When Toleration Becomes a Vice: Thoughts on Aristotle

Reported Ana Imes

On Feb. 20, Richard Avramento, political science professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison, gave a lecture called “When Toleration Becomes a Vice: Thoughts from Aristotle,” hosted by the politics department at George Fox University (GFU). Avramento warned against an excess of toleration, arguing that some ideas and beliefs are in fact wrong and should be recognized as such.

Avramento defined toleration as “refusing to interfere with, denounce, or persecute objectionable conduct and beliefs.” He referenced John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration throughout his talk, citing it as a healthy view on toleration. According to Avramento, Locke believed we should be “physically tolerant” of opposing ideas for the sake of reconciliation and pluralism.

Avramento agrees with Locke, but he believes that the purpose of toleration is no longer individual freedom. He claimed that the purpose “of toleration has changed to ending discomfort or uncomfortable conversation.” In other words, he argued, “they want to make bad manners illegal.” “They” refers to those who support “group rights,” “identity politics,” and “consciousness raising.”

Using Aristotelian terms, Avramento condemned an “excess” of this “new” version of toleration as a vice. He described this “lack of nobility” as “obsequiousness.” Because toleration is often strongly encouraged by those who identify with liberalism, Avramento made the leap of describing liberalism as a vice.

Avramento defined violence as an “injurious or destructive force,” claiming, “in the name of toleration, you get violence.” This argument — that toleration of different cultural practices can lead to physical violence — rested primarily on the example of female genital mutilation. His point was that it may be appropriate to cause emotional suffering by disagreeing with a cultural belief or practice if you have the noble cause of protecting women or children from physical violence.

In the context of female genital mutilation, it is difficult to disagree with Avramento. It seems that most people would agree that mutilation of young women against their will should not be tolerated. Avramento, however, failed to properly address the more mainstream “liberal” argument for tolerance: that we should respect the identities and beliefs of others as long as those identities and beliefs do not perpetrate physical violence. This argument is controversial, and Avramento could have responded, but he instead set up a strawman argument to knock down.

Anyone who has regularly attended the free lectures at GFU during the 2018-19 school year has heard Avramento’s argument before. The William Penn Honors Program (WPHP) hosted a lecture on microaggressions, and the politics department hosted a lecture on the freedom of speech. The lecturers from all three of these talks used similar examples, cited many of the same people, and even used identical quotes. This lack of diversity in opinion makes me wonder if GFU is suffering from a deficiency of tolerance.