Among the issues most commonly discussed are individuality, the rights of the individual, the limits of legitimate government, morality, history, economics, government policy, science, business, education, health care, energy, and man-made global warming evaluations. My posts are aimed at thinking, intelligent individuals, whose comments are very welcome.

The Virtues of Benevolence and Tolerance

In the context of the times and the society in which I live, benevolence and tolerance are important and intertwined virtues. In a different society and in a different time, these virtues would be less important and might, if broadly applied, insure my death and that of those I love. In other words, in a violent and capricious society, they might simply constitute an unwise trust in unknown people and in unknown ideas. However, in America today and in a number of other areas of today's world, to adopt a malevolent view of others and to be intolerant of new and differing ideas, is to cut oneself off from the benefits of trade and friendships with others and will isolate oneself from knowledge to be gained by examining their ideas with fairness and thoroughness.

To the extent that others, though personally unknown or little known to us, might reasonably be assessed as likely to be able to deliver values to us in the context of our time and our society, the rational man will approach such strangers with an assumption that their persons are of value as an enhancement to our own lives. This means that we have a benevolent assessment of our fellow man preceding our opportunity to evaluate them morally upon getting to know them. Without such a benevolent approach, it will in fact be much more difficult to get to know them, since they will reasonably be loath to entertain our company and unwilling to confide their thoughts to us. A benevolent approach to others is often a necessary prelude to our being able to make a rational assessment of someone previously unknown to us. If we are to benefit from the existence of this person, whether through commercial trade, an exchange or simply a gleaning of their knowledge and experiences, or the development of a great friendship, we must take the risk of first assuming the likelihood that we will find some value in them. It would not be reasonable to invest our time in getting to know another, if we thought before we knew them that we would find no value in them.

The result of getting to know someone might be that we evaluate them as not a particularly rational person, but we might still have gained something of reasonable value for our effort. We might have learned something new that we would have been unlikely to have learned otherwise. But having learned this, we realize it is time to move on and invest any future time into getting to know someone else who may provide us with still more value. We might realize that we have encountered a monster and devote some effort to thwarting their monstrous activities. On the other hand, we might find the love of our lives or develop a wonderful, lifelong friendship. Benevolence does not substitute for a rational judgment of others. It precedes that assessment and enables it.

Toleration is a parallel to benevolence. As benevolence is to the unexamined person, so is tolerance to the unexamined idea. This concept is a bit more abstract and it is therefore a bit more difficult to grasp. Furthermore, as I have earlier noted in other essays, English dictionary definitions are inadequate and sometimes even self-contradictory for this word. Whereas benevolence enables us to know and evaluate other people and makes it possible for us to ultimately enjoy values created by other people, toleration enables us to know and evaluate the ideas of others and makes it ultimately possible for us to find such values as those ideas may have. Just as we ultimately assess the value of the people we encounter and invest the time to get to know, we also evaluate the ideas we encounter upon taking the time to understand and critically assess them. We will encounter many good ideas and many bad ideas. Toleration does not in any way require us to be kind to an evil or reality-denying idea. Toleration does depend upon an overall assessment that ideas are important, that many other people have spent a great deal of time and effort developing ideas, that some of the ideas they have developed are either right or will teach us that this line of thought leads to a dead end, and that examining the ideas of others will allow us to understand more than if we tried to develop every thought entirely on our own.

Toleration is the attitude that there is great value in the ideas developed by others and that to realize this value we should invest a considerable effort into rationally examining the ideas of others and fairly assessing their value.

Tolerance is a virtue since we recognize that ideas are important, that valuable resources are required for their development, that many valuable ideas have been developed by others, and that a thorough understanding of our reality is not realistic in our own finite lifetime without reference to the many valuable ideas that others have developed. Tolerance offers us a path to gather up such valuable thoughts as others have had. Of course, randomly adopting other people's ideas would be foolish. Many irrational ideas have been developed, but without tolerance we will never be able to rationally identity the good ideas and differentiate them from the bad ideas. Without toleration, even the greatest genius will encounter many a brick wall he can only batter his head against, though someone else has climbed over it, burrowed under it, or outflanked it.

Toleration does not require us to accept the validity of bad ideas. It does not require us to refrain from a constructive criticism of an idea found wanting. It does not necessitate backing down from evil. It simply enables a rational assessment of ideas. Many people who read the works of Ayn Rand, whose ideas are developments along directions substantially set by Aristotle and Enlightenment thinkers in many cases, and are yet very different from most of the ideas accepted by scholars at many of our traditionally accepted best universities, had to initially approach her ideas with a healthy sense of toleration. Having done so, they became convinced that Objectivism was the philosophy they should adopt and that they should invest much of their future efforts to further develop it. Some Objectivists thought they were Christians when they first encountered her works. Some were at least moderate socialists. Many had simply never thought much about some aspect or other of philosophy. They may not have thought about concept formation, about the mind-body dichotomy, about what their ultimate value was, or about the moral basis of Capitalism. But they had enough toleration for new ideas to read her work and to evaluate it. They may have learned a great deal in the process about how to evaluate an idea. Before they adopted many or almost all of her ideas, they most likely thought that ideas were important and that they might learn something by fairly examining the ideas of Ayn Rand. Of course, if they simply adopted her ideas without critically examining them in light of their own experiences in the world and using their best effort to evaluate them rationally, they are simply dogmatists and they are not really Objectivists.

Because benevolence allows us to maximize the benefits of interactions with other good people and because most of the value of people is the result of their having good ideas, benevolence and toleration are closely tied together. If the society one lives in is good enough that benevolence is a major virtue, then it is good enough that tolerance is a major virtue. Each attains its status as a major virtue because approaching people and ideas with such a principled attitude enables one to acquire the greatest value from others and from their ideas. Neither should be held as virtue simply as wishful thinking. How great a virtue each is is dependent upon how good the people around us are and how good their ideas are.

But, if we did live in a world in which few people were of value to us and in which few of their ideas were of value, then we probably should become hermits. In America today, that would be a very sad choice, because many people, while not at all perfect, do offer us a very great value by virtue of how they live their lives and by virtue of the ideas they develop and contribute to us with little more effort on our part but that we examine them carefully. In historical terms, we live in a wonderful time with many good people and a proliferation of ideas, many of which have and continue to greatly enhance our understanding of our universe. This is not the time to be stingy with benevolence and toleration!


This is a minor edit of a post first posted on 24 February 2006.