that his proposal of tolerance as a virtue is different from current liberal notions of toleration. Liberal notions of toleration are merely about an indifferent attitude toward those around me who I may object to, as I am tolerant out of respect for their personal freedom and autonomy. On the contrary, tolerance as a virtue is about having patient endurance toward my neighbor and her differences, as I know that this virtue enables a common life to unfold in which we are truly able to see each other’s humanity and perhaps be friends. The virtue of tolerance makes possible a common life of love that can also foster possibilities of justice.

I was very concerned with how one could distinguish tolerance as a virtue from tolerating unjust actions. John provides a way for the moral agent to discern tolerance as a virtue from its semblances. John maintains that the moral agent who is perfecting virtues through habit will be able to discern the need for this virtue in just circumstances as opposed to unjust situations. The habit-forming virtuous character of the moral agent enables the agent, over time, to rightly perceive unjust from just actions because this person has submitted herself to the virtue formation process. And John does consider the moral difficulties and complexities that arise as one discerns the good and just thing to do. I like that John places emphasis on the virtuous person in evaluating the moral status of an action rather than depending on fixed, absolute principles when evaluating what makes tolerant acts morally virtuous. Yet, John is not naïve—I think John would agree that moral agents can rightly perceive injustice in one situation while wrongly perceiving in another situation. For certain, John takes into account the moral growth that any agent experiences through the habit-forming process associated with virtue formation.

Yet, I want to linger a bit longer on how cultural pluralism affects or shapes a moral agent’s understanding of virtue and her ability to know the right thing to do. There are different cultural accounts of virtue within American society itself, which impacts a moral agent’s ability to know and discern. I am aware that John acknowledges the diversity of human cultures and conventions yet I think he makes too quick a leap in asserting that societies possess certain “shared ontological and moral commitments” and ethical judgments about the “goodness of certain ends and truth of certain empirical propositions” (87). I know he is drawing on Ludwig Wittgenstein and Aquinas. But I am not certain here. I think I am shaped more by Charles Long and Derrick Bell. There is a certain opacity to the moral life and how we come to discern the goodness and truth of certain ends and empirical propositions. I do think that part of what we are experiencing in our national dialogue is an incommensurability of moral universes. Often, we don’t actually share basic ontological and moral commitments, and these colliding accounts on the meanings of moral life lead us to a huge impasse. We don’t have a “shared moral history,” if at least what we mean by this term is shared meanings about our moral worlds. How does John wrestle with or respond to a claim on the “incommensurability of moral worlds” and how it affects the moral agent’s understanding and discernment of virtue itself (and therefore tolerance)?

A second question I have is related to John’s conversation on friendship and virtue. I appreciate John’s insistence that relationships and friendships enable a different engagement with objectionable difference. I agree with John that one is patient out of the love one has for a friend. Where there is no friendship, acts of forbearance and tolerance are unlikely. As John says, “it is the antecedent friendship that generates my obligation to endure” (220). John does anticipate his critic in relation to this claim. What if no prior friendship exists? This tends to be the case when we are talking about the cultivation of civic virtue within our national political community, where little engagement transpires between communities across objectionable differences. To be fair, John asserts that where there is no friendship, the potential desire of friendship among enemies could make possible tolerance, forbearance, and patient endurance. Yet, I would like to invert this question about the desire to friends: as an African American woman, should I desire to be friends with others who overtly make clear that their central goal is to refute the equal humanity of blacks and other non-white Americans? Do I fail the test of virtue if I reject those who refuse my humanity? I am quite compelled by feminist philosopher Lisa Tessman’s argument that certain dominant accounts of virtue “burden” marginalized groups. Given the enormous power dynamics within any society, how do we speak about the desire and practice of friendship as virtuous without allowing this account to become an example of burdened virtue in which oppressed groups bear an unfair moral cost? I have enormous anxieties over the language of friendship, especially when privileged groups are calling on the necessity of this virtue.

Moreover, I am left wondering how this possibility or desire is, if at all, related to our current pluralistic moment in which various communities neither have the desire to be nor see the possibilities of being “friends.” If friendship is not even desired in this current political moment, where does that leave us? Is the telos toward which John’s account of tolerance is directed a practical possibility if friendship is simply impossible?

For certain, John has offered a formidable account of tolerance that breaks open a new conversation. I began reading his book, filled with innumerable hesitancies. I finished his book quite compelled to continue this discourse on new ways of thinking about tolerance.

  • John Bowlin

    John Bowlin


    Response to Keri Day

    I am enormously grateful for the comments and criticism that my dear friend and colleague Keri Day has offered in response to my book. Over the years, she has been one of the most careful readers of my work, one of the most precise critics of my efforts. She is not an ungenerous critic. By no means! She works hard to find what is good and account for its merit, but she always gets to a point—to a challenge that must be made, a critique that must be offered, a question that must be posed. And the aim is always simultaneously Socratic and prophetic: to push a conversation to the next step by means of question and critique, but also to identify persons who have been marginalized, voices that have been silenced, and to insist that they be included in the conversation.

    Keri poses a number of questions, expresses a number of worries that touch on some of the deepest matters in ethical theory. Here I want to offer three replies. The first regards the question of incommensurable moral universes. The second considers the possibility that injustice might be a right object of toleration’s due endurance. And the third responds to Keri’s worry about friendship as the antecedent condition of that endurance, as the source of our obligation to stay put, stay with, and bear each other’s burdens. My replies will be sketches at best, with most of the details left out, but with enough said to see the outline of an alternative point of view.

    Keri thinks that the facts of cultural pluralism require us to conclude that different persons and communities quite often live in incommensurate moral universes. She worries that these facts and this conclusion threaten my account of tolerance as a virtue. The tolerant make right judgments about various matters—about what should and should not be endured, about the proper ends of due endurance, and about the difference between true tolerance and its false look-alikes. If we live in incommensurate moral universes, how is this going to work? How can we agree on what tolerance requires? And if my account blithely ignores this problem, then won’t it (don’t I!) invariably favor the judgments of one moral universe instead of another, presumably the one occupied by the privileged and powerful? Doesn’t this troubling arbitrariness infect my account?

    Here I want to distinguish a real worry from a false one. Different times and places, different persons and communities, will indeed make different judgments about what justice demands, where sacred value resides, how goods should be ranked, why certain ideals matter, and which actions and persons exhibit virtue’s excellence, or not. This makes both getting along and finding agreement difficult, and the temptation will be as Keri suspects. Frustrated by these difficulties and impatient with disagreement, the powerful will be tempted to impose their judgments and then package what they impose in the soothing language of true virtue.

    This is a real worry. A political community that organizes its affairs democratically will want to take it seriously. Its members should count the arbitrary imposition of power and norm among the gravest social ills. The governing offices and roles they constitute, the practices of accountability they develop, and the institutional arrangements they endorse should all be designed to check this temptation. No doubt, the powerful will often succumb nevertheless. They will challenge these checks upon their desire to dominate. They will corrupt and co-opt them. In response, social critics, whistle-blowers, and prophets will be needed to identify domination and denounce it when it appears, along with citizens organized well enough to oppose it effectively. Courage, tolerance, and the other virtues that enable these citizens to work together in spite of their differences and to exercise power justly will be indispensable. In general, there is nothing more to say beyond pointing to successes and failures in each of the efforts and trying to do better with each.

    But doesn’t this beg Keri’s question? Don’t our disagreements about what justice requires, what deserves endurance, or what counts as virtuous run so deep as to open up an abyss between us, rendering meaningless our utterances across the divide? Isn’t moral incommensurability of this sort a real worry?

    The short answer is no, and the quick warrant is simply this: disagreements require objects. Our disagreements about justice, endurance, and virtue regard just these objects. They are what these disagreements are about, and about this we agree. So, for example, we agree that justice regards actions that mediate relations among persons and that just actions set those relationships right. Across many cases and circumstances, we might disagree about which actions are just and what a rightly ordered relationship looks like. But so long as our disagreement regards this shared object, we do not live in fundamentally distinct moral universes. Rather, our disagreement regards the proper application of a concept we share, and, as I argue in chapter 2 of the book, this disagreement cannot go all the way down. We will have to agree about the proper application of this concept in some circumstances in order to disagree about its application in others. Making different use of a shared concept assumes precisely this background of agreement in basic application, basic judgment about right use.1

    Still, if the inference from the facts of cultural pluralism to conversation-stopping incommensurability is unwarranted, those facts remain nevertheless. They make life together difficult, mutual understanding hard. At times, we will not know how to resolve our disagreements. Harmony will be elusive. Our social and political relationships will be fractured. My claim is that tolerance is one possible response. In some circumstances, in response to some disagreements and differences, it can be a right response. And it can be right even when the object of due endurance is something unjust—an action, attitude, or arrangement of things that falls short of the right.

    This is my second point. True tolerance often has real injustice as its object. It’s this object that makes tolerance matter, that makes theorizing it as a virtue essential. In an honest assessment of our lives, relationships, and institutions we not only find injustices of various kinds, many of them structured across inequalities of power, status, and position due to differences in race, gender, ethnicity, and ability, but also patient endurance of some of these injustices. No doubt, in some circumstances that endurance is itself unjust. As Keri points out, it can offer undue accommodation to what in fact requires some other response. This is certainly right. Some injustices should be met with the law’s coercion, not toleration’s patience. Some relationships are so deformed by domination that they should be abandoned, not endured. Still, not every injustice can (or should) be coerced out of existence; not every relationship deformed by domination can (or should) be exited. As I argue in chapter 4, in circumstances like these, justice quite often demands endurance paired with contestation and correction. It requires a willingness to remain within a relationship, to stay put and claim standing, paired with vigorous efforts to oppose unaccountable power and remedy its harms. As Emily Dumler-Winckler points out in her response, we can’t tell truthful stories about the social justice movements that we care most deeply about without acknowledging the importance of this pairing, this willingness to suffer and endure what is simultaneously contested and opposed.

    Keri mentions Lisa Tessman, who refers to the virtues associated with resistance movements, traits that are “practically necessitated for surviving oppression or morally necessitated for opposing it.” Tessman notes that these virtues are “costly to those who bear them.” They are burdensome. Those who have them and make use of them suffer something along the way. They lose something good for virtue’s sake. Tessman doesn’t count tolerance among those virtues. I’m suggesting that we should.2

    Lastly, a brief word about friendship. In the book, I argue that tolerance, like justice, is a creature of social and political relationships. Toleration’s endurance is offered and received among who have standing in a relationship, and it’s the morally significant details of their relationship that determine the demands and entitlements of due endurance. Throughout, I insist that only good relationships can generate just demands and entitlements, and, following Aristotle and Thomas, I argue that good relationships have friendship-like features. Members of a household, a workplace, a congregation, a neighborhood, or a political community will wish each other well as members and desire union with each other as participants in the relationship they share. And, if this is right, then justice and its parts, tolerance and the rest, will find their origin and do their work within relationships that have precisely these friendship-like features. Friendship’s love is the beginning and end of justice.

