Philosophy and Ethics in Germany

“Tolerance is a fine art” – Interview with the Philosopher Rainer Forst

Rainer Forst; © ForstRainer Forst; © ForstFor a peaceful and prosperous co-existence in diversity, it is said, tolerance is essential. But what does tolerance really mean?

Mr. Forst, for the last two decades people have spoken of the clash of civilizations. Many contemporaries call for tolerance. What does that mean?

First, a terminological remark. You can speak of tolerance only when the beliefs (or practices) that are to be tolerated are condemned as wrong or bad. Otherwise we have to do with indifference towards or esteem for the other. This rejection must of course be confronted by an acceptance that doesn’t cancel the negative judgment, but gives the reasons that something wrong should still be tolerated. Expressed in a (seeming) paradox: In accordance with the idea of tolerance, it would be wrong not to tolerate the wrong. Finally, I call a third component that of rejection: it in turn gives the negative reasons, which show where the “limits of tolerance” lie.

Can’t this be reduced to the formula: No tolerance towards the intolerant?

No, it’s too easy then that our own intolerance slips into the definition of the other as “intolerant” and the limits are drawn too one-sidedly. For example, today many think (again): Only once religion disappears will there be an end to intolerance. But here history teaches us that such attempts are not only in vain, but also that they lead to the temptation of proposing substitute religions. Intolerance against intolerance easily turns into its opposite.

Is then an impartial definition of tolerance impossible?

Well, before drawing this conclusion and asserting the inevitability of the militant defense of our values, we should be aware that the issue of tolerance is a question of justice, especially with respect to minorities. We can’t therefore avoid the effort of finding an acceptable justification of the scope of tolerance. However, tolerance shouldn’t be seen as an unrestricted good. It is good only when its motives are good and its boundary is justified. Otherwise it may harbor a number of dangers – for example, being too lax towards those who deserve no tolerance, or being an exercise of power whose aim is to keep minorities under control.

But isn’t tolerance mainly based on the fact that a political power allows minorities to follow their own beliefs and way of life if they acknowledge the existing power relations?

In part – and historically seen – yes. But the term shouldn’t be reduced to such a hierarchical or strategic sense, what I call in my book the “permission idea” of tolerance. The term describes not only a practice of political power but also, in accordance with another conception of respect, a positive attitude of individuals, a virtue. To be tolerant then means that you tolerate the religious beliefs and cultural practices of others with whom you don’t agree insofar as there exists a consensus as to the basis and the limits according to which this takes place.

Are the roots of tolerance then more secular than religious?

They are both, because religions too harbor a number of reasons opposing religious coercion: Christianity, among others, in the belief that conscience shouldn’t be forced, since faith is the voluntary receiving of God’s gift. Or, for another example, the Koran, verse 2.256: “Let there be no compulsion in religion”. But our history also shows that such arguments have prevailed only through many and hard struggles against the equally many counter-arguments harbored in Christian belief – for example, the duty to help lost souls whose salvation is at stake. It was only in 1965, with Vatican II’s declaration De libertate religiosa, that the Catholic Church made peace with the subjective right to religious freedom. Tolerance, it should be said, was more the achievement of those who were looked upon as “heretics” than those who were looked upon as “Christians”.

Religious reasons are not enough

Have these religious reasons proved important in interfaith dialogue?

Yes, but they aren’t enough. They don’t serve as a shared basis of a normative requirement of mutual tolerance, since the specific reasons don’t apply to dissenters. So there is always the danger of one-sided interpretations of the three components I previously mentioned.

Do religions then need secular arguments in interfaith dialogue?

In part, yes, because there has to be a duty equally binding for all to the effect that they should not impose particularistic religiously justified norms on others – as the counterpart to a right to justification, as I call it. On the other hand, secular arguments such as the pluralist questioning of objective values or the skeptic doubting of religious claims to truth can themselves be reasonably disputed and run the risk of drawing the limits too narrowly and becoming intolerant towards those who are not skeptics or pluralists.

We therefore need a justification of tolerance that remains neutral in the dispute between skepticism and religion and contains at the same time mutually binding principles. The finitude of human reason in questions of “final” truths should be understood in such a way that our own conception of truth is qualified only insofar as we see the beliefs of others as not equally true, but also not as unreasonable. In normative terms, we need an understanding of the principle of reciprocity that calls on citizens to justify their political claims to each other with reasons which avoid making the particular beliefs of one group absolute and accepts instead reciprocity.

Tolerance is an art which requires that we tolerate what we don’t agree with, even for deeply felt reasons. Tolerance doesn’t mean pushing away this difference and rejection, but rather that it be expressed is such a way that the other remains a respected equal. – on par with oneself and in mutual criticism. No society has ever completed this learning process of balancing equality and difference.


Rainer Forst is Professor for Political Theory and Philosophy at the University of Frankfurt am Main and Co-Chairman of the Excellence Cluster “The Formation of Normative Orders”. His major publications include Toleranz im Konflikt (2003), Das Recht auf Rechtfertigung (2007) and Kritik der Rechtfertigungsverhältnisse (forthcoming).

Hans-Martin Schönherr-Mann
conducted the Interview. He is an Essayist and Professor for Political Philosophy at the Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich and Professor for the philosophy of Science at the Leopold Franzens University of Innsbruck.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
August 2010

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