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.
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, https://news.usc.edu/110124/political-polarization-at-its-worst-since-the-civil-war-2/.