    The claim is descriptive. I am not saying that we should all be friends, whatever that means. Rather, I am saying that membership in a relationship of some sort, a relationship that is friendship-like, is an antecedent condition of giving and receiving tolerance. Due endurance is offered, in part, to sustain that relationship. Thus Keri’s question: what happens when there is no antecedent relationship, no practical possibility that one might emerge? In the book, I argue that tolerance is not the only possible response to the differences that divide us, and here I want to say again that it is not the most crucial one. More important is the prior question of membership. Who has standing in a social or political relationship? What sacrifices are required in order to secure standing and receive recognition as a member? Who mourns these sacrifices? Whose sacrifices are mourned? And what rites of mourning not only signal membership but reconstitute the relationship? Keri poses these questions to those who would praise tolerance. She is right to do so; I am grateful for them.

    1. For a similar argument that regards shared judgments about empirical matters, see John Bowlin and Peter Stromberg, “Representation and Reality in the Study of Culture,” American Anthropologist 99.1 (March 1997) 123–34. Our claims made here about a shared world as a cause of shared belief need to be modified in light of the account of observatives in Rebecca Kukla and Mark Lance, “Yo!” and “Lo!”: The Pragmatic Topography of the Space of Reasons (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), chs. 2–3.

    2. Lisa Tessman, Burdened Virtues: Virtue Ethics for Liberatory Struggles (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 107. While I applaud Tessman’s effort to show how certain virtues are indispensable for liberatory political movements, I resist her two major theoretical claims: that (1) these virtues do not contribute to the overall flourishing of those who have them precisely because (2) they are most commonly exercised in circumstances of tragic “moral conflict, where competing demands produced by great injustice force even the most virtuous agent to leave some ‘ought’ unfulfilled” (5). Both claims are false, or so I contend.

Sheryl Overmyer


The Three Topoi of Tolerance

It is one of life’s epistemological tricks that intolerance is so easy to spot in others, but impracticable to see in oneself. I opened the first pages of Tolerance among the Virtues self-satisfied and self-assured that toleration had slim place among the virtues. I participate in the scholarly retrieval of virtue ethics, drawing heavily on premodern sources mentioned in the first pages of the book (3). The tables were soon reversed on me as I found reasons to begin to consider tolerance within the tradition of the virtues and to appreciate that its embodiment might encourage “honest and transparent debate about the disagreements and differences that unsettle our political lives and social relationships” (8).

Bowlin’s book creatively constructs from its very foundations the classical anthropological and emotional architecture of tolerance—

(1) a virtue that attains a mean between two extremes,

(2) its internal structure as a virtue of the will associated with justice, and

(3) a virtue that scales out to relationships with other passions.[/NL]

His book deals extensively with this repertoire of concepts as he sorts them in right relationship to one another. It will make sense to the reader that he builds an elaborate and careful conceptual framework—in part if they are familiar with Bowlin’s previous work on contingency in Aquinas’ ethics, but also—because Bowlin wants to shift our attention from tolerance as act and policy to tolerance as a virtue. This is the cumulative effect of the first several chapters of the book and I will focus on Bowlin’s framing of tolerance as a virtue.

(1) The Mean between Two Harmful Extremes

Aristotle’s definitions of virtue are difficult to improve upon, and Bowlin implicitly takes his starting point from him. Bowlin describes toleration as a virtue that attains a mean between two extremes (34). Recall Aristotle’s definition of the mean from Book II of the Nicomachean Ethics:

In everything that is continuous and divisible it is possible to take more, less, or an equal amount, and that either in terms of the thing itself or relatively to us; and the equal is an intermediate between excess and defect. By the intermediate in the object I mean that which is equidistant from each of the extremes, which is one and the same for all; for the intermediate relatively to us that which is neither too much nor too little—and this is not one, nor the same for all. For instance, if ten is many and two is few, six is the intermediate, taken in terms of the object; for it exceeds and is exceeded by an equal amount; this is the intermediate according to arithmetical proportion. But the intermediate relatively to us is not to be taken so; if ten pounds are too much for a particular person to eat and two too little, it does not follow that the trainer will order six pounds; for this also is perhaps too much for the person who is to take it, or too little—too little for Milo, too much for the beginner in athletic exercises. The same is true of running and wrestling. Thus a master of any art avoids excess and defect, but seeks the intermediate and chooses this—the intermediate not in the object but relatively to us. (1106a27–b7)

Aristotle’s extremes concern the measure of the thing itself relative to us—its arithmetical proportion. With justice, for instance, the excess is to exceed in one’s external operation what was dictated by the mean—a student deserves an “A” on the paper, and in addition the professor is now offering to do the student’s dry cleaning. The deficiency is to fall short of what is dictated by the mean of justice—a student deserves an “A” on the paper, and in addition the professor docks the student’s grade for not liking his personality. Both fall short of the mean of justice.

Let’s grant that tolerance is “the license given to the one who is endured to speak and act in certain ways across certain lines of disagreement and difference, or the activity of enduring some objectionable difference” (18n1). Reconsider tolerance’s excess and deficiency. Its excess would seem to be allowing all lines of disagreement and difference to be crossed with no regard for distinction or differentiation—vacuousness. It implies negligence of something crucial, a live-and-let-live of something vital. This might be construed from different sides of what are taken to be our current political commitments. For example, then Cardinal Ratzinger writes that modern life is ruled by the “dictatorship of relativism” (21); or, for example, negligence in the sense of anything that reaffirms and reinstates insidious sexist racist power dynamics. For the other extreme, tolerance’s deficiency, would be an inability to allow any difference or differentiation whatsoever—prejudice. This is the sense that any difference posed becomes immediately “unbearably harmful,” and this is a pain of which Bowlin writes throughout his book. This deficiency is the human default that overwhelmingly concerns Bowlin—the collective “we” Aristotle invokes frequently in the Nicomachean Ethics. Thus we have, thanks to Aristotle, tolerance taken to be a mean with two extremes of vacuousness and prejudice. There is a problem here. Bowlin construes the two extremes of toleration as “harmlessly unobjectionable” and “unbearably harmful,” which are problematic on Aristotelian grounds (28). The excess and the deficiency of toleration must necessarily be harmful as extremes. Aristotle concludes: “Virtue is a mean between two vices, that which depends on excess and that which depends on defect; and again it is a mean because the vices respectively fall short of or exceed what is right in both passions and actions, while virtue both finds and chooses that which is intermediate” (1106b 25–28). To my mind, Bowlin does not need a significant conceptual shift to set this aright. I would, however, love to hear more from Bowlin on the vices contrary to tolerance. Also, might he go further in specifying these “harms”? They are introduced in the context of their being intolerable and unbearable. It would be wonderful to see a catalog of examples bearing these out.

(2) Tolerance as Primarily a Virtue of the Will

Bowlin is such a skillful interpreter of Thomas’s thought that readers may not appreciate that they have, with Bowlin’s help, handily navigated some highly contentious matters regarding the operations of intellect and will. Namely—that tolerance is a virtue that emerges at the level of desire and willing, but also requires a transformation of one’s cognition. (For a deeper treatment of these topics, consult Bowlin’s expert “Psychology and Theodicy in Aquinas,” where he traces Aquinas’s debts to Augustine at the same time as he sketches Aquinas’s relationship to Scotus’s voluntarism [114n8]). For Aquinas, the intellect moves the will by default. For example, this Thanksgiving I decide that it’s in everyone’s best interest not to say anything to upset the family dynamic and so goes my desire to, despite their worst provocations, keep everything copacetic. (The pumpkin pie always helps.) There are, Bowlin admits, certain moments “in the Christian drama of salvation that compel [Aquinas] to imagine a will that moves itself quite apart from reason’s judgment about the good that is best” (114). Of course this concerns cases where we choose something less than ideally desirable for ourselves—when I had decided that it was in everyone’s best interest not to upset the family dynamic (based on the intellect’s judgment), I had wanted not to upset the collective family goodwill (based on the will’s desire), but then, in a free movement of the will, I act out desire that was previously forbidden and proclaim my anarchist sympathies to the shock and dismay of all (will breaking from intellect’s judgment about what’s good and best, regarding some lesser good of the shock and awe campaign as better). Tolerance works along these lines, Bowlin tells us, in that tolerance’s judgments are primary in its act. Could Bowlin say more about toleration as an act of the will, as requiring a certain formation of will, as a recognizable virtue of the will that justice itself is? In short, I would love to have an account of what it would look like for a will to be habitually, dispositionally tolerant. Returning to Aristotle, we find a definition of virtues as dispositions or inclinations to act or feel in certain ways. What would it be to have your habitual, first response to the world be a “tolerant” response? Teasing this out further to individuals who have shown tolerance to be a “second nature”—are there saints known for their tolerance? Moral exemplars of tolerance? Are there examples of historical and contemporary societies that have flourished by giving tolerance a central role?

(3) Is Tolerance Passionate?

Bowlin is a singular writer who can piece together many virtues and the passions and seamlessly segue between them, understanding keenly the complexity of our inner lives. One grouping includes tolerance, patience, and endurance. Tolerance is associated with justice, whereas patience and endurance are two passions that are traditionally associated with the virtue of courage. They are intimately related to one another, Bowlin shows, through a deeper unity of the virtues (151). This is a fascinating move, though I wonder if Aquinas would be on board. In making tolerance out to be a virtue that necessarily requires patient endurance, Bowlin builds passionate responses into the heart of a virtue that is meant to be an act of justice. According to Aquinas, though, justice is not meant to be about the passions—as are the other moral virtues—but about operations (ST II-II 58.9). Strictly speaking, justice is meant to be without the passions, disengaged from an emotional register in its operations. Other passions may accidentally accompany its operations, but not necessarily. Again the passions surface when Bowlin makes tolerance out to be difficult. This sends us back to Aquinas’ early treatment of the passions (ST I-II 23.1). Some passions regard something as good or evil absolutely—joy, sorrow, love, hatred; some passions regard something as good or evil as difficult to obtain or arduous—daring, fear, hope. When Bowlin writes about tolerance near perseverance, he makes it sound like the latter, that it can be difficult and arduous (147). However, if tolerance were truly allied to justice, it would regard the good simply and absolutely (ST II-II 58.10.ad2). Thus there are aspects of tolerance that, if it were allied to justice, would actually seem to thwart some of the aspects of the emotional repertoire that Bowlin wants to highlight. I am inclined to doubt that these are inherent limitations in Aquinas’s account so much as our needing to reach for further workarounds to help facilitate Bowlin’s insights into tolerance using Aquinas’s nimble anthropology. Perhaps might even consider re-narrating some affective responses that Bowlin describes in his book? Many of the experiences of tolerance that Bowlin does describe sound painful, irritating, or agonizing. Yet there are some examples of tolerance—for example, the monks at Tibhirine—whose affective experience appeared a sense of peace of which Augustine writes in the latter chapters of Book XIX of the City of God. Perhaps Aquinas’ treatment of the fruits, beatitudes, and gifts of the Holy Spirit under the auspices of charity—joy, peace, and mercy—would help provide the intellectual grist that Bowlin is searching for?

