Why Toleration Is A Central Commitment Of Liberalism

It’s well known and recognized that defining liberalism, as with other political ideologies, is nearly impossible.

One is faced with multiple forms of liberalism as well, such as classical, modern, social, and neo-liberalism. Alan Ryan, previous political professor at the University of Oxford, wrote “Another explanation of the difficulty of defining political terms is that they are ‘essentially contested’ terms, terms whose meaning and reference are perennially open to debate” (Ryan, 1993). He also makes use of the term liberty, a concept that is almost completely correspondent with liberalism, and pokes holes at the term liberty itself. “If we define liberalism as the belief that the freedom of the individual is the highest political value, and that institutions and practices are to be judged by their success in promoting it – perhaps the most plausible brief definition – this only invites further argument. What is liberty? Is it positive or negative…” (Ryan, 1993). For the purpose of this essay, liberalism is defined as the importance and protection of individual rights and freedoms, as well as equality. The doctrine also highlights limited government. Toleration can be defined as the understanding and acceptance that other people’s views may differ and not align with one’s own. Toleration is a central commitment of liberalism because it is needed to protect the rights and freedoms of every individual, ensure in limited powers of the government, and preserve the diversity of liberal beliefs.

It’s important to recognize the paradox that comes with liberalism. One of its essential values is the belief that every individual is born with a set of inalienable rights. These rights include freedom of speech, freedom of religion, right to political opposition, and ownership of private property. (Jung 23/9, 2019). In a liberal society, having these rights means being free to make one’s own life choices without coercion from the government. However, with that being said, those life choices must not impede on another individual’s personal freedoms. In this sense, liberalism offers a paradox. Despite the fact that the term liberalism connotes to being without constraint, it is also limited and indeed constrained in order to ensure the equal individual rights of all. This is a depiction of the significance of toleration within liberalism.

With regard to freedom of religion, toleration is crucial.

Someone may disagree with another’s religious views and they have that right to disagree. However, that person, even someone of high political status, cannot act in a way that impedes on the others religious practices. That person must be tolerant of the other’s beliefs. Every individual has the right to practice their own beliefs, again with the condition that it doesn’t harm another individual. The concept of private vs public sphere is introduced. Religious beliefs and practices fall under the private sphere, where the government and others cannot interfere. The separation of church and state is highlighted here and secular versus religious authority are also separate (Jung, 2019). Therefore, any government trying to dictate religion is overstepping. Consider the Employment Division Vs Smith case, also known as the Peyote case. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, “In 1990 the Supreme Court ruled against two Oregon drug counselors who had been denied unemployment compensation after they were fired for ingesting peyote – an illegal substance – during Native American religious rites. Unlike other states, Oregon hadn’t made an exception in its drug laws for the religious use of hallucinogens” (McGough, 2019). Oregon’s state laws infringed upon the religious freedom of Indigenous people and limited their ability to practice their spiritual beliefs, highlighting intolerance. The Oregon court of appeals demonstrated this when they reversed the ruling, stating that denying the two men their unemployment compensation because of their use of peyote is a violation of their right to practice their religion.

It’s generally known that liberalism in all its forms has an antipathy towards absolute authority. According to liberal views, no one should be able to claim absolute power and autonomy is valued greatly. Although the law may be necessary in order to protect one’s life and liberty, it can also be used as a tool of oppression if one man possesses all power. Absolute and arbitrary power almost always means the dismissal of other individuals’ ideas and thoughts, which is a direct reflection of intolerance of opposing views, and often has detrimental effects. According to Locke, absolute rule violates the personality or the rights of those over whom it is exercised. “This argument connects Locke’s second Treatise with its claim that absolute and arbitrary power were so inconsistent with civil society that they could not be considered a form of government at all, with the twentieth-century liberal’s contempt for the totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. Liberals have disagreed about just which sorts of absolute authority are intolerable…” (Ryan, 1993). Again, liberalism highlights and celebrates diversity, which entails a variety and differences of ideas, thoughts, people, etcetera. With one ruling figure, diversity is non-existent, and individuals are oppressed for their difference and uncommon ways of living.

Moving along, Toleration is also required for everyone to have their own personal freedom of expression and opinion. No matter what one’s take on a situation is, they must tolerate the idea of other people having different views that don’t align with their own. For example, in the New York Times Article Stop the Knee Jerk Liberalism That Hurts its Own Cause, writer Nicholas Kristoff mentions a Harvard professor, Ronald Sullivan, losing his job because he had decided to represent Harvey Weinstein, who had freshly been accused of sexual assault (Kristoff, 2019). Of course students that are traumatized by sexual assault wouldn’t respond well to a fellow professor representing someone accused of rape, however, Kristoff is under the impression that the true liberalist approach to this would be accepting the fact that Sullivan is representing Weinstein, as it is his job and he should not be reprimanded for it. The decision is Sullivan’s and just as Weinstein has the right to legal representation, Sullivan has the right to his own opinion and to decide which clients to pursue. Kristoff states “liberalism should model inclusivity and tolerance, even in intolerant times, even to the exclusive and the intolerant” (Kristoff, 2019). He is emphasizing the importance of toleration in a liberalist society in which citizens have the right to their own freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression.

liberalism is greatly rooted in the idea of progression and reform in society. For this, toleration and cooperation are essential. When members of a society are not able to digest the fact that, naturally, different people hold different views and ideas, and come to terms with it, that society will not cooperate between one another and that impedes on its capability of progression. Instead of progression, that society is more likely to face social conflict, chaos, and oppression. As mentioned throughout the essay, toleration protects individuals’ personal freedoms such as freedom of religious beliefs, freedom of expression as well as opinion and it limits the power of the government, promoting equality under the law and diversity of views. Toleration does not seek nor does it demand for members of a society to agree with, cherish, or joyfully support one another’s ideas, but rather it asks for peaceful acceptance of different views. Liberalism emphasizes the rights and freedoms of individuals, as well as limited government interference, and promotes a healthy and diverse society, all of which is not possible without toleration. This demonstrates why toleration is a central commitment of liberalism.


  • Jung, Courtney, POL101 lecture, Liberalism, 23/9/2019
  • McGough, Michael. “Opinion: The Supreme Court’s ‘Peyote Decision’ Limited Freedom of Religion. Is It In Trouble?” Los Angeles Times, January 23, 2019. https://www.latimes.com/opinion/enterthefray/la-ol-supremecourt-religion-20190122-story.html
  • Kristoff, Nicholas. “Stop the Knee Jerking Liberalism That Hurts Its Own Cause” New York Times Company, last modified June 29, 2019.
  • Ryan, Alan. 1993. “Liberalism.” In a Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy, edited by Robert E. Goodwin and Phillip Pettit, 291-311. Malden, MA; Oxford: Blackwell Pub.