Bioethics Blogs

What Should Clinicians and Bioethicists Tolerate?

by J.S. Blumenthal-Barby

Last week I attended a talk by German philosopher Rainer Forst on “Toleration and Democracy”. Professor Forst, a student of Habarmas, was named “the most important political philosopher of his generation” in 2012. Forst began by noting the tension between toleration and democracy. On the one hand, democracy demands something more than mere tolerance of others and their perspectives—something more along the lines of recognition and respect. In this way, and paradoxically, every tolerance is a form of intolerance. As Goethe said, “To tolerate is to offend.” Yet on the other hand, democracy cannot get by without toleration.

Forst articulated three components of toleration:

  1. Objection: the “tolerated” is somehow objectionable.
  2. Acceptance: there are reasons why it is right or required to tolerate what is objectionable.
  3. Rejection: the line drawn where we would no longer accept the tolerable but outlaw it.

Forst noted that toleration is a “normatively dependent concept,” meaning that sometimes toleration is good and sometimes it is not (an analogy was the concept of solidarity).

Finally, he noted that there are really two very different conceptions of tolerance:

  1. The Permission Conception: authority grants the minority permission to keep doing what the authority finds objectionable with a general expectation that they will be somewhat discreet about it. Note that this is the conception that is (paradoxically) a “form of intolerance.”
  2. The Respect Conception: a reciprocal stance that two people adopt towards each other of tolerated and tolerating; of epistemic humility regarding the truth or the good; and of recognizing each other’s right of justification.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.