The monks of Tibhirine may show us something further: tolerance turns out to be not only an eminently pragmatic virtue for our times, but one that may even have overwhelmingly stronger underlying motivations. For the monks, their tolerance was a hallmark of their living in harmony with their Muslim neighbors. And this tolerance even became a source of tension when it was extended toward the Islamic fundamentalists who began to threaten the stability in the region and who were ultimately blamed for their martyr deaths. But tolerance was not, perhaps, the most important virtue of all the virtues that marked their lives together. They lived charitable lives of remarkable friendship to the Algerian people and faith in Christ. So, too, there are background virtues that inform and shape even our mundane tolerance. “Consider Uncle Halvor. Prone to racist innuendo and cruel bigotry across the holiday dinner table, you tolerate him nonetheless,” Bowlin writes. “You tolerate his presence and his odious remarks for the sake of the society you share with him in the company of these others. You secure this common good for him insofar as he is a member, but you should shed no tears if Aunt Hildegard would leave him and if he would depart the family. So it goes” (120). To be fair, Bowlin provides an academic account of our relationship to Uncle Hal, but it feels abstract. When we tolerate Uncle Hal, we probably also have in mind that he invited us to his farm that one Christmas when Grandma lost electricity and he made everyone hot chocolate. And we appreciate that he still struggles to keep the small-scale family farm going despite his knee problems. We plan to visit the farm again this summer when the calves are born. One day we do plan to attend Uncle Hal’s funeral and we do expect to cry—well, maybe only a little—for this person, who, yes, is prone to abhorrent racist remarks, but a person all the same. We tolerate his presence not just for the sake of the common good and not just for the sake of the family at large, but for the sake of our genuine love for this human being. This is why I especially loved that Bowlin’s book on tolerance brought us back to a treatment of friendship and charity, in the end. If there is any hope for tolerance, it will be forged through friendships and the abundance of life-giving love.

  • John Bowlin

    John Bowlin


    Response to Sheryl Overmyer

    Sheryl Overmyer is one of the most careful and insightful readers of Aquinas working today. This excellence is on vivid display in her response to my book. I am enormously grateful for her comments, criticism, and provocations. She has helped me see what needs to be recast and sharpened, what needs to be abandoned and replaced. I will follow her lead and offer comments in three parts.

    (1) Virtue’s mean. Tolerance is, I argue, an aspect of justice, the virtue that perfects our actions, actions that mediate our relations with each other. Tolerance perfects our resort to actions that mediate our relations with persons or communities that exhibit attitudes, commitments, or institutional arrangements that we find objectionable in some way. Its principal action is endurance of what is disliked or despised, an endurance that is offered to another as rightfully due, a due that, when recognized and received, will set a relationship right. The truly tolerant offer this endurance in response attitudes, commitments, or institutional arrangements that are objectionable in a way that requires this endurance.

    Here we want to ask: what distinguishes these objects of toleration’s due endurance? Is there anything in general that we can say? In Tolerance among the Virtues, I resort to the idea of virtue’s mean. The object of due endurance is neither harmlessly unobjectionable nor unbearably harmful. It falls between these two extremes. The tolerant will know where it falls.

    Overmyer thinks there is a problem with this reply, and I think she’s right. To say that the due endurance of the tolerant regards something objectionable that falls between these two extremes is a clumsy and misleading way of saying next to nothing. At this key point in the argument, I should have restated what I said in the introduction. I should have insisted that there is not much to say about this mean between extremes, nothing useful as a theoretical description of what distinguishes a truly tolerant response to something objectionable or as a practical guide for the rest. I should have simply repeated what I said elsewhere: the tolerant offer endurance to those objectionable differences that require it as right and due, to those persons and communities that deserve it. The mean they strike regards an equality of proportion, whereby the due they deliver is equal to what the other person is owed, and from them—not more, not less.

    As for vicious departures from true tolerance, from this mean, these will be multiple and diverse. Some will be failures to endure what should be, to deliver this due to those who deserve it. This failure distinguishes the intolerant. In other cases, what shouldn’t be endured nevertheless is, either because it isn’t objectionable in the first place and doesn’t require a tolerant response (the endurance of racial differences, for example), or because it is objectionable in a way that requires some other response as right and due (exiting an abusive relationship, for example).

    The judgments the tolerant must make about what is or is not objectionable, and about the merit of toleration’s endurance in response, regard objects, persons, and relationships. The tolerant must attend to the objectionable action, attitude, or arrangement of things, to the person or community that embodies or expresses them, and to the character of the relevant relationship. Since these judgments are important, complex, and difficult to get right, why not count tolerance among the virtues that perfect practical reason? Why do I, instead, assign it to the will and tether it to justice? And what is this person like, whose will is in-formed by tolerance, who is habitually tolerant across a variety of relationships and circumstances?

    (2) A virtue of the will. In the introduction, I note that tolerance regarded as a virtue appears infrequently in the vast literature on toleration (3). Later on (73n25), I note that Rainer Forst theorizes tolerance as a virtue of reason, not will. It is a rational skill in applying a moral principle, one that determines what’s tolerable and what isn’t, and a capacity for self-restraint when we would rather not do what principle demands.

    Thomas would call it a craft—the capacity to produce an outcome in accord with an antecedently determined principle—and this helps us see the difference that tolerance makes as a virtue of the will. A craftsperson has a skill that enables her to produce a product. She has know-how. Cooks know how to produce good meals, shipbuilders seaworthy ships, and physicians healthy bodies. What each of them lack, however, is a settled will to make use of their craft for the sake of just ends. The craft itself does not provide a motive to right use, which compels Forst to develop a complicated—and to my mind unconvincing—account of practical reason as an independent source of moral motivation.

    By theorizing tolerance as a virtue of the will, and by pairing it with (but not reducing it to) right judgment, I can account for the desires that motivate the tolerant. The tolerant are like the just. They are disposed by habit to care about doing right by others. They want to do what is right; they hope to set their relationships right. These settled desires focus their attention on the details of those relationships, on the ends that must be intended and the actions that must be chosen in order to set them right, in order to deliver to others the goods they are rightfully due. Justice in the will generates precisely this attention. It encourages reason’s judgment, and, crucially, it disposes the just to act in accord with reason’s determinations about the right.

    Tolerant persons are distinguished by the special attention they give to the disagreements and differences that divide us, that threaten our relationships with faction and fracture. They care about setting those relationships right across these divisions, and they want to respond with actions that are right and due. Since tolerance is a virtue, the tolerant are able to offer a right response to the most vexing sources of disagreements and division. Here I refer to the unjust actions and attitudes of our friends and colleagues, and to the injustice baked into the norms and institutions that structure our civic and ecclesial relationships. And here, I think we can see one key mark of the truly tolerant. They not only offer toleration’s endurance to those who deserve it, but, as I argue in chapter 4, they typically pair that response with critique and correction—of the injustice endured and of the institutional arrangements that sustain it. This pairing is a lesson I learned from Thomas, who counts forbearance as a work of love only as it is paired with fraternal and sororal correction.

    (3) Passions and love. Distinguishing one virtue from another is harder than it seems. Understanding how they work together is harder still. Overmyer thinks that the difficulty associated with the act of enduring something gravely objectionable—a serious injustice of some kind—should lead me to rethink the location of tolerance among the virtues. Since courage is the virtue that perfects our passionate responses to difficulties and dangers, why not count toleration’s endurance among the irascible passions (along with hope, fear, and daring) and regard tolerance as an aspect of courage? Or, alternatively, one might ask whether the sorrow that the tolerant suffer as a consequence of their endurance, a sorrow that regards their estrangement from those they endure, might lead me to associate tolerance with patience, here viewed as an aspect of temperance, which perfects pleasure, pain, and sorrow. With competing possibilities pointing in different directions, one might be tempted to regard my decision to theorize tolerance as an aspect of justice as either arbitrary, mistaken, or both.

    Here, I want to insist that the names we give to different perfections of passion and action matter less than the fact of their difference. The virtues that perfect passions are different from those that perfect actions. Since actions can have effects that elicit passions, and since passions can affect actions in myriad ways, their various perfections have to be theorized together. When theorizing the virtues that perfect passions and actions in response to disagreement and difference, the key question regards proper order of operations: regardless of what name we give it, which perfection should we begin with?

    I chose to begin with the virtue that perfects our resort to an act of will, the act of enduring what we dislike or despise. I called this perfection tolerance, a fitting name given ordinary usage. I made this choice for two reasons. If tolerance perfects our resort to this action, then tolerance must be an aspect of justice, which perfects actions not passions. And, if tolerance is an aspect of justice, then I can offer my account of the virtue as an alternative to those contemporary theories of toleration that distill principles of due endurance from a theory of justice. Second, the passions associated with enduring what we dislike or despise are consequences of toleration’s endurance. Without the prior act, there can be no sorrow over estrangement, no need to pair patience with tolerance.

    Of course, one might reply that there is no necessity in assigning this endurance to a virtue associated with justice. Why not accent the difficulty of the act and regard the virtue that perfects resort to it as an aspect of courage? The problem with this reply is that, strictly speaking, there are no acts of courage. Rather, there are just actions performed in dangerous or difficult circumstances, circumstances that elicit passions (excessive fear, daring, or anger) that courage moderates. In circumstances like these, justice requires courage, and so we speak of courageous acts. But really, they are just actions performed courageously. The same applies to tolerance. Its act creates circumstances that elicit sorrow and fear and that require the moderating influence of patience and perseverance.

    What then of love? Overmyer thinks that tolerance requires love, that its act must be ordered to sustaining, perhaps deepening a relationship with a beloved. Without love, there is no hope for tolerance. I defend roughly this view in chapter 6, but with a slightly different urgency and mood. By referring to hope, Overmyer implies that just tolerance—due endurance—will be arduous without love’s desire for union. So, let us love one another and bear each other’s burdens. Here I want to agree, but also point out that this is true of justice generally. As I argue in chapter 6, friendship’s love—its well-wishing and desire for union—is the founding feature of every social and political relationship sustained by justice. Love creates the relationship, its bond and union, but also its particular entitlements and requirements. Due endurance is one such requirement, offered in response to the details of the relationship. When offered by the truly tolerant, its proximate ends belong to justice, its distant ends to love.

