Book chapter

Toleration and Political Philosophy (2020)

in: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics


Toleration is a classic category of Western political theory. Liberalism can be said to have evolved as a generalization of debates on religious toleration from the 17th century onward. Many debates in political theory about matters of current concern, ranging from debates about free speech and hate-speech legislation, over attitudes to practices of minority groups, to the legitimate extent of state interference in particular areas of social life, are framed as debates on toleration. Finally, some of the most prominent theories within political philosophy view toleration as a central concept, for example, Rawls's political liberalism. This continuous presence of the notion of toleration within political philosophy has resulted in a standard definition of toleration and a set of standard debates about toleration. Toleration is standardly understood as requiring disapproval or dislike, the power to interfere, and to consist in the abstention from this interference. This has given rise to debates about which kinds of disapproval or dislike are required, whether the condition of power is in itself problematic, and whether noninterference only counts as toleration if motivated by certain kinds of reasons. Nevertheless, this standard concept of toleration curiously fails to capture some of the prominent debates that are often framed in terms of toleration. It is for instance not at all clear whether and how the standard concept applies to states and to individuals regulated by state laws. It is also often unclear whether toleration as defined is a normative ideal or merely a descriptive concept and what the point of using the concept is in either case. Finally, there is surprising little reflection on what the significance is of the space of toleration between interference and lack of disapproval or dislike, and how changes in this space of toleration can be understood.