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#tolerancemeans acting in one's self-interest

Updated: Apr 8

Thomas Spencer, Graduate Student, Cambridge Union

The word tolerance is associated with the verb to tolerate. This provides images of an ideal epitomised by putting up with something and accepting the world and others for the way they are. However, it is wrong to see tolerance as a selfless ideal, rather it represents a necessary extension of one’s own self-interest. Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations argued that by encouraging competition between religions you will later see an increase in religious tolerance, because this creates a situation where no single religion is capable of disturbing “the public tranquillity”. Yet this is not the reason why tolerance will be embraced to Smith, rather because it makes the religious practice itself better in order to compete with other faiths. 

Thomas Spencer, Graduate Student, Cambridge Union

By this he is referencing the reality of how toleration came about. Like the competition Smith described, tolerance was not made commonplace by people simply choosing to passively accept other people, it was delivered by a practical requirement to resolve disputes between opposing social groups. When people began to join differing socio-political groups it became a necessity for people to embrace them to avoid the discord of the century before. In turn when people begin to tolerate others, then the extremism of others tends to dwindle. As Henri Grégoire, the French revolutionary noted, “When we persecute people… we isolate them, we make those opinions dearer to those who hold them”, resulting in a reduction in the likelihood of them tolerating others. 

Today we’re seeing an unfortunate rise in cases of intolerance actualised by our increasingly pluralised societies. Whilst human history is multicultural, greater mobility of labour spurred by reduced travel costs and increased connectivity have intensified this reality more rapidly. These prejudices are not new, and empirical evidence shows that people are much less bigoted than they were in the past. However in a homogenous society, bigotry against the other that does not exist, is less problematic than an actualised bigotry towards a group that one shares a society with. Multiculturalism has thus been a spur of an increase in actualised tolerance and an increase in actualised intolerance. However, the less stratified a society becomes the less the incentive to actualise bigotry becomes, and therefore tolerance spreads as a necessity. 

Tolerance may be an ideal for some, and I would agree it is, but that is not what all it is. Tolerance, fundamentally, is a necessity. As human beings we are fundamentally motivated by our self-interest and our self-interest, rationally thought out, commands us to be tolerant. This means conducting friendly relations with all people, since this will lead to the largest measurable increase in one’s self-interest and make the lives of them and who they care about better. If someone is tolerant because they view it to be deontologically right, then that’s great, but ultimately what tolerance means to me is that one has settled upon the fact that cordial relations with all people will make their life better than remaining intolerant.


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