Are Tolerance and Forgiveness the Same?
It seems that tolerance is gaining ascendancy as a new, primary virtue. For Plato in The Republic, justice is the epitome of the virtues. Yet, in our society in which we do not wish to hurt the feelings of others, I wonder if tolerance trumps many of the virtues. If tolerance is gaining in popularity, perhaps it is time to ask the question: Are tolerance and forgiveness the same and if not how do they differ?
First let us examine the similarities between these two moral qualities. Both include patience as the person restrains from harshness toward someone who is annoying or unjust. Both include mercy at least in the sense of restraining oneself in the face of one’s own anger. Both respect the other as a person and so one’s own thoughts, beliefs, or actions are not imposed on the other or others.
Now to the differences between these two seemingly-similar terms.
First, when one tolerates another’s actions, he or she can do so at a distance. To tolerate is to “put up with” another’s behavior. I can tolerate a screaming child and not attend to him or her and not enter into that child’s life. To forgive is to make oneself available to the other, to try to enter into the other’s world through loving that person. Of course, this will not always happen if the other does not wish to reconcile, but I want you to see that forgiveness is far more than “putting up with” a person’s actions or the person him- or herself.
Second, to tolerate means to recognize and respect the rights of others. Because a right in this sense is never a wrong, tolerance cannot be forgiveness, which takes place in the face of another’s wrong.
Third, “to put up with” certain actions is not always moral. If you put up with a person’s compulsive gambling habit or drug addiction, you are hardly helping this person in a moral sense. So, there are aspects of tolerance that degenerate into immorality—an offense of omission or a failure to act when it is appropriate to do so. Forgiveness in its true sense is never immoral. Please see our post in Ask Dr. Forgiveness (March 28, 2012) on the issue of “false forgiveness” for more information on this.
Are tolerance and forgiveness the same? Although they share certain moral characteristics, there is a substantial difference between them.