British Journal of Political Science

Making Sense of Political Toleration

a1 School of Geography, Politics and Sociology, University of Newcastle.

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This article argues that, in contemporary political circumstances, we should think of political toleration not as toleration that a government extends to those it rules but as a political ideal that governments can uphold and promote. We should substitute a conception of the tolerant society or the tolerant political order for that of the tolerant ruler. Toleration so conceived is consistent with the idea of a neutral state, although it need not entail a commitment to political neutrality. However, if we are to make sense of the idea of a tolerant society and, in particular, of the assumption that one political arrangement can be more tolerant than another, we need to place limits on what can count as toleration and intolerance. I use a distinction between agents, observers and patients to argue that point. I also argue that the presence of compossible options is a precondition of political toleration so that, if an issue requires a choice between incompossible options, it should not be conceived as an issue of toleration at all. The general message of the article is that, while we should reject claims that toleration has become obsolete as a political ideal, we need to revise our thinking on what constitutes political toleration if we are to apply that idea to liberal democratic arrangements ideally conceived.


a Earlier versions of this article were presented to the Workshop on Toleration, organized by John Horton and Monica Mookherjee for the Political Theory conference held at Manchester Metropolitan University in 2005 and to the annual conference of the Association of Legal and Social Philosophy, 2005. I am grateful to the participants in both events for sharpening up my thinking. I have also benefited greatly from the detailed comments of my fellow political theorists at Newcastle, Derek Bell, Thom Brooks, Graham Long and Ian O'Flynn, and from those of John Horton, Shane O'Neill, Albert Weale and the Journal's anonymous referees. I must also acknowledge my debt to Glen Newey; although I spend much of this article taking issue with Newey, I am greatly indebted to his original and penetrating work on toleration for stimulating much of my own thought on the subject. This article was written during my tenure of a Leverhulme Research Fellowship and I am very grateful to the Leverhulme Trust for its support.