Kamila Pacovská


The Moral Psychology of Tolerance

John R. Bowlin’s book on tolerance could not have been published in a better time: 2016 was the year of the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump won the primaries to become the president of the United States in the following year. Many countries from Western to Eastern Europe register an unprecedented rise of populist figures and movements whose common denominator is intolerance. Using the favourite strategy to blame others for our problems, they fuel hatred towards everyone who fits the description of “not us”: foreigners or foreign countries (the EU), intellectuals (experts), minorities, women, the down and out people. The success of this populist hate strategy has often been correlated with the expansion of new social media that facilitate such channelling of negative emotions and enclose people into what has become known as “social bubbles.”

The year 2016 was also when the EU-Turkey deal ended the European refugee crisis that in 2015 divided not only the EU itself, but also most of its membership countries, including those who do not have almost any immigrants such as the Czech Republic or Poland. The heated debate about immigration in whose flames many populists added their fuel sharpened the feelings of the two opposing parties and escalated the conflict that now divides not only countries and political parties, but also families and friends (see Anne Applebaum’s alarming record of Poland in Applebaum 2018).

Such expansion of intolerance calls for a focused research on tolerance, but also represents a special challenge: the general theory has to connect with actual cases and attempt to make sense of them. It has to do it sensitively and intelligibly, using the vocabulary and conceptual framework of the time and place. Whereas I greatly appreciate that Bowlin attempts to build a concept of tolerance that covers both the political and the personal domain, I believe his exclusive reliance on Thomistic analysis of virtue does not give him conceptual resources for a detailed moral psychology that such a broad conception would require.

Tolerance, according to Bowlin, is a virtue—that is, a disposition to act tolerantly both in personal relationships and in political communities when they are divided by disagreement and difference. The act of tolerance consists in the “patient endurance of the objectionable difference.” Contrary to alternative responses such as coercion, constraint, expulsion, and withdrawal, tolerance aims at unity and peaceful coexistence with others that includes respect for their autonomy.

The virtue of tolerance, similar to other virtues in the Aristotelian-Thomistic analysis, has a habitual component and a component concerning judgment. Bowlin is absolutely right to emphasise that tolerance does not only concern the responses to objectionable differences, but also the very judgment of what is objectionable: surely, someone who disapproves of any difference exhibited by other people cannot be counted as tolerant irrespective of her consequent actions. Further, tolerance also integrates the judgment of what is tolerable: the tolerant person knows the limits of tolerance and is ready to intervene in cases the offence is intolerably harmful.

While there is a lot to discuss here, I am more interested in Bowlin’s analysis of the habitual (and affective) part of the virtue of tolerance that I believe suffers from his exclusive reliance on Thomistic moral psychology and avoidance of contemporary research on virtue, action, and emotions. The main problem is that following Aquinas, Bowlin limits the “habitual” component to the agential aspects of tolerance: it is a setup of will, desire, and passions that makes the tolerant person prone to act tolerantly (107, comp. also 116). External action certainly is important, but one might be inclined to think that tolerance is one of the virtues that perfect also the inner life of the tolerant person, such as her emotions (comp. Hursthouse 2001, 11–12). Bowlin specifies the necessary end (or “motive” as I would call it) of the act of tolerance, namely the common good and individual autonomy. Nothing, however, is said about the emotional responses to the objectionable difference that the tolerant person patiently endures in the act of tolerance. Yet, similar to the cases of misplaced judgment we saw above, there are emotions that the tolerant person simply cannot have whether or not she acts on them or only patiently endures them.

It is for example very natural to be at times angry or irritated by other people’s weaknesses, such as stupidity, shallowness, and arrogance, or by the acts that exhibit these. Yet it is quite a different thing if such disapproval of a partial characteristic gives rise to hostile feelings against the whole person, such as hatred, spite, contempt, or repulsion. To adapt Bowlin’s example: it is one thing to patiently endure the neighbour’s son’s irritating music, but it is quite a different matter if what one endures is rising contempt or hostility towards the little ignoramus and towards the social group his musical taste represents. Similarly, it is one thing to hate Uncle Harvor’s (or one’s mother’s, brother’s, sister’s) racism, but quite another to hate Uncle Harvor (or one’s mother, brother, sister). Such personal enmity, albeit suppressed, is more threatening to the unity and peaceful coexistence with others than open conflicts and confrontations that are conducted with an underlying sense of fellowship. It is this secretly endured, unexpressed hostility that finds indirect expression, support and dangerous enhancement on social media and in the speeches of populist politicians. Such emotions are at the very root of intolerance. Any account of tolerance must give us means to distinguish them from the innocuous responses to objectionable difference.

Yet, even if the concept tolerance is amended in this way, I do not think that it represents the best way to deal with conflicting difference. Patient endurance is a private response of self-restraint that does not reach for the other. It prevents constructive resolution of disagreement and conflict, better understanding and deeper acceptance. This is most obvious in the domain of personal relationships in which the differences often lead to painful conflict, in which anger is the prominent emotion. Contrary to the broader and more anonymous domain of social groups, however, there is the important tool of direct communication to deal with conflict. Anger does not have to be destructive, something to be only endured. When rightly felt, it is a constructive emotion that helps overcoming the conflict by focussing attention, enforcing communication and hopefully reconciliation (Nussbaum 2016, 31–40). It is not the difference itself that leads to alienation and estrangement as Bowlin claims (149–57), it is the way we approach it and I claim that the passive and self-controlled tolerance does not help.

I am now getting to the second point in which I believe Bowlin’s account suffers from inadequate moral psychology that concerns his understanding of difference and of the attitude to difference. Let us first consider the typical situation in which tolerance of some difference is invoked. Bowlin makes it look like the objection the tolerant person raises, her negative judgment of the other’s beliefs, behavior, way of life, etc., is something objective, or at least something most people in the community (and potentially the criticised person herself) can share. That gives the impression that coercion, constraint and expulsion would actually be possible and in a way justified. This point is most pressing in Bowlin’s discussion of forbearance on the example of a moral wrong (215–19). Yet, the case of objection to moral wrongdoing is special in many ways: First, there is the cluster of suitable responses that are not available in other kinds of objection, such as punishment or forgiveness. Second, moral wrongdoing is a relatively independent and separate action. The object of tolerance, on the other hand, is typically something more permanent, such as a character trait, belief or emotion, value or preference that affect the person’s overall behaviour and her way of life.

Far from the objective judgment of a moral wrong, the typical situations that call for tolerance are those in which there is no way of advocating between the two differing, but equal parties, and yet they find each other objectionable, wrong, even abhorrent. Since they are on equal footing, there is also no question of using coercion, constraint, or expulsion. There is no way of changing the other and it does not even seem right. Imagine the difference between a small-town elderly couple and a couple of millennials who decided to spend their holidays in the small town. We can easily guess that there will be lots of mutual disapproval: political orientation and the assessment of the past and future, attitude to sex and family, to foreigners and foreign countries, etc. The two couples will probably dislike and avoid each other, spend some time lamenting about how terrible the others are and blame them for all kinds of imaginable things, including the state of the world. I think this is the kind of setup in which we would like to invoke the spirit of tolerance.

But what we mean and recommend here is not patient endurance. The spirit of tolerance brings a whole new attitude to difference, an attitude of understanding, generosity, and open-mindedness. We want the elderly couple to accept that it is perfectly normal that young people are different, we want them not to be prejudiced against them and start to appreciate the positive aspects that youth brings, such as vivacity and playfulness. We want the young couple to understand that people change when they age and that the time and society in which they grow affect the way they see the world. It does not necessarily mean that they will approve of the other one’s old-fashioned views of family that they see as homophobic and sexist. It means that they will learn to accept that there is this difference, stop being irritated by it and try to cope with it in the way that enables them to meet and enrich each other by the different experience they had in life. Tolerance thus goes hand-in-hand with respect for the difference and with the humble acknowledgment that my objection is only my belief and does not have to be shared by others.

Works Cited

Applebaum, Anne. “A Warning from Europe: The Worst Is Yet to Come.” Atlantic, October 2018.

Hursthouse, Rosalind. On Virtue Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Nussbaum, Martha. Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

  • John Bowlin

    John Bowlin


    Response to Kamila Pacovská

    I am truly grateful for the comments that Kamila Pacovská has offered in response to my book. I am especially pleased by the important questions she raises about the work we can expect tolerance to do when our social and political relationships are divided by disagreements and differences. By regarding tolerance as a virtue of will that perfects our actions, in particular the act of enduring what we dislike or despise, Pacovská thinks I expect too little of it. I narrow its range of influence. I fail to acknowledge its more expansive spirit. Crucially, I discount the possibility that tolerance is a virtue that perfects the inner life of the tolerant person, not just her actions and intentions but also her passions.

    The differences in judgment, commitment, and form of life that divide persons and communities might regard some of the most important matters—the just and the unjust, the sacred and the horrific, the dangerous and the unfamiliar. These differences can elicit negative emotions: anger and hatred in response to injustice, horror and disgust in response to desecration, fear and contempt in response to the strange. When these passions are right—due anger in response to injustice, apt horror in response to desecration—they can encourage right action. When they are overheated or misdirected, they can express a spirit of intolerance. They can encourage injustice in response to difference. In other circumstances, the differences might be real and important, but the relationship they threaten with conflict and division might require a different emotional register—generosity, acceptance, open-mindedness, and respect for difference. These passions can signal and express a spirit of tolerance.

    By theorizing tolerance as a virtue of the will, as a principle of right action but not passion, Pacovská contends that I can neither acknowledge nor account for this emotional content in the tolerance we praise and the intolerance we lament. My failure is explained, she thinks, by my inadequate moral psychology, one that prevents me from including right passion in the work of true tolerance.

    At bottom, our disagreement regards how to theorize the moral virtues—how to distinguish them, how to coordinate them while nevertheless keeping them distinct, and why it might matter that they need to be distinguished and coordinated. As I said, Pacovská thinks this theoretical disagreement depends on the different moral psychologies we deploy, but that’s not quite right. Rather, I would say that our disagreement about how to theorize the virtues follows from the different inferences we make from a moral psychology that is more or less shared.

    We both think that actions are different from passions, that disagreement and difference generate a wide variety of each, and that relations among them are complex. Passions can cause, quicken, or prevent our actions, and our actions can alter our relationships and circumstances in ways that cause a host of passionate responses.

    What follows for how we theorize the virtues? For Pacovská, tolerance is the virtue that handles all of this complexity, that perfects both our actions and passions in response to disagreement and difference. For me, tolerance perfects actions alone, above all the act of enduring what we dislike or despise. It makes our resort to this action right and due. Do I ignore the passions that come as the tolerant make this resort? No. I have quite a bit to say about the sorrows and fears of the tolerant (148–59), and I argue that they undergo these passions as they should—in the right circumstances, in response to the right differences and disagreements, and with the right intensity—not because they are tolerant (as Pacovská suggests) but only as they are also patient and persevering.

