Open Journal of Philosophy
2012. Vol.2, No.1, 10-16
Published Online February 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
Justifying Tolerance in Liberal Societies:
The Need for Public Morality
Louis Tietje
Metropolitan College of New York, New York, USA
Received January 2nd, 2012; revised January 30th, 2012; accepted February 10th, 2012
One of the most important assumptions in liberal societies is that citizens should be tolerant of a diversity
of values. We are challenged by this assumption to justify restraint when we confront what we oppose,
disapprove of, or perceive to be immoral, even if we have the power to suppress perceived immoralities.
Based on the work of Elliot Turiel, Jonathan Haidt, and Gerald Gaus, the argument developed in this arti-
cle is that the best way to address the challenge is to distinguish between public morality and other nor-
mative categories such as convention and private morality. Public morality circumscribes what should not
be publicly tolerated. Conventional and private immoralities that are not prohibited by public morality
should be tolerated.
Keywords: Elliot Turiel; Gerald Gaus; Jonathan Haidt; Liberal Society; Public Morality; Tolerance
One of the most important assumptions in liberal societies is
that citizens should be tolerant of a diversity of values. We
celebrate value diversity and regularly admonish people to be
tolerant as if it is a self-evident truth. It may be surprising, then,
to hear from a philosopher, Catriona McKinnon, that there is a
dangerous complacency about toleration or tolerance in the
political zeitgeist and a mysterious inattention to the subject of
tolerance in the Academy. In a recent statement, McKinnon
(2006) says that her book aims to reassert the significance of
toleration by exploring the best current theoretical answers to
the following questions: How is toleration possible? Why is
toleration required? And, what are the limits of toleration? The
dangerous complacency about toleration in the political zeit-
geist is mirrored by a mysterious quiet in the Academy: with
few exceptions, the subject of toleration has been largely absent
from the academic literature for the last twenty-five years, and
the questions just listed have rarely been addressed directly (pp.
Philosophers may think that McKinnon’s claim about the
Academy is an exaggeration because there are some good
theoretical (philosophical) attempts to answer her questions if
not answers in the literature, although the bulk of the latest
work on tolerance is English, not American (see the introduce-
tion to her bibliography, p. 202). It is not an exaggeration,
however, to say that there is virtual silence, if not a mysterious
quiet, in the work of moral psychologists. Perhaps psycholo-
gists are silent because they understand that their work is de-
scriptive, not normative, although the boundary between the
empirical or descriptive and the normative has been dissolving.
Another possible explanation for the silence among moral
psychologists is that a defense of tolerance did not seem so
urgent in Elliot Turiel’s research program because of an as-
sumption that tolerance applied to the large conventional do-
main provided for in the theory. Most of the interesting theo-
retical action, especially concerning moral dilemmas, seemed to
be in the smaller moral domain involving harm, justice, rights,
and welfare. Extending the theory and research of Richard
Shweder (1997), Jonathan Haidt (2001) and others (Haidt &
Kesebir, 2010) have been pressing their fellow moral psycholo-
gists to expand the moral domain to include issues of in-group
loyalty, respect for authority, and spiritual purity. With a di-
verse moral domain nearly co-extensive with all of life, finding
the answers to McKinnon’s questions becomes more urgent. If
there is to be tolerance within this extensive domain, it seems
that we will inevitably be required to tolerate at least some
immoralities. This is the paradox of toleration articulated by
philosophers (McKinnon, 2006: p. 19).
In this article, my first task will be to clarify the meaning and
essential features of tolerance. I will then show that it is not
difficult to justify tolerance in Turiel’s moral theory. Jonathan
Haidt’s research represents a much more serious challenge to
the justification of tolerance. Based on the social philosophy of
Gerald Gaus (1999), I will argue for a normative theory that
justifies tolerance and resolves the paradox of tolerance pre-
sented by Haidt’s expanded moral domain.
Essential Features of Tolerance
McKinnon (2006, p. 14) provides a useful outline of the most
important features of tolerance on which most philosophers
1) Difference: what is tolerated differs from the tolerator’s
conception of what should be done, valued, or believed.
2) Importance: what is tolerated by the tolerator is not trivial
to her.
3) Opposition: the tolerator disapproves of and/or dislikes
what she tolerates, and is ipso facto disposed to act so as to
alter or suppress what she opposes.
4) Power: the tolerator believes herself to have the power to
alter or suppress what is tolerated.
5) Non-rejection: the tolerator does not exercise this power.
6) Requirement: toleration is right and/or expedient, and
the tolerator is virtuous, and/or just, and/or prudent.
As McKinnon notes, the first four features concern the cir-
cumstances of tolerance, that is, “the conditions in which it is
meaningful to describe one agent as tolerant of another” (p. 14).
Tolerance is a meaningful concept only if people differ in their
values, beliefs, or practices. Tolerance may be a meaningful but
not relevant concept if differences are not important or signify-
cant. Some people like to wear turtleneck sweaters in the winter,
but I do not. Because this difference is trivial to me, I simply
ignore it.
The third feature, opposition, is perhaps the most important.
This feature creates the most difficulty in justifying tolerance.
We can see this by considering a couple of examples. For ex-
ample, suppose that Mary Smith is a well-paid attorney who
works for a reputable law firm. I also work for the law firm and
live in Mary’s neighborhood. When in the local grocery store, I
notice that Mary selects several cans of dog food and puts them
in her cart. I walk by and ask about her dog. Mary says that she
does not have any dogs. She eats dog food because she likes it.
I do not say anything but walk away feeling disgusted. Mary
and I differ about food in a way that is not trivial to me; we
have an oppositional difference. I would strongly dislike eating
dog food, but actually I do not care if Mary eats it. I am op-
posed but indifferent. Our difference involves only a matter of
non-moral value. Tolerating Mary’s eating practice is not diffi-
Tolerance becomes more difficult, however, when opposition
involves a moral matter. For example, suppose that Mary has a
colleague, Lisa Jones, who Mary believes is a lesbian, although
Lisa ha s never di rect ly rev ealed her sexual orientation. One day
in a conversation at the water cooler, Lisa not only discloses
that her roommate is really her life-partner but she also explains
in vivid detail what they do together sexually in bed and their
plans to marry. Mary is horrified. She is a devout Catholic who
not only dislikes homosexuality but also believes that gay sex
and marriage are morally wrong. Because Lisa’s difference
with Mary involves a moral matter, not just a difference in val-
ues, Lisa finds it difficult to tolerate Mary’s sexual practice and
marriage plans. In Lisa’s mind she would be tolerating immoral
acts. This is the paradox of tolerance that must be resolved in
order for tolerance to be justified.
a logical argument for tolerance of conventional co ncern s.
I concluded with a more significant challenge to the justifica-
tion of tolerance presented by Jonathan Haidt and associates.
Continuing the seminal work of Richard Shweder, Haidt’s re-
search suggests that the moral domain is much more extensive
than Turiel allowed. With broad moral and small conventional
domains, we are inevitably confronted with the prospect of
moral relativism and the paradox of tolerance. I proposed a way
for us to move logically from descriptive moral relativism to a
normative moral theory and resolve the paradox by adapting
Gerald Gaus’s moral framework to include several categories:
public morality, private morality, etiquette, and convention.
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