“You're entitled to your own opinions”, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan declares, “but you're not entitled to your own facts.” This succinctly (and rather bluntly) captures the extent and essential boundaries of tolerance.

Tolerance is essential in the realm of opinion, and has no place in the realm of fact.[1][2]

Two types of errors, each a form of intolerance, become apparent:

  1. Treating as fact what is indeed opinion, and
  2. Dismissing fact as mere opinion.

Sustaining and propagating these errors are the tools of tyrants and ideologues, bigots and racists.

Discerning the distinction between fact and opinion—the essential skill of tolerance—can be difficult. It requires us to apply a robust theory of knowledge.

Intolerance is the wrongful arrogation of power to force conformity.[3] Intolerance is the error in thinking that perpetuates hatred.



Some behavior is so wrong it cannot be tolerated. The categorical moral imperatives not to kill, steal, or maliciously deceive others are examples of behavior that is outside the bounds of tolerance. A tolerant person is nontolerant of such reprehensible behavior.

The United States Air force Academy honor code states:

This clear statement of nontolerance establishes the boundaries of what is tolerable to a cadet.

Characteristics of Tolerance


The book The Truth about Tolerance[4] describes ten “truths of tolerance”. They are paraphrased here:

  1. Tolerance is a patience toward a practice or opinion you disapprove of — Tolerance is being agreeable—listening carefully and treating the person with dignity and respect—while you disagree. You continue a critical analysis of all you know and believe to be true, in light of the different viewpoint expressed by the person you disagree with. In the best case each of you has learned from the other. In the end you may or may not be persuaded, yet because of your tolerance the relationship has been strengthened by your dialogue, not eroded by obstinacy or mistrust. Without disagreement there is not tolerance, only affirmation. As Voltaire famously said: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
  2. Tolerance has limits—Reality is beyond opinion. Tolerance is relevant to opinion, not fact. [5] The test of truth is its correspondence to reality, and when opinion meets face-to-face with reality, reality must ultimately prevail. Furthermore, erosion of the categorical moral imperatives is intolerable. Tolerating cruelty and brutality is abdication, not respect.
  3. Tolerance allows for spirited and principled debate—Your well-founded beliefs deserve to be heard, advocated, and vigorously debated. Expect them to be dissected, analyzed, questioned and criticized long before any consensus emerges. Identifying, examining, and resolving inconsistencies increase our understanding. Truth continues to be forged from critical consideration of dissent and new points of view. The skeptics help us all move forward, the demagogues do not. In addition, confronting destructive behavior is an act of compassion and courage, not brutality.
  4. Nontolerace is essential and distinct from intolerance—Certain reprehensible behavior, including beeches of the categorical moral imperatives, cannot be tolerated. Nontolerance—the straightforward refusal to tolerate a wrong—expresses the limits of tolerance. Tolerant people are nontolerant towards brutality. Paradoxically, intolerance is not to be tolerated. Tolerance finds a balance between indulgence—anything goes—and narrow-mindedness. Tolerance is the thoughtful virtue resolutely between intolerance and nontolerance.
  5. Tolerance is the virtue that makes peace possible—Tolerance allows people the liberty and personal freedom of self-determination. Toleration promotes the free exchange of ideas, including criticism and debate of public policy in the interest of the people. Toleration sustains civic order by promoting its on-going criticism, analysis, debate, and improvement by the people, and in the best cases, for the people. Finally, nontolerace establishes what is unacceptable in the culture.
  6. Respect the person as your disagree with their ideasCriticism—disagreeing with an opinion, idea or behavior—is distinct from insult—an attack on the person’s very being. Care for their humanity as you take offense at their opinions. We can separate who people are from what they think and do. Don't initiate or tolerate Ad hominem attacks
  7. Tolerance is not philosophical indifference—You can care very much about what is true and what is false, what is kindness, and what is brutality, while exercising tolerance. Tolerance helps move us toward truth, not away from it, by promoting dialogue and making space for critical thinking. “Unless one loves the truth,” Jacques Maritain once wrote, “one is not a man.”
  8. Tolerance is consistent with your own well-founded convictions about truth and moral behavior—When an opinion is expressed, ask yourself “is it true?” and proceed skillfully from there, making as much progress toward common understanding as the cultural limits of respect and the frailties of human nature will allow.
  9. Vigorous deliberation of disagreement and moral evaluation is promoted by tolerance and moves us toward a common understanding of the good—Ongoing deliberation, conducted in good faith, continues to forge truth and advance human rights. Tolerance does not extend to aggressive intolerance—the coercive suppression of other points of view. [6] Tolerance provides the space for a culture of dialogue, where we can all benefit.
  10. Tolerance respects context – If your grandmother makes a racial slur at a family gathering we can tolerate it as a reminder of the progress made during her lifetime. If a politician makes a racial slur at a town hall meeting, it is intolerable. Achieve both truth and grace.