    One might be tempted to conclude that there is nothing at stake here beyond scholarly temperament: Pacovská is a lumper; I’m a splitter. For her, there is one virtue that perfects our response to disagreement and difference; for me, there are many. But that’s not quite right. Actions are different from passions, and so too the virtues that perfect them. How do we know? Because we know that there are persons (ourselves, perhaps) who are disposed by habit to act tolerantly, to dislike or despise what they should and to endure as they ought, but who fail to act virtuously with any constancy because (for example) they fear what their tolerance might yield—a social or political relationship transformed by what they endure. There’s no denying their tolerant disposition, their will to do what is right. Rather, they fall short, morally speaking, because they fear what their tolerance will bring and their fear gets the best of them.

    Courage is the virtue that perfects fear’s response to dangers and threats. Perseverance is the part of courage that perfects persistent fear of threats that are themselves persistent. When the tolerant endure as they should, they create threats and fears of precisely this kind. Thus perseverance; our need for its perfection. The other passions elicited by our disagreements and differences—sorrow, anger, horror, dismay, and so on—require other sources of perfection, other virtues. Tolerance stands among all of them.

    Here our points of view converge. Pacovská insists that tolerance is not the only response to disagreement and difference. I agree. It does not resolve conflict, clear up differences, or generate reconciliation. It does not settle the disputes about civic membership and public standing that have animated populist revolts in Europe and North America. (In fact, on my rendering, tolerance assumes membership and standing in a social or political relationship. One becomes a candidate for tolerance only as one is a recognized member.)

    Our desire for outcomes that tolerance cannot produce has led some to discount its importance. This is a mistake. As much as reconciliation across difference (for example) is a desirable end, one that Christians like myself are (and ought to be) deeply committed to securing, it is only one such end, and Christians are also committed to justice, to rectifying relationships, practices, and institutional arrangements that have been deformed by domination and oppression. Quite often this requires building coalitions of communities and congregations that are committed to working together despite important differences in form of life and basic commitment. Mutual endurance makes this work possible. Thus tolerance.

Cary Nederman


Toleration beyond Liberalism and Virtue Ethics

A “Judgmental” Alternative

It gives me great pleasure that philosophers such as John Bowlin have now joined intellectual historians and at least some of my fellow political theorists in recognizing the vanity of the myth that liberalism has spun for decades about its supposed monopoly on toleration. Those of us who have, during the past twenty-five years or so, argued otherwise—that a plurality of principled approaches to tolerance existed historically and cross-culturally and remains relevant today—sometimes feel like dingoes howling in the outback: no creature hears save other dingoes. Judging from Tolerance among the Virtues, it appears that a non-dingo audience for our howling has lately begun to gather. (Please forgive the extended metaphor.) In the present paper, I am not going to praise the many virtues (no pun intended) of Professor Bowlin’s contribution to the discussion, with a single exception, namely his claim that toleration properly understood enjoys a familial relationship—a common genealogy—with what he terms “patient endurance.” He thereby achieves two interrelated goals. First, he demonstrates, convincingly in my opinion, the vacuity of liberalism’s discomfort with a more robust conception of tolerance, of the sort Bowlin proposes. Second, he ties his argument to the achievements of medieval thinkers, most obviously Thomas Aquinas. My purpose at the moment is to offer an alternative path, premised on both of Bowlin’s accomplishments together with the idea of patient endurance, which reaches a nearly identical substantive conclusion, but follows a route I regard as more theoretically condensed (or perhaps just less sophisticated) and practically tenable.

Defense of my position begins, perhaps surprisingly, with reference not to a historical, but rather a contemporary, source. In a little-cited paper, entitled “Judgemental Toleration,” Michael Sandel suggests a theory according to which tolerance may be afforded to otherwise unacceptable ideas or practices for the sake of attaining some other, greater good or avoiding some greater evil.1 Sandel draws an analytical distinction between a liberal version of toleration, which he labels “non-judgemental,” and a “judgemental” alternative. Taking aim at the Rawls of Political Liberalism, he asserts that liberal toleration has as an essential feature a “bracketing” effect, “in the sense that it seeks to bracket substantive moral and religious controversies; it seeks to avoid passing moral judgment on the practices that it permits.”2 In other words, liberal toleration does not wish to get involved in the messy business of adjudicating the worthiness of the doctrines and practices to be tolerated. To the extent that those viewpoints or ways of life of which I disapprove do not interfere with my own viewpoint or chosen way of life, liberal toleration requires that I refrain from entering into any direct evaluation, let alone condemnation, of them, at least in the public sphere. In this sense, liberal toleration, at least in its dominant mood these days, assumes a strictly “political” orientation, setting aside theological, philosophical, or metaphysical considerations entirely.3

By contrast, “judgemental toleration,” Sandel says, “does not bracket. It assesses the moral worth or permissibility of the practice at issue, and permits or restricts it according to the weight of these moral considerations in relation to competing moral and practical considerations.”4 Sandel maintains that we can honestly and competently evaluate the relative merits of competing moral claims and restrict or defend their practice as a result of deeper reasoning about the consequences thereof. This implies, it seems to me, that there are three possible categories of judgments available: (1) an act is permissible because there is no clear or compelling moral reason to restrict it; (2) an act is permitted even though there are moral reasons to restrict it because such restriction would itself produce a greater evil or preclude a greater good; and (3) an act is restricted because the moral reasons for such restriction are clear and compelling on the basis of considered deliberation. The second of these three possibilities is the really interesting and important one. On the one hand, it allows individuals and institutions to espouse moral judgments; on the other, it constrains their ability to act in restrictive fashion on the basis of such judgments.5

Sandel recognizes that his concept of “judgemental toleration” is rooted in a longstanding intellectual tradition that can be traced back to the Middle Ages, in particular, St. Thomas Aquinas’s attempt to grapple with the problem of tolerating various forms of faithlessness.6 Sandel acknowledges that St. Thomas certainly held that the “sinfulness” of unbelief constituted sufficient warrant for its punishment. Thus, we might expect him to advocate penalizing Jews and other infidels. Yet Aquinas demurs, drawing an analogy between God’s tolerance for evils in the created world that might be avoided “lest without them greater goods might be forfeited or greater evils ensue” and the situation of “those who are in [earthly] authority rightly tolerat[ing] certain evils, lest certain goods be lost or certain greater evils incurred.”7 On this point, Aquinas cites a well-known dictum of St. Augustine to the effect that “if you do away with harlots, the world will be convulsed with lust.”8 Thus, for Aquinas, the conferral of toleration depends upon a calculation of the relative moral merits of the beliefs to be judged. For example, “the rites of other unbelievers” will have to be judged according to their moral bases and consequences. In some cases, “they are by no means to be tolerated”; in other instances, they may be tolerable “in order to avoid an evil, e.g., the scandal or disturbance that might ensue or some hindrance to the salvation of those who, if they were unmolested, might gradually be converted to the faith.”9 In sum, we need not “bracket” the beliefs of infidels (not to mention our own beliefs) in order to accept good reasons to tolerate them, according to Aquinas.

Aquinas’s position should not be regarded as some version of the so-called “permission” conception of tolerance that has been (justly) criticized by modern liberals. According to this model, an asymmetry of power between institutions (such as the Church) and individuals whose conduct or beliefs violate institutional norms (morality, orthodoxy) means that any tolerance afforded “could be revoked at any time” and is thus “a fragile, precarious condition.”10 So far as I can discern, “permission” so conceived has become the straw man at which liberals primarily take aim when they condemn the very possibility of the presence of a principled medieval theory of toleration. But this does violence to the argument St. Thomas sets forth. In his view, the determination about what to tolerate and what not to tolerate depends upon doing the hard work of moral differentiation between what can be tolerated and what is entirely beyond the pale in the name of some greater good or lesser evil. This forms the core of Sandelian judgmental toleration and the consequent critique of non-judgmental liberalism.

Sandel does not realize that his interpretation of Aquinas touches the merest tip of a massive iceberg. Nor is he to be blamed for this oversight, since he is an analytical philosopher, not a historian of political ideas. What he does not know is that Aquinas’s judgmental conception of toleration is reflective of an overwhelming hegemonic approach to tolerance found throughout early European thought. Permit me to assay an additional example of a medieval version of judgmental toleration, found in canon law. The patron saint of lawyers, the thirteenth-century Dominican Raymond de Peñafort (followed by a host of other canonists), proffered a distinction between three different forms of “permission,” none of which accords with the modern liberal understanding of that term, but which do parallel elements of Sandel’s judgmental toleration. To quote Raymond:

Permission is taken in three different ways. First, when something is allowed that is not forbidden by law. . . . Second, when something is indulged that runs counter to human rules. . . . This is properly called the true and absolute permission, and it excuses from sin. The third type of permission occurs when lesser evils are permitted so as to prevent greater ones. This is called permissio comparativa, and it does not excuse from sin. It should, however, be called tolerantia rather than permission.11

Whereas liberal critics of judgmental toleration inaccurately regard permission to be a matter of ungrounded and temporary institutional forbearance, medieval canonists saw at work precisely the comparative aspect of tolerance in Aquinas’s sense. Thus, a modern critique of the “permission model” misses the point: permission was understood in medieval legal thought to be a form of rational normative judgment which assured unqualified protection even to those who violate established religious or moral standards. Here we see clearly the close relationship between the concepts of toleration and forbearance that Bowlin seeks to attain in Tolerance among the Virtues.

Versions of Sandelian judgmental toleration may be found strewn throughout the Latin Middle Ages, in the writings of philosophers, lawyers (both civilian and canon), theologians, and political theorists. In a plenary lecture presented at the 2015 International Medieval Congress and published in much expanded form the following year in Oxford Studies in Medieval Philosophy, I present an extensive survey of how many prominent medieval thinkers adapted and applied the judgmental approach to toleration to moral and religious concerns as diverse as the practices of money-changing and usury, prostitution and commercial caveat emptor (both strictly forbidden by natural law), justifiable deception, and the ritual sacrifice of innocent human beings by indigenous peoples of the Americas—venial sins all—as well as to the mortal sins of sodomy and heresy. I also developed there a case for the relevance of judgmental toleration to identifying limitations in the work of liberal theorists, contemporary (Guttmann and Thompson) as well as historical (J. S. Mill). Although I rely on some of this material here, I will not rehearse the details of my arguments; I commend the article itself to those who are curious.12

“What has all of this specifically to do with Bowlin’s book?” you might well ask. My answer: a great deal. In Toleration among the Virtues, he briefly notes the same position advocated by St. Thomas of which Sandel made such great use: “For my purposes, what matters is that he [Aquinas] recognizes the judgment and moral significance of the act. He knows that toleration’s patient endurance can be good, that in certain circumstances it can be right and required” (179). But Bowlin evinces little real interest in the terms of toleration per se as Aquinas proposes it in this form. He quickly moves along to the issue of why Thomas declines to claim tolerance as a virtue. Frankly, I am unsure whether or not judgmental toleration can or even should count as a virtue in the sense Bowlin (following Aquinas) means. Aristotelian/Thomist moral psychology is closely connected to hexis/habitus and character formation, which ill comports with the flexibility required by judgmental toleration.

