Toleration in a Liberal Society

  • Susan Mendus
Part of the Issues in Political Theory book series


The conclusion of the previous chapter — that autonomy-based liberalism is far less open, plural and tolerant than its advocates would have us believe — is a somewhat surprising and contentious one. Characteristically, liberals are accused of displaying too much tolerance, not too little. They are said to be far too ready to welcome diverse ways of life, and far too reluctant to suppress unacceptable forms of behaviour. Hence the accusation that liberals aspire to indifference: ‘The best lack all conviction, whilst the worst are full of passionate intensity.’ Hence too the fact that liberals are required constantly to ‘distinguish between permission and praise, between allowing a practice and endorsing it’ (Sandel, 1984, p.1). For example, they must adhere strictly to the distinction between permitting pornographic material and approving of it. Similarly, they must be clear about the difference between defending free speech and defending the opinions expressed in the exercise of free speech. Like Voltaire, they need not agree with what others say, even though they defend to the death their right to say it. Of necessity, toleration involves dislike or disapproval of the thing tolerated, and the liberal must be mindful of the distinction between, on the one hand, toleration and unbridled licence and, on the other, toleration and apathy, if permission is not to be interpreted as praise, nor indifference to be confused with toleration.


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© Susan Mendus 1989

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  • Susan Mendus

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