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The Paradox of Tolerance

· by roy · Read in about 3 min · (595 Words)
Categories: Opinions | Tags: philiosophy

When I was young, I was a fan of Voltaire’s famous quote “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”. Today, in the face of a world where hatemongers and the intolerant are able to use modern communication technologies to more easily spread their views, I realize that things may not be so black and white. Like so many beliefs I held when I was young, I now find myself of the opinion that instead of absolute tolerance (which may not even be possible), there is some semblance of intolerance that may be needed to keep to the ideal.

Enter Karl Popper’s Paradox of Tolerance:

Or if you want to read his actual text from The Open Society and Its Enemies:

"Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be most unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.”

Another article about it that I like is this Medium post titled Tolerance is not a Moral Precept. From this post:


Tolerance is not a moral absolute; it is a peace treaty.Tolerance is a social norm because it allows different people to live side-by-side without being at each other’s throats. It means that we accept that people may be different from us, in their customs, in their behavior, in their dress, in their sex lives, and that if this doesn’t directly affect our lives, it is none of our business. But the model of a peace treaty differs from the model of a moral precept in one simple way: the protection of a peace treaty only extends to those willing to abide by its terms. It is an agreement to live in peace, not an agreement to be peaceful no matter the conduct of others. A peace treaty is not a suicide pact.

Yet another essay, the work Nassim Taleb (author of The Black Swan), asserts that intolerant minorities can easily take over a majority, if not controlled.


We can answer these points using the minority rule. Yes, an intolerant minority can control and destroy democracy. Actually, as we saw, it will eventually destroy our world.

Popper still advocates maximum tolerance as long as the intolerant can be held in check, but he assumes there is a limit beyond which such is no longer viable. Society will need to find the proper balance.

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