I think my point may be applied very well to Bowlin’s example of his nine-year-old son, who “retires to his room to listen to music that I despise” (129). He imagines the following scenarios as potential responses to his extreme disapprobation of his offspring’s musical preferences:

(1) “Use my paternal office to coerce his conduct in the hope that his taste in music in might follow” (129);

(2) “I could cultivate a settled indifference to this thumping offense that resounds down the hall” (130);

(3) “I suppose that I could go native and get hip. I could learn to love what I once loathed” (130);

(4) “I am able to endure patiently precisely because I am confident that this too will pass, that in time musical maturity will come, our tastes will converge, and my need for tolerance will fade” (154);

or (5) the preferred option: “What my son deserves is my patient endurance, period. In this instance, it is his right, his just due, and I will fall short of true tolerance if I ignore this right” (155).

On the basis of the judgmental toleration that I have discussed, I would like to propose a sixth, and not implausible, alternative: Bowlin should formulate a judgment about his son’s choice in music, because a failure to do so poses real potential for greater harm. Popular music of all sorts is never distinct from a culture that surrounds it (think of rock in the 1960s or R&B a decade or so earlier—and probably jazz before that). Let us consider the rock music of roughly my generation. There were certainly definite interactions between it and other cultural manifestations, some positive (opposition to war) and some dangerously negative (use of life-threatening drugs). I agree with Bowlin’s preference for scenario (5), but does his responsibility as a parent to patiently endure entail the reckoning of no moral constraints whatsoever? Bowlin’s son will probably be just fine, and I am not suggesting there is a causal link between a genre of music and concomitant lifestyle. Yet there always also remains a chance (however slight) that the musical culture in which he is immersed might lead him, say, to skinhead acid rock (my wife, who raised three boys during their tween and teen years pretty much on her own, assures me that there is such a thing) and perhaps into a life that is profoundly repugnant. At some point, refraining from the exercise of moral judgment in the name of a greater good or a prospective evil in the name of the right of Bowlin’s son to become a white supremacist Nazi is an abdication of one’s own moral compass. Monitoring behaviors associated with the preferred music of one’s offspring needn’t interfere with that choice per se. Of course, the skinhead son may always resist or refuse Bowlin’s judgment, but that does not absolve him from making and expressing it anyway.

Might it not be objected that the standards on the basis of which one formulates moral judgments are arbitrary or subjective, thus opening the door for prejudice of all sorts to become the foundation for the limits set to toleration? While prima facie reasonable, this retort assumes that moral judgments are forged in a vacuum, without any appeal to reason. Valid appeal to the terms set by judgmental toleration demands that there be some clear and accessible justification for one’s determination that is open to evaluation. To illustrate my point, let me borrow one example from among many that I have incorporated into my scholarship concerning toleration in the Middle Ages: the Apologia (translated as In Defense of the Indians) by the fifteenth-century Dominican friar and Bishop of Chiapas Bartolomé de Las Casas. The book is a lengthy refutation of scholastic defenses of the Spanish conquest of the “New World,” and the subsequent enslavement, slaughter, or forced conversion of its inhabitants. Throughout the Apologia, Las Casas invokes a judgmental framework. For instance, one argument in favor of Spanish suppression of the Indians’ way of life arises from their supposed practices of human sacrifice and even cannibalism as part of their religion, forms of worship so morally repugnant that the Spanish conquerors had a duty to God to intervene by force in order to protect the innocent. Las Casas responds to this claim by invoking the principle of permissio comparativa: “In trying to prevent the death of a few innocent persons we should not move against an immense multitude of persons, including the innocent, and destroy whole kingdoms. . . . Instead, war must be avoided and that evil tolerated for a while—and, in some cases, permanently.”13 Beyond his observation, based on his own experience, that the slaying of innocents is uncommon among native peoples, Las Casas appeals to the normative weighing of reasons from multiple sources. First, he says, Aristotle countenances as a “rule of right reason [that] when we are confronted by two choices that are evil both as to moral guilt and punishment and we cannot avoid both of them, we ought to choose the lesser evil. For in comparison with the greater evil, the choice of a lesser evil has the quality of a good.”14 This position, according to Las Casas, is reinforced by natural law, which also teaches the immorality of preferring the greater evil to the lesser.15 He calls such a violation of natural law “a sin, which, although not mortal, is very serious indeed,” invoking the authority of St. Thomas.16 Finally, he appeals to the doctrine that “the doctor jurists give concerning the well-known permission, which happens when evils and even serious sins are permitted so that more serious evils may be avoided or so that the good by which the condition of the state is strengthened should not be obstructed.”17 Indeed, Las Casas overtly employs the language of tolerantia, in the same manner as both Aquinas and the canonists.

One may be repulsed by the idea of forbearing the death of innocents—as Las Casas surely was—but far greater injury and immorality arises from the destruction of a civilization and its people in order to eliminate that practice. His conclusion is defensible judgmentally in the absence of some reasonable alternative, given that saving small numbers of Amerindians from sacrifice and protecting all inhabitants from death are not both possible. Las Casas is hardly advocating tolerance for all instances of ritual execution. Only under conditions like those specified would or should one forebear such practices. This is not a subjective determination; it emerges from a process of difficult moral reasoning. In similar fashion, arrival at the decision to cease patiently tolerating music that licenses and promotes morally abhorrent behaviors must reflect careful consideration of all relevant circumstances. Could intervention in a son’s choice of musical appreciation produce resentment that pushes him into the embrace of the evils that a parent wishes him to avoid? Could some other conduct on the parent’s part—say, monitoring a son’s friends and associates or places he frequents—have a salutary effect? Is it possible to engage in ongoing reasoned conversation between parent and son in which the former lays out concerns about the potential implication of the latter’s music listening habits? Judgmental tolerance is warranted as long as another course of action is likely to produce a greater evil or when moral considerations and practical circumstances suggest that patient forbearance (at least pro tempore) is likely to lead to some greater good. Perhaps the son will, by his own reflection and volition, recognize that his choice of music carries potentially harmful implications. Maybe he is simply enthralled to the latest popular culture fad, which will soon fade. No matter how much one hates the music, judgment involves asking oneself seriously whether the context requires some response beyond a quite acceptable and justifiable expression of distaste: “Son, I don’t like ‘this thumping offense that resounds down the halls’ [Bowlin’s words (130)], but translating my repulsion into intolerant action neither generates a greater good nor constitutes a lesser evil.”

  1. Michael Sandel, “Judgemental Toleration,” in Natural Law, Liberalism, and Morality, ed. Robert P. George (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996), 107–12.

  2. Sandel, “Judgemental Toleration,” 107.

  3. Sandel, “Judgemental Toleration,” 108.

  4. Sandel, “Judgemental Toleration,” 107.

  5. It may be reasonably asked whether Sandel’s position reflects simply some updated version of casuistry. I have given this question serious thought and conclude that it does not. An important study of the subject by Albert R. Johnsen and Stephen Toulmin, The Abuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral Reasoning (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), points out, “There lies a deeper intellectual conflict between two very different accounts of ethics and morality: one that seeks eternal, invariable principles, the practical implications of which can be free of exceptions or qualifications, and another, which pays closest attention to the specific details of particular moral cases and circumstances” (2). The latter, of course, is casuistry. In my view, the judgmental approach favored by Sandel, as well as his medieval predecessors, stands between these two supposedly antithetical accounts, in the sense that principles still matter but not in the invariant way mentioned. Judgmental toleration requires comparison of competing principles, not the rejection of principles per se in favor of narrow concentration on specifics. In other words, casuistry is wholly contextual in a way that judgmental toleration is not. See also Hilaire Kallendorf, Conscience on Stage: The Comedia as Casuistry in Early Modern Spain (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007).

  6. Sandel, “Judgemental Toleration,” 107–8. For further discussion of Aquinas’s views concerning these matters, see Shadia B. Drury, Aquinas and Modernity: The Lost Promise of Natural Law (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), 45–74; and Manfred Svensson, “A Defensible Conception of Toleration in Aquinas?,” Thomist 75 (2011) 291–308.

  7. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, Q10, A11; quoted from St. Thomas Aquinas, On Law, Morality, and Politics, ed. William P. Baumgarth and Richard J. Regan (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1988), 254–55.

  8. Ibid., 255; cf. St. Augustine, De ordine, ed. Robert P. Russell (New York: Cosmopolitan Science & Art, 1942), II.4, 94–95.

  9. Summa Theologiae, II-II, Q10, A11; p. 255.

  10. Rainer Forst, Toleration in Conflict: Past and Present, trans. Ciaran Cronin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 61; also see Moshe Halbertal, “Autonomy, Toleration, and Group Rights,” in Toleration: An Elusive Virtue, ed. David Heyd (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 114–26.

  11. Quoted from István Bejczy, “Tolerantia: A Medieval Concept,” Journal of the History of Ideas 58 (1997) 369–70.

  12. “Medieval Toleration through a Modern Lens: A ‘Judgmental’ View,” Oxford Studies in Medieval Philosophy 4 (2016), 1–26.

  13. Bartolomé de Las Casas, In Defense of the Indians, ed. Stafford Poole (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1974), 190.

  14. Las Casas, In Defense of the Indians, 191.

  15. Las Casas, In Defense of the Indians, 191–92.

  16. Las Casas, In Defense of the Indians, 192.

  17. Las Casas, In Defense of the Indians, 192.

  • John Bowlin

    John Bowlin


    Response to Cary Nederman

    It is a distinct pleasure to have my book read and reviewed by Cary Nederman, whose work on the discourses of toleration in medieval and early modern Europe has influenced my own in countless and important ways. He has challenged the standard story that links the emergence of toleration as a moral ideal and concrete practice with the advent of liberal politics, and he has argued that premodern discourses merit our attention, not simply as historical artifacts, but as substantial points of view. Give them due attention, he has argued, and we may learn something important. We may be encouraged to recast our own discourses of toleration and improve our responses to moral disagreement and difference in our own day.

    If one becomes a dingo, howling in the outback, as one endorses this scholarly stance toward the history of toleration and the benefits of historical study, then count me in. I am honored to howl with the pack, and the honor remains, and so too my debts to Nederman, even as our howls don’t exactly harmonized. In fact, they’re quite dissonant.

