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


June 17, 2019, 1:00 am

Cary Nederman


June 24, 2019, 1:00 am