Thomas Aquinas, practical fellow that he was, understood that not all bad things can feasibly be proscribed by human law. It isn’t because people disagree about what is bad, but rather that a well-governed polity should require few laws, easily promulgated and understood, broadly promoting the common good, wherein the lawgiver can attend to things that are obviously within his scope of competence. Custom and the ordinary interchanges between human beings must take care of the rest. Since human beings are wayward—since they suffer the ills of pride, envy, avarice, lust, and the other deadlies—we will always require the modest virtue of tolerance to get through a day without knocking one another about the head.
The root meaning of the word suggests what the virtue involves. The Latin tol- is related to a group of words having to do with carrying a burden: German dulden, to be patient, to endure; Old English tholian, to suffer; Latin tuli, I have borne. When we tolerate we bear with someone or something; we bear the existence of a wrong. We do so because, given the circumstances, to protest would invite a greater wrong. There is a time for public correction, and a time for quiet endurance and, if the opportunity arises, private correction.
I should like to distinguish tolerance from an even more modest virtue, one without a name; it is part civility, part equanimity, part humility. It is sometimes called “pluralism,” but that isn’t quite right. We acknowledge that no one person can ever grasp the whole of the human condition, or the common good in its fullness. We are fallible, first of all; but we are also endowed with a variety of interests and talents. So we welcome a certain freedom of action, within the bounds of common courtesy and the moral law. One man works on cars in his spare time, another plants grapevines, another reads philosophy. It is to our general benefit that this should be so. But in these cases there is nothing really to tolerate. Tolerance properly understood always suggests the bearing of some trouble, or even of moral wrong.
What’s not so often acknowledged is that tolerance implies reciprocity from the person whose behavior is tolerated. For tolerance of wrongdoing is freely given; it is an act of graciousness, and not the paying of a debt. Therefore it rests with the offender, at the very least, to refrain from aggravating the burden of tolerance.
Suppose my neighbor has left his wife for another woman. It’s not against the law, although perhaps it should be. But it is a wrong. He can complain all day about how exasperating his wife is, but that won’t change the fact that he is breaking a vow, and doing his part to undermine the fundamental institution of society. I like my neighbor, poor man. He’s on the brink of a nervous breakdown. His mother is very ill. For these and other reasons I decide to tolerate his behavior. I am not going to take him to the woodshed. But I’m not going to give him my approval, either.
No matter whether my tolerance in this case is prudent or only timid, it demands reciprocity from my neighbor. He will refrain from bringing the new woman to my house, to meet my wife and children. He will refrain from lounging with her in his front yard, in affectionate embrace. He will refrain from publicizing the adultery. He will certainly not celebrate it.
The discretion he must practice is, as it were, tolerance’s doppelganger. I tolerate his vice; he “tolerates” my tolerance, and owes it to me to do so. Another example. The local convenience store sells Playboy magazine. They are legally permitted to sell it. But it is a wrong; it degrades the beauty of the human body and turns sexuality from its proper sphere in marriage to the private quest for gratification. If they tacitly request tolerance, they tacitly incur a debt of reciprocity. They will keep the offensive magazine out of sight.
The reader will note that the two examples above have to do with sex. They needn’t have; the principle remains. Suppose my auto mechanic accepts cash from his customers, giving them a break on their expenses, with the understanding that the money changes hands under the table, beyond the ken of the tax man. I know that it is dishonest to sign a tax form with a false declaration of income. He knows it too, because he himself would never hire a contractor who signed his name to false expense accounts. I pay him by check, and do not turn him in. I tolerate the evil. Now suppose he were to run for public office, on a platform of fiscal reform. That would be to heap another burden upon my back. It would make a mockery of tolerance itself.
And yet, because of the great leeway the law allows to sexual rather than financial relations, and because of the vagaries of human desire, behavior that touches upon our sexual nature will offer plenty of opportunities for tolerance—and for the reciprocity that tolerance is owed.
I am the father of a twelve-year-old boy. I want my son to be comfortable being a boy. I want him to grow up to be attracted to women, and to be attractive to them in turn. I want him to have natural, matter-of-course friendships with other men; not the suffocating touchy-needy relationships that stunt a boy’s maturity. I want him to walk and talk and work and play and fight and laugh like the man I see developing within him. I want him to love the beauty and grace and wisdom of girls and women, and to see himself as perfecting them and being perfected by them. I hope he will marry a good woman and raise happy children, who will look like him and his wife, and maybe a little like me and my wife. It’s perfectly natural for me to want this. It’s what fathers have always wanted for their sons.
Therefore it is natural that I should want no one to lay a snare in the boy’s path. Adolescence comes with a maelstrom of new feelings: frustration with still being so young, fear that one is already too old, longing for some indefinite thing of beauty, curiosity regarding good things that are mysterious, and bad things that seem so; no one can chart a map for every adolescent child. Adolescents are, then, peculiarly vulnerable. We owe it to them to make their passage as healthy and easy as possible.
All right, then. I understand there are men who have not attained the healthy masculine nature I hope my son will attain. I don’t make fun of them. I don’t wish them ill. I count some among my friends. I extend to them my tolerance of a state that is at least a significant falling-short of a natural good. But it requires pretty serious reciprocity. For one, the rights of my son should be respected. No snares in his path, thank you. He should not have to suffer, by suggestion or invitation or public example or enticement or moral sophistry, any complication along his way to becoming a healthy man, able to love a woman in a healthy way. Mr. Madison and Mr. Unger live in the same apartment: they are roommates. The history teacher, Mr. Delvecchio, is 40 and unmarried. Well, some people are confirmed bachelors. And indeed they may be. The freedom-clearing presumption of normality ought to obtain.
It follows too that if the public parading of a wrong is an offense against tolerance, so is the public declaration of a propensity to engage in the wrong. Every person alive is beset by temptations. We may utter them to our confessors, or, less often, to our best friends on condition of secrecy, or to our spouses, when it would not cause needless pain. Beyond that, we assist the tolerance of our neighbors by keeping our serpents to ourselves.
If a married man says, “I’m attracted to your daughter, but be assured I’ll never act upon my attraction,” he has at a stroke made it impossible for you ever to see him and your daughter in the same room without the shadow crossing your mind. He has, in his false and hypocritical show of honesty, loaded a heavy burden of decision upon you. Sever your friendship, and the self-hugging candid fellow can soothe himself by saying, “It was he who turned away from me.”
There are things we are better off not knowing about. But there’s more. The man who parades his temptation may be seeking approval. “Look at me! I am tempted to do things with another man that God and nature never intended. But I’m not going to do them. Aren’t I to be congratulated?” No, not a bit. If a man said, “Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to open fire upon a bus full of professionals. Oh, I’ll never do it, but just imagine the blood,” we’d rightly consider reporting him to the police. And then it is a small step from approving the brave fellow who makes his temptation conspicuous and conspicuously averts the sin, to suggesting that perhaps the sin isn’t really so bad after all, if such a conspicuously virtuous fellow is tempted by it.
That too is an offense against tolerance. It is to make one’s neighbor always aware of his tolerance: to weary him with it, to pester him little by little into giving in, because it is so much easier to condone than to tolerate. So it is that the most intolerant among us frequently preach about tolerance—to nag their opponents into submission, and to get their way.
This essay originally appeared September 21, 2012 in Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good, the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, NJ, and is reprinted with permission.