    Borrowing from Thomas’s treatment of justice, I develop an account of tolerance as a virtue of the will, as an aspect of justice. Like justice, tolerance regards actions that mediate relations among person, actions that deliver to another a good they are due by right. In the standard case, the tolerant person delivers to another the patient endurance he is rightfully due. She finds something objectionable about him, an action, attitude, or commitment that merits criticism but that also requires toleration’s endurance in response. She makes these judgments about what is objectionable and what isn’t, about what merits endurance and what doesn’t, and yet we count her among the tolerant, not simply or principally because she gets these judgments right, but rather because she takes up this action (this patient endurance) with habitual ease, with a settled will to perform it when it is right and due.

    Nederman thinks that I have learned the wrong lesson from Thomas about toleration, that my account ignores what Thomas actually says. As an alternative, Nederman offers “judgmental toleration,” an account that he borrows from Michael Sandel and finds in Thomas’s treatment of unbelief. Since my account assumes that the tolerant will make morally substantive judgments about what counts as objectionable and what merits endurance, how do our accounts differ? Well, consider Nederman’s interpretation of Thomas’s remarks on tolerating unbelief (ST II-II.10.12). Thomas considers unbelief a sin and thus duly objectionable, but what response does it merit from the civil magistrate charged with care for the common good? As a sinful offense against God, unbelief would seem to warrant restriction. Rites suppressed. Unbelievers coerced. Toleration denied. And yet, as Nederman notes, Thomas offers a more flexible reply, one that attends to the negative consequences of a proposed restriction. When the goods lost (civil peace, e.g.) or the evils incurred (scandal among the morally immature) are likely to be significant, or when unbelievers are numerous, then toleration must be offered.

    From this bit of advice to medieval princes, Nederman makes an inference, which he assigns to Thomas. Just this: when faced with competing moral claims it’s the consequences that matter, the goods lost and the evils avoided. The competition might be between refusing or offering toleration, but it might not. It could regard any circumstance of ordinary moral conflict, when the demands of the right point in one direction, the charms of the good in another. In circumstances like these, we should attend to outcomes, to actions that yield greater goods and sidestep greater evils. The same advice applies in cases of strong moral conflict. When confronted with a circumstance in which injustice cannot be avoided, we should choose the lesser evil.

    Here I want to offer three comments. First, this is the wrong inference to make from Thomas’s treatment of tolerating unbelief. While Thomas recognizes the moral significance of the consequences of an action, intended and not, he denies consequences the role that Nederman assigns them in the work of moral judgment. When claims conflict, outcomes are not always morally decisive. Some actions are unjust in themselves, regardless of the good they yield or the evil they avoid, and these, he thinks, are absolutely prohibited. Full stop. So too, Thomas does admit that some injustices should not be prohibited by positive law, and he does insist that civil magistrates must consider consequences and circumstances as they distinguish tolerable from intolerable injustices. But again, he thinks that there will be many cases when consequences and circumstances are not decisive. Some injustices are so grave that civic toleration cannot be offered in any circumstances, regardless of the good that its endurance might yield or the harms that might come by virtue of the law’s constraint.

    Second, Thomas’s actual position is far superior, morally speaking, to the one that Nederman assigns to him. If, as Nederman contends, the intended consequences of an action are decisive for judgment when moral claims conflict, then we will be expected to sacrifice the right for the sake of the good. In some circumstances, the right sacrificed might be trivial: a journalist might tell a lie in order to protect a source. But in other circumstances it might be grave, a horrific injustice: prisoners tortured in the hope of locating a ticking bomb; noncombatants targeted in order to bring a quick conclusion to a terrible war; racial justice deferred in order to preserve civil peace; and so on. Nederman might reply that he does not endorse these particular sacrifices of the right for the sake of the good, and I would welcome this reply. But in that event, I would also encourage him to reconsider the inference he makes from Thomas’s account of unbelief. When moral claims conflict, it is not always the case that outcomes are decisive.

    What then of tragic moral conflicts, of those circumstances in which there is no right to be done, only greater evils to be avoided? Nederman cites Las Casas’s account of such a case, who in turn cites Thomas’s treatment of the natural law as the source his own response (Las Casas’s, but also Nederman’s): choose the injustice that yields the lesser evil. Here I can only assert what I cannot in this venue defend: that once you endorse reason as the norm of the right, and once you unpack that claim as Thomas does, then you must (again, as Thomas does) deny the existence of tragic conflicts and discount the need for a solution that accents the normative significance of intended consequences, of lesser evils.

    Which brings me to my third comment. Unlike nearly every contemporary theorist of toleration, Thomas does not pit the right against the good. Sandel plainly does; Nederman too. For both, toleration is not offered because it is right and due, but because of the good it yields. Crucially, both appear to assume that toleration’s endurance typically falls short of the right. There will be moral reasons to restrict what is nevertheless endured, reasons that identify a right that toleration’s attention to the good forsakes.

    Thomas doesn’t set things up this way, with the good always threatening to weaken our commitment to the right, and with the right always standing in judgment over our desire for the good. Instead, he entangles them, both with respect to form and finality. A right action is substantially good, good by virtue of its form, by virtue of its perfect conformity to the kind of thing that it is—a rational human action. So too, when a right action is chosen by a just person, the aim is to set a relationship right. The right action delivers to another a good they are due, and when that due is recognized and received, this is the outcome. Their relationship is now right, and a relationship set right by a just action, one that is itself right and due, is a common good. It is shared and enjoyed in common by the parties to it. A right action performed by a just person is designed to create and secure precisely this common good.

    As exegetical claims that regard Thomas’s commitments, both need to be defended. They also need to be unpacked and vindicated on their own terms. I do some of this latter work in Tolerance among the Virtues, but more needs to be done. Here I simply want to say that my account of tolerance as a virtue assumes this entanglement of the right and the good. A tolerant action is right and due by virtue of its formal goodness, and it is offered in the hope of securing a common good, a relationship set right.

    One last thought. Alasdair MacIntyre has argued that the temptation to disentangle the right from the good and to build our theories of justice and toleration on their potential for conflict is a distinguishing feature of modernity [Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity (Cambridge, 2016), 114–29]. Surely this overstates the contrast between modern times and whatever came before. As John Hare has pointed out, Duns Scotus drew a roughly equivalent distinction in the late thirtheenth century [God’s Command (Oxford, 2015), 72–75]. Still, MacIntyre is onto something. Our theories of justice and toleration bear witness to the ideals we endorse and the lives we actually lead. They give theoretical expression to these facts about us. A theory of toleration that secures the good against the demands of the right does precisely this. It expresses commitment to economic arrangements designed to maximize value and to freedom from constraint as a liberal ideal.

    We look to the past, in part, to find something other than ourselves, a collection of lives and ideals that might stand in judgment of our own, that might encourage us to recast our theoretical self-expressions. My account of tolerance as a virtue is offered in that hope.

    • Cary Nederman

      Cary Nederman


      Retort to John Bowlin: Judging like a Dingo

      I welcome Professor Bowlin’s response to my original remarks. He is gracious, thoughtful, and incisive. I think, however, that he does not engage with several of my points. Perhaps he is correct that we are both dingoes in the outback howling dissonantly—except that dingoes don’t in fact howl musically but rather to send a whole variety of messages to other dingoes. They listen to one another, taking behavioral cues accordingly, and don’t engage in harmonic vocalization. In other words, they make judgments depending upon what they hear. (How do I know this? I have a dog called a Stumpy-tailed Australian Cattle Dog that, by breeding, is half dingo.) My silly metaphor aside, there is a more serious point here. I now begin to wonder whether Professor Bowlin and I are quite so much on the same page (or even in the same book or indeed in the same Library of Congress classification) as I had supposed when I wrote my original comments approaching a year ago. Specifically, I find that his thought is both less historical and more abstruse than I initially read Tolerance among the Virtues to be. Let me explain what I mean.

      I am a historian of political ideas, and an intellectual historian more generally. Now, that doesn’t mean that I don’t regard it to be important also to acknowlege that, as I often say, “ideas travel.” Toleration provides an especially good example of this point. But I also insist upon getting the history right. If one looks at Aquinas’s remarks as I (and Sandel) cite them, and then sets them in the context of an enormously well-documented tradition of discourse and thought within medieval canon law, scholastic philosophy, and political theory, they are unquestionably part of a highly conventional form of argumentation. Bowlin is working from the proverbial top down, picking and choosing philosophical concepts that suit his purposes; I come from a perspective that places theories within their intellectual and linguistic homes. In my opinion, Professor Bowlin’s Aquinas may be satisfying from the viewpoint of the professional philosopher of an ahistorical bent, but it does not do justice (unintended pun) to the intellectual universe in which Thomas lived. The passages to which I explicitly refer seem to me to provide adequate evidence, and I suggest that the reader return to them. I don’t wish to enter a contest about accurate text-reading, but I don’t see Professor Bowlin reconciling the parts of the Summa relevant to my argument with his own interpretation. He asserts that I make an “inference”; nope, that’s expressly what Aquinas says. There’s an elision in his response that simply doesn’t engage with Thomas’s own words.

      One might suppose that I am kvetching about historical accuracy pure and simple. That is not per se such a bad thing. But, as I already said, ideas “travel.” And they travel into Bowlin’s home. Recall the example of his 9-year-old son’s musical tastes. Do I read Bowlin incorrectly when he claims that the right and the good may in all cases be reconciled? To wit: “A right action is substantially good, good by virtue of its form, by virtue of its perfect conformity to the kind of thing that it is—a rational human action. So too, when a right action is chosen by a just person, the aim is to set a relationship right. The right action delivers to another a good they are due, and when that due is recognized and received, this is the outcome. Their relationship is now right, and a relationship set right by a just action, one that is itself right and due, is a common good.” This may be an elegant and convincing philosophical argument, but I do not see that it comports with concrete reality. Apply this please to Bowlin’s conclusion that, given one’s son’s preferences in music, the preferred option would be: “What my son deserves is my patient endurance, period. In this instance, it is his right, his just due, and I will fall short of true tolerance if I ignore this right.” If you think that justice entails this sort of toleration, I feel rather concerned about the son. (BTW, this is not an ad hominum attack.)  Why? Because the principle of “what is due” seems to have no moral limit, at least one that would stipulate the unnoticed but crucial clause “in this instance.” In what instance would it NOT be “his right”? The moment you enter into this discussion, you enter the debatable realm of (parentally-imposed) moral absolutism. (Which Justice? Whose Rationality? If you want to cite the authority of MacIntyre.) You may well be right that your son turning into a white supremacist or a jihadi is wrong, but that doesn’t happen without a context—music, access to the internet, social engagement with “the wrong sort of people.” These on-the-ground judgments seem to me to trump some “in this instance” criteria. Do you get my point? The “judgmental toleration” approach admits that there are going to be many, many hard cases that don’t admit of easy answers to the justice criteria that Bowlin invokes as the concomitant of toleration. Life would be so much easier if it did.

      So, one final point, moving from the home to the public sphere. Bowlin states: “But in other circumstances it might be grave, a horrific injustice: prisoners tortured in the hope of locating a ticking bomb; noncombatants targeted in order to bring a quick conclusion to a terrible war; racial justice deferred in order to preserve civil peace; and so on. Nederman might reply that he does not endorse these particular sacrifices of the right for the sake of the good, and I would welcome his reply.” My response is not so difficult as one might suppose. Give me the concrete circumstances, such as you offered about your son. I am pretty sure that we might have a very interesting debate about the release of atomic weaponry on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; it is a moral conversation that has been on-going. Would Bowlin’s Aquinas be able to offer us an account of the “rational human action” about how to proceed? Good, let’s hear it. Otherwise, let’s realize that people of good will (or reason?—I don’t much care which) must be left to muddle through such actions as they face them. Your decision about what your son listens to has to be considered circumstantially (of course irrelevant anyway in the day of earbuds). You have to scrutinze the context and perform that hard work of making the best judgments that you can. This does not leave us with anything near moral relativism—it can’t justify or explain away the Camps or the Gulag or other outrages that have no demonstrable basis in considered moral judgment. Yet to posit preconceived absolute answers in most day-to-day cases of morality is lazy—and in my view itself immoral. The exercise of moral reflection is not. I think that—surprisingly—many medieval thinkers (including Aquinas) were aware of this. Let’s return to MacIntyre. The whole point of the Enlightenment project, he says in After Virtue, was to ground morality on fixed rational principles, which turned out to be a disaster. His reasons about the basis of this disaster differ from mine. But Bowlin seems to be guilty of buying into a Thomistic version of that Enlightenment rationalism, even if he attempts to resist it.

      So, pay attention to what your 9-year-old is listening to and to what directions that might lead an impressionable young mind to act upon. To me, that’s “true” toleration. I think even John Locke might agree.

    • John Bowlin

      John Bowlin


      Historians and Theorists: a reply to a retort

      Historians of political thought and ethical theorists who work on historical figures and texts tend to have somewhat scripted exchanges. The first group offers a plea for historical knowledge, that it might restrain theoretical speculation. The second group asks for better acquaintance with ethical theory, that it might enable historical understanding. Both groups are after the same payoff and proceed with the same worry. They hope to get some figure or text right on their own terms, and they worry that a scholarly deficit (in historical knowledge or theoretical chops) will derail that hope and encourage a contemporary prejudice, now projected onto the past. In our exchange, Cary Nederman and I play our parts.

      That scholars of religion, ethics, and politics need their theoretical ambitions chastened by history is a lesson I learned as a graduate student in J.B. Schneewind’s seminar on the British Moralists. In that same seminar I also learned that some figures and texts make substantial theoretical demands on historical understanding. Getting these figures and texts right, on their own terms, requires grasping the theoretical options they considered and rejected, modified and adapted. Schneewind’s work on Kant is an excellent example of ethical theory serving historical understanding. Other examples include Melissa Lane on Plato’s constitutionalism, Robert Brandom on Hegel’s rationalism, David Bromwich on Burke’s aesthetics, and Jennifer Herdt on the German Bildung tradition.

      My reply to Nederman extends this lesson to Thomas interpretation. Getting him right on virtue and moral norm, on his terms not ours, and drawing the right inferences (yup, inferences!) from his remarks on tolerating unbelief—this payoff requires historical attentiveness leavened with the yeast of ethical theory.

      So, for example, Thomas’s account of normativity, spelled out in ST I-II.18-21 and built upon his treatment of rational action in ST I-II.6-17, does not permit the inference that Nederman makes. In accessing normative demands and permissions, Thomas does not regard the likely consequences of an action—in this case, the consequences of tolerating unbelief or not—as morally decisive. Consequences matter, morally speaking, but never by themselves. Rather, for Thomas, the act itself, and so too its circumstances, have moral significance quite apart from its intended ends and likely outcomes. The practically reasonable person will attend to all of this—action, ends, and circumstances—as she describes an action and assesses it significance. And Thomas abridges all of this in a claim he makes repeatedly across his greater Summa: that reason is the norm of right human action, the norm that binds this side of grace. And, of course, we won’t understand this claim, its content and entailments, if we assume that he’s committed to something like Enlightenment rationalism, which of course he isn’t. How could he be? What then are the theoretical options available to him and which option does he endorse as he affirms the normative bindingness of practical reason? As I said in my first reply, I begin to unpack this claim and address these questions in my book, but only in part. There’s more work to be done, and here my point is that it will be theoretical work in the service of historical understanding.

    • Cary Nederman

      Cary Nederman


      A Retort to a Reply to a Retort: The One with No Dingo References

      I feared that this might happen: we’ve devolved into essentially a food fight (to borrow from Kamala Harris at the presidential debate the other night) over how to read Aquinas. Fortunately, St. Thomas, like all other great thinkers, permits of multiple plausible interpretations, which makes for the fun and the challenge of scholarship. I would like to put a close to the debate about how to read Aquinas’s conception of toleration with an extended quotation from a fine essay by István Bejczy entitled “Tolerantia: A Medieval Concept” that appeared in the Journal of the History of Ideas in 1997:

      By the thirteenth century the concept of tolerance that had been elaborated in canon law was introduced into scholasticism, where its scope broadened considerably. The schoolmen considered tolerance an attitude to be adopted not only by the Church but also by the state. Especially when they were defining the relation of secular power to the Jews, the schoolmen eagerly took recourse to the doctrine of tolerantia from canon law. The Summa theologica ascribed to Alexander of Hales (c. 1185-1245), for instance, contains an extensive defense of the tolerance of Jewish rites, with a large number of references to canonist writings. The work of Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) also offers good examples. Particularly illuminating is a passage from his Summa theologiae on the rites of the infidels. Thomas answered the question whether non-Christian cults should be tolerated by Christian rulers in the affirmative (with a reference to the Decretum of Gratian). Those who are in power, Thomas explained, rightly permit certain evils lest some good be brought to nothing or greater evils take their place. Accordingly, prostitution is allowed by human government, because, as Augustine said, society would be devastated by unchecked lust if prostitution were forbidden. So, although infidels may sin by their rites, they are to be tolerated if some good can be drawn from them or if some evil is avoided. Thus, the rites of the Jews should be tolerated, because they foreshadow the Christian faith, which is a good; for in this way we obtain testimony to our faith from our enemies. The rites of the other infidels, from testimony to our faith from our enemies. The rites of the other infidels, from which no good proceeds, can be tolerated so as to avoid scandal or hatred which no good proceeds, can be tolerated so as to avoid scandal or hatred towards Christianity which could be the result of their suppression. Tolerance for the sake of the good that may result from the permitted evil seems to have been Thomas’s own idea [my emphasis]. This idea did not alter the fact that the tolerated evil remained as evil as it ever was. Thomas alleged that the Jews sin in their rites and he called them “our enemies.” His argument shows that one did not have to like the Jews to be tolerant; to the contrary, one had to dislike them to be tolerant, for tolerance only applied to evil. Tolerance was not an imperative of love but a restraint on one’s hatred. It is thanks to this restraint, however, that Jews, in the Thomistic concept, were permitted to live their own lives within the bonds of a Christian society. If we turn to the small treatise on the government of Jews that Thomas wrote for the duchess of Brabant, we see the same line of argument. Thomas began with the statement that the Jews, because of their guilt for the crucifixion, are destined to perpetual slavery and therefore could be treated as slaves by Christian rulers. Yet, Thomas argued, it is our duty to walk honestly towards them that are outside, as the apostle says (1 Thess. 4:12). Christian rulers should therefore behave correctly to their Jewish subjects and exact nothing more from them than is permitted by custom. Again, Thomas did not say that the ruler must embrace the Jews as if they were good subjects; in his vision, they remain sinful outsiders but precisely because they are outsiders, Christian rulers have to bear themselves honestly to them. Thomas even allowed for some room for the evil practice of usury with which the Jews were connected. Although the rulers would do better to compel the Jews to work, they were, in Thomas’s view, entitled to levy taxes on the income their Jewish subjects drew from usury and to spend them for the common good. Thomas knew very well that usury was permitted by human law as a necessary tool to economic prosperity, although he never recommended the tolerance of usury in a direct way. In view of the fact that Christian rulers tolerated Jews and other infidels chiefly because of their utilitas, Thomas’s qualified allowance for Jewish money-lenders must have worked as a strong encouragement of the toleration of Jews. Arguments comparable to those of Thomas Aquinas can be found quite often in political literature of the later Middle Ages.

      I fully support Bejczy’s scholarship and recommend his article to all who might be reading this.

      I am frustrated, however, by Bowlin’s failure to address an issue that he presented to me in his original reply. To wit:

      If, as Nederman contends, the intended consequences of an action are decisive for judgment when moral claims conflict, then we will be expected to sacrifice the right for the sake of the good. In some circumstances, the right sacrificed might be trivial: a journalist might tell a lie in order to protect a source. But in other circumstances it might be grave, a horrific injustice: prisoners tortured in the hope of locating a ticking bomb; noncombatants targeted in order to bring a quick conclusion to a terrible war; racial justice deferred in order to preserve civil peace; and so on. Nederman might reply that he does not endorse these particular sacrifices of the right for the sake of the good, and I would welcome this reply. But in that event, I would also encourage him to reconsider the inference he makes from Thomas’s account of unbelief. When moral claims conflict, it is not always the case that outcomes are decisive.

      In fact, I gave an answer to the invitation to comment. The final sentence of that quote makes precisely my point—outcomes are not always “decisive” in some sense of the right or the good, but they must be decided nonetheless. To further the example that I gave, if one sought a “decisive” answer to the choice to use atomic weapons against Japan at the end of the second World War, Truman and the generals would still be deliberating today. Bowlin’s silence either implies assent to my answer or disinterest in following through. I also asked him (twice) to consider my remarks regarding his own example of his 9-year-old’s music, without luck. This is precisely what I meant in my retort about the absence of “concreteness” in his original response.

      In sum, there is a great divide between Bowlin and me. (And I won’t even get into the problems of historical method and interpretation—although playing the name-dropping game in that regard is unbecoming.) There is so much more to be said about this topic. It would be interesting for us to engage in a more direct conversation, but we live in different academic universes. He’s an Ivy League professor, and I teach at a Texas cow college. That twain doesn’t often meet. Nevertheless, I have learned much from the opportunity for the intellectual to-and-fro with Bowlin that Syndicate has afforded to me.