Rainer Forst describes tolerance as a social norm. So intolerant people and groups violate the social contract by denying the social norm of tolerance. See Hobbes, Locke, Kant et al on social contract. It is necessary to define intolerance. It means not enduring what is disliked, and seeking to harm it. As an example, espousing the position that LGBTQ people should be punished simply for existing is intolerance. So intolerance involves actively projecting harm onto a certain group for no rational reason. Furthermore, the intolerant often reject rational argument and refuse to engage in reasonable debate about their assertions. Karl Popper pointed out that this prevents intolerant views from being considered on equal terms with tolerant views. So do intolerant people and groups threaten the social contract so seriously that they should be sanctioned by society? Is this simply political pragmatism, or does liberal philosophy support this view?

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    Your question relies on quite a lot of presuppositions. They should be made explicit and agreed upon before one can take the first steps towards an answer: Who signed the social contract? Does the social contract prohibit intolerance? How do you understand pragmatism? Characterizing liberal philosophy (= liberalism?).
    – Jo Wehler
    Nov 22, 2023 at 15:25
  • See edit for clarification.
    – Meanach
    Nov 22, 2023 at 16:17
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    I think the question could be improved by defining "intolerance" and distinguishing by how intolerance is expressed, and how much it may affect others. For example, forcefully projecting intolerance of Jews by attempting to exterminate them is quite different than not agreeing with their belief system. Passive intolerance and non-celebration of certain lifestyles or belief systems has little to no effect on others. (but maybe this would be included in a good answer?) Nov 22, 2023 at 18:23
  • @Michael Hall. Thank you for your suggestion. I have edited my question accordingly.
    – Meanach
    Nov 22, 2023 at 19:42
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    If intolerance means, "means not enduring what is disliked" then my advice is to grow up. If it means not tolerating threats to your existence, then I think we don't need further debate on that. people should give others liberty, and be able to defend themselves. Does this not answer the question?
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 17 at 13:08

1 Answer 1


John Rawls offers this assessment of the problem (A Theory of Justice, 1999 ed., §35):

... it seems that an intolerant sect has no title to complain when it is denied an equal liberty. ... A complaint is a protest addressed to another in good faith. It claims a violation of a principle that both parties [to a disagreement] accept. Now, to be sure, an intolerant man will say that he acts in good faith and that he does not ask anything for himself that he denies to others. ... [So we] cannot say that tolerant sects have the right to suppress [intolerant ones]. For one thing, others may have a right to complain. They may have this right not as a right to complain on behalf of the intolerant, but simply as a right to object whenever a principle of justice is violated. ... [So we] assume that the tolerant sects have the right not to tolerate the intolerant in at least one circumstance, namely, when they sincerely and with reason nelieve that intolerance is necessary for their own security.

In a similar vein, Rawls offers elsewhere (§38) that a legalese version of ought-implies-can might be justifiably suspended in the following event:

Suppose that, aroused by sharp religious antagonisms, members of rival sects are collecting weapons and forming amed bands in preparation for civil strife. Confronted with this situation the government may enact a statute forbidding the possession of firearms (assuming that possession is not already an offense).

Notwithstanding Rawls' good intentions, there does seem a possible road to Hell, here, though: because absolutely unrestricted pluralism is self-defeating purely as a matter of abstract logic, it is hard to see how we can fully demarcate tolerable from intolerable systems. Obviously intolerable cases like Nazism or Stalinism might be thought few and far between; systems might be layered in such a way that some layers are manifestly unacceptable but other layers are consonant with the practice of diversity.

In other words, focusing on merely the tolerant/intolerant distinction will not do, is not practical enough. Rawls offers preventative self-defense, if you will, as a possible focus (internally if not so much externally; I don't know what he says in The Law of Peoples); but we are to be wary when governments invoke such self-defense clauses to justify what might well look like oppression instead.

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    In the Academy, one deals with peers. In the Agora, one deals with jeers. On the upside, you're 18 points to the good.
    – J D
    Nov 22, 2023 at 17:07
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    @JD I do wonder what is lacking in my answer, besides the limited outside input (though the OP seems to have covered much of the rest of the relevant such material), though. I fear that I may have offended someone on "either side" of such debates :P as if I am being too tolerant, or not tolerant enough, myself! Nov 22, 2023 at 18:54
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    lol Clever as always. I like to view it as such: Your metaphilosophical theses are value-laden. If someone of different metaphilosophical values, say with a hostility to your views on fact-value distinctions, reads your answer, it is not the answer per se they may dispute (perfectly strong and cogent reasoning as I think it tends to be), but some gross objection of presumptions in your first principles. For instance, a fan of Ayn Rand's Objectivism may balk at your Rawlsian intuitions of altruism as a starting place for your response.
    – J D
    Nov 22, 2023 at 20:36
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    +1 make that 28 up (from your friends in the Agora)
    – Annika
    Nov 22, 2023 at 20:56
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    @Joshua I would be more surprised if Rawls' argument were utterly perfect by magic, as it were, in spite of deontic logicians not even having a consensus about how to deal with the contrary-to-duty puzzle. So as it stands, despite its flaws, his argument is still better than any competitors' arguments I've seen. Nov 23, 2023 at 0:19

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