United Nations Year for Tolerance


The United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 1995 the United Nations Year for Tolerance with UNESCO as the lead organization. Their Declaration of Principles on Tolerance addresses the meaning of tolerance as follows:

The International Day for Tolerance is now celebrated on November 16 every year, in recognition of the Paris Declaration which was signed that day in 1995 by 185 member states.

Religious Tolerance


The various religious doctrines and dogma are largely matters of faith, not matters of fact. Therefore our tolerance must extend to matters of religious opinion, but not to false claims of matters of fact. Tolerance need not extend to any claims that faith alone—regardless of the strength, sincerity, and passion of its conviction—establishes fact. Do your best to progress beyond theism.

The Virtue of Tolerance


Tolerance is a prerequisite to exercising the liberties of free speech and freedom of religion. Tolerance preserves the dignity of each person as it accommodates and explores a rich diversity in ideas, cultures, and beliefs through civil discourse and dialogue. Tolerance promotes learning because, as John Stuart Mill tells us: “received opinion may be wrong and the heretic right.” Robin Barrow cautions us that: “It is partly because there are limits to what we can be sure about in the moral domain that tolerance and freedom are virtues.”[7] Adopting an open mind represents a commitment to the pursuit of knowledge through dialogue.[8]

Everyday Tolerance


Find an authentic balance between indulgence and narrow-mindedness. Consider adopting some of these simple guidelines to practice tolerance each day.

  • When you are in a conversation that is becoming difficult because you strongly disagree with the opinions being expressed, work to shift the tone of conversation away from dogma and debate and towards dialogue.
  • Rekindle a conversation with someone you have stopped speaking to, perhaps as a result of a sharp difference of opinions. Suspend judgment. Balance inquiry and advocacy. Seek to resolve your conflict, or at least begin to understand the viewpoint of the other. Promote both truth and grace.
  • Do not tolerate messages originating from bad faith. Fact checking tools such as snopes and FactCheck make it easy to assess the accuracy of popular rumors, myths, and beliefs. Use these tools to assess suspicious rumors and propaganda and correct the falsehoods rather than pass them on. Challenge people who continue to act in bad faith. Advance no falsehoods.



Part 1: Describe the extent and boundaries of your tolerance. What behaviors—perhaps because they trespass on your own conception of categorical moral imperatives—do you refuse to tolerate? (Are you more or less permissive than an Air Force Cadet?) What ideas and beliefs do you accept as fact, even though they may be denied or debated by others? What annoyances or ideas you disagree with are you willing to tolerate?

Part 2: Describe a time when, although it was difficult for you, you were able to tolerate an opinion you disagreed with. Did you learn from this experience? Describe the thoughts you had at that time and the thoughts you have now about the incident.

Part 3: Describe a time when you stood firmly in nontolerance as you refuted some opinion presented as fact or someone denied the truth of some fact or you rebuked some nontolerable behavior. Describe the thoughts you had at that time and the thoughts you have now about the incident.


  1. Comte-Sponville, André (2002). A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues: The Uses of Philosophy in Everyday Life. Picador. pp. 368. ISBN 978-0805045567. 
  2. Adler, Mortimer J. (1997). Six Great Ideas. Touchstone. pp. 256. ISBN 978-0684826813. 
  3. Stetson, Brad; Conti, Joseph G. (2005). The Truth About Tolerance: Pluralism, Diversity and the Culture Wars. IVP Academic. pp. 207. ISBN 978-0830827879.  Page 42
  4. Stetson, Brad; Conti, Joseph G. (2005). The Truth About Tolerance: Pluralism, Diversity and the Culture Wars. IVP Academic. pp. 207. ISBN 978-0830827879. 
  5. Comte-Sponville, André (2002). A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues: The Uses of Philosophy in Everyday Life. Picador. pp. 368. ISBN 978-0805045567. 
  6. Fuller, Robert W. (2012). Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship?. Smashwords. 
  7. Barrow, Robin (2007). An Introduction to Moral Philosophy and Moral Education. Routledge. pp. 216. ISBN 978-0415421034.  Page 15
  8. Furedi, Frank (2011). On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence. Continuum. pp. 224. ISBN 978-1441120106.  Page 51

Further Reading


Students interested in learning more about the virtues of tolerance may be interested in the following materials: