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When Does Tolerance Stop Becoming A Virtue?

Feb 11, 2008
When does "Tolerance" or "Live and Let Live" stop becoming a virtue? Is it even a virtue? If it is, is it virtuous to apply this attitude universally and without exception in every circumstance of life? Some people think this is so. They govern their lives and relationships with the idea that "if someone doesn't criticize me, then what right do I have to criticize them?" Is this correct? Is this the way we should live our lives? Is this the way an individual should live in a society? Should the society function this way?

Tolerance, "Live and Let Live," is probably a virtuous thing. The example that comes to my mind is the Biblical story of "The Good Samaritan." In this story, which only appears in the Gospel of Luke, a Samaritan helps a Jew. In the context of the time in which the story was written, Samaritans were taught to hate Jews and Jews were taught to have nothing to do with the Samaritans. The Law of the Prophets taught that the Samaritans were "unclean." Well, as the story goes, the Samaritan comes upon a Jew on the side of the road beaten, bloodied, and robbed. The Samaritan binds his wounds and takes him to shelter. In the historical context of historical religious and racial discrimination, this Bible story is an excellent example of how "Tolerance" is a virtuous thing.

When does the Tolerance-inspired axiom, "Live and Let Live", stop becoming a virtue? When does the application of tolerance become the tolerating of evil? Some people don't even believe in the existence of evil. They are opposed to it philosophically. But, really, you've got to wonder just how far one can carry the idea of tolerance. Just when does tolerance end and judgment begin? However, before that question can be answered, you have to deal with those who think to make any judgment at all is wrong.

Interestingly, many who would tell you that the Bible is a book of silly myths are some of the first to quote a passage in the New Testament Book, Matthew 7, in which one line of the text does say, "Judge not lest you too be judged." The problem is that biblically illiterate people do not go on to quote the rest of the passage. This passage does not teach we should not judge others. What the passage is teaching is that we should not judge hypocritically. In other words, if you are calling the behavior of someone wrong and are doing the same behavior you condemn someone else for, then you are guilty of being a hypocrite. "Watch out!" the passage is saying. "Or you will be judged with the same judgment you are heaping upon the head of your neighbor." It is not wrong to judge. Just make sure you are not guilty of the same thing for which you are judging your neighbor.

To make a judgment you have to have a standard, a principle, a law against which you measure a violation of that standard, do you not? The problem is that as soon as you try adhering to a standard, someone comes along and says something along the line, "Well that standard might be true for you but it is not true for me." I've heard this far too often. It is a kind of moral relativism in which universal or objective truths either do not hold water, so to speak, or do not exist at all. Those who hold to this position have the idea that any standard against which one would judge or measure "right or wrong" is relative to personal circumstances. In other words, "Oh, I can't judge him for such and such. He doesn't judge me so I can't judge him." Or, "I can't have an abortion because I think it's wrong. But, that's wrong for me and I can't say it's wrong for her."

"Moral relativists hold that no universal standard exists by which to access an ethical proposition's truth; moral subjectivism is thus the opposite of moral absolutism. Relativistic positions often see moral values as applicable only within certain cultural boundaries (cultural relativism) or in the context of individual preferences (moral subjectivism)." -- From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Imagine a society in which "Relativistic positions often see moral values as applicable only within certain cultural boundaries (cultural relativism) or in the context of individual preferences (moral subjectivism)." What kind of life that would be? How could we, as a society, righteously judge a child molester, a serial killer, a mass murderer, someone who kills his wife in a rage, a bank robber, a document forger, if moral values are only applicable in the context of individual preferences?

What if the child molester claims that within his or her "individual preferences" to have sex with a child is an ok thing to do? Under the umbrella of the cultural relativist and moral subjectivists, we could not judge the child molester as doing anything wrong. "How can I judge the child molester's life if he isn't judging me?" Or, "If the child molester does not criticize me how can I criticize him?" Or, "If the child molester is Living and Letting me Live, then why shouldn't I Live and Let the child molester live in peace?"

Why do we as a people pick and choose our morality? Why do we apply a standard and judge the child molester with it but not use the same standard to judge other areas of morality? We call child molestation wrong and lock up those who indulge in this behavior, but why? If moral values are only applicable within in the context of individual preferences, then why do we lock up pedophiles when their official line is that "We were born that way and can't help ourselves. We want and should be given special rights!" So, we judge the child molester but we look the other way at those who boast they don't pay their taxes? Or, we look the other way when we learn of other nefarious violations of the law of the land? Since when has morality become Cafeteria Morals--we pick and chose what we want to judge and leave the others?

How is that right?

How long can a world last in which its inhabitants only choose those laws that they want to enforce? When will pedophilia become, "Ok", because after all, no universal standard exists by which to access an ethical proposition's truth.

"In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes." - Judges 17:6

The standard setter and the standard enforcer--The King of Israel--was missing. The result was a chaotic society of "every man doing what was right in his own eyes." The problem was every man had a different idea "in his own eyes" as to what was right and wrong.

And, that is exactly why the morally relativistic position of, "Live and Let Live" ultimately cannot work. Is it not a belief which has subjectivism at its core and impossible to apply in all cases because eventually you have to adhere to universally applicable spiritual and civil laws to know what is right and wrong to prevent society from falling into utter anarchistic lawlessness?

At least I think so!
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