New York University Public Law and Legal Theory Working Papers

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Toleration, Supererogation, & Moral Duties: Conference in Honour of David Heyd, May-June 2012


Philosophers (Bernard Williams, for example) often talk of a paradox of toleration. They say that we can only be said to tolerate that which is acknowledged to be bad or wrong; but, thye continue, if something is acknowledged to be bad or wrong, the proper response is to suppress it or act against it. I think this appearance of paradox can very easily be dissolved. If something is bad or wrong, then the person who judges it so commits himself to avoiding it in his own actions and choices; but he does not by any logical implication of "bad" or "wrong," commit himself to acting coercively against it. Acting coercively is quite a distinctive response and it requires a myriad of reasons which are not generated by a simple moral condemnation. Practices of toleration flourish in the gap that this opens up. I also pursue a second line of argument which goes as follows: despite the philosophers' definitional announcement, it is not the case that we can only be said to tolerate that which we judge to be bad or wrong. The idea of toleration is much broader thnaa that. Philosophers tend to confine it stipulatively to the narrower sense in order to generate the alleged paradox. But since the paradox doesn't arisse anyway, there is no justification for the narrower definition.

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coercion, paradox of toleration, religious freedom, toleration, wrongness