JMC fellows Michael Promisel (a participant of JMC’s 2018 Summer Institute) and Richard Avramenko recently co-authored an article in the American Journal of Political Science. They examine how toleration understood as an Aristotelian virtue benefits liberal societies.
When Toleration Becomes a Vice: Naming Aristotle’s Third Unnamed Virtue
Summary: It is a curious pastime of modern man to profess—and even enjoy—that he faces challenges unparalleled in human history. This certainly may be the case. But when it comes to politics and our everyday relations with others, it often is not.
This presumption is apparent in our conceptions of toleration, the virtue pertaining to relations between individuals in disagreement. Many hold that toleration emerged in the early modern period when pacifists proposed the virtue as a remedy to political violence begotten by religious schism and discord. According to this tradition, toleration means finding positive reasons for putting up with—tolerating—conduct and beliefs we find objectionable.
In recent scholarship, however, toleration means something quite different. The virtue has been transformed to confront the supposedly unprecedented challenges of our time. Toleration now demands more than restraining interference or condemnation; the tolerant citizen, it is argued, should avoid causing the pain associated with uncomfortable conversations, personal criticism or even difference of opinion. The discomfort of ethical disagreement and contestation is now construed as cruelty, and cruelty is, of course, the antithesis of toleration. Should one want to defend some social practice, one need only point an accusing finger and level a charge of intolerance at opposition.
This transformation of a central liberal virtue leads to an unsettling conclusion: toleration has become a vice. Sensing this transformation, many desire a return to toleration’s early modern roots. While important, appeals to early modern conceptions do not mitigate the rise of excessive toleration—an extreme iteration of the original principles. After all, the problematic binary of tolerance and intolerance emerged from this period.
A better answer, we argue, can be found much earlier than the modern era. In fact, if we regard toleration as a virtue responding to a perennial human need—reconciling disagreements—many resources present themselves that were previously unthinkable. One such resource is Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. In fact, hiding under the guise of a “nameless virtue” in Book IV, Chapter 6, is a disposition that looks a lot like toleration, a term unavailable to Aristotle.
When we examine Aristotle’s account, we discover several insights that illuminate the problems with toleration today. Most importantly, Aristotle regards all moral virtues, including toleration, as the balance between two extremes. Toleration is the mean between the deficiency of intolerance and the excess of obsequiousness. This explains how recent iterations can be understood as a vice—they take the virtue too far. Moreover, Aristotle’s treatment of pleasure and pain in social relations offers a nuanced framework for pursuing toleration at a time when emotional pain is often conflated with cruelty. Instead, he demonstrates that pleasure and pain in social relations are secondary to human flourishing and, therefore, that not all pain is cruel.
While his account offers much more to nuance our understanding of toleration, perhaps most striking of all is how helpful such a classical resource can be to diagnose our current predicament and reveal the parallels between political and ethical dilemmas across time.
Michael Promisel is a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Michael’s research is grounded in the history of political thought with particular focus on the classical and American traditions. His work draws on these traditions to reflect on timely questions concerning political leadership, virtue ethics, and the relationship between religion and politics. His dissertation, Paragons of Political Leadership, proposes a framework for understanding the ethical character of political leadership and includes chapters on Aristotle, Cicero, Machiavelli, and Thomas More. Michael’s scholarship has appeared in the Review of Politics, VoegelinView, and the American Journal of Political Science (forthcoming).
Michael has taught courses on Sport & Politics and Political Leadership and served as a teaching assistant for courses covering the history of political thought and American political institutions. He serves as the graduate coordinator for the Political Theory Workshop at UW-Madison and graduate fellow for the Center for the Study of Liberal Democracy. Michael received his B.A. in Government from the University of Virginia in 2014.
Richard Avramenko (Ph.D. Georgetown, 2005) has taught both Political Science and Integrated Liberal Studies at the University of Wisconsin since the Fall of 2005. His main areas of interest are ancient and continental political thought. He teaches Western Culture: Political, Economic, and Social Thought, Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Politics and Literature, Ancient and Medieval Political Thought, the Romance of War, Nietzsche, Methods of Political Theory, or whatever strikes him as interesting and appropriate.
Avramenko has written articles on topics such as Plato, Aristotle, Xenophon, St. Augustine, Dostoevsky, Tocqueville, Nietzsche, Voegelin, Heidegger, Canadian identity politics, mortgage and housing policy. He is the author of Courage: The Politics of Life and Limb, and has co-edited books on friendship (Friendship and Politics: Essays in Political Thought), Dostoevsky (Dostoevsky’s Political Thought), and aristocratic political thought (Aristocratic Souls in Democratic Times) and is currently working on a new book manuscript: The Crush of Democracy: Tocqueville and the Egalitarian Mind.
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