Posted by: dacalu | 30 May 2012

Toleration v. Compassion

I’ve been thinking about this one for a while and am still not entirely sure how to express myself properly.  I’d love to hear comments.

In American culture, I fear we’ve fallen into the trap of confusing two very different virtues.  Don’t get me wrong, they are both virtues, but have different places in life.  One is toleration, which I will call a civic virtue.  Tolerance instructs us to “live and let live” accepting, even promoting the liberty of others so long as it does not infringe on anyone else’s liberty.  A second is compassion, which I will call a religious virtue.  Christians call it agape and caritas;  Buddhists call it metta and karuna;  I use compassion because “love” has so many meanings in modern English.  Compassion calls us to care for others for their own sake, to be curious, reach out, help, and cultivate relationships.

I believe that both are necessary parts of a good life and that they fit well together in practice.  I also believe that compassion is – and must be – the source and end of toleration for Christians.  Let me explain.

Modern toleration fosters the creation of space between individuals.  Thomas Hobbes argued that each of us wants complete freedom to behave however we want, but is willing to give up taking advantage of the weak, so that we may not be taken advantage of by the strong.  He calls this idea the “social contract.”  Our liberty extends as far as possible – that is to where it runs into the liberty of another.  Hobbesian toleration can be summed up in the phrase “good fences make good neighbors,” because it actively discourages harmony in favor of independence.

When looking at the American Revolution, many remember this line from the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”  This seems to indicate intrinsic value, but that concept is rather tempered by the next line: “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”  The founders appealed to God for the revelation and institution of individual rights, but it was clear they considered the social contract to be the justification and necessary defender of them.

An ideal persisted from the late Middle Ages that kings and priests had a particular moral authority.  They were not only morally permitted, but morally obligated to impose their superior judgment on the general populace.  Individuals, it was thought, were inherently corrupt (subject to original sin, totally depraved) and required the assistance of those who were spiritually empowered (consecrated) to care for the whole of the community and make right choices.

The Reformation did not raise people’s opinions of human decision making; rather it shifted superior authority from priests to the Bible (for Protestants) and up the chain of command to the Pope (for Catholics).  Curiously the loss of authority meant an increase in authority for secular leaders.  In Protestant countries, the princes defended the Bible, while in Catholic countries, they defended the Pope.  Not until the Enlightenment, did we start to have a higher view of our own reason.

After 200 years of religious war, the people doubted that princes (even the Pope) could reliably provide moral guidance.  Let us be clear: they didn’t start trusting individuals; they stopped trusting institutions.  They didn’t start believing in individual selflessness, they recognized the profound difficulties in civil authorities enforcing morality.  They recognized the importance of moral exemplars and exhortation, so long as it was not enforced by temporal authorities.  Conscience should be directed by the wise but free from coercion.

There resulted three major arguments for toleration (including human rights, civil liberties, and separation of church and state).

A) The selection argument:

American freedom is meant to create a level playing field where the strongest, smartest, and most moral will rise to the top through evolutionary pressures.  I’m not buying this, though I find it tremendously popular among modern Christians.  It’s most visible element uses terms like free enterprise and productivity.

B) The communication argument:

The neutral medium allows each of us to express our true (good) selves without suppression.  As curiosity about facts precedes knowledge, so curiosity about people precedes compassion.  Free speech, free media, etc. ensure that we can know people well enough to love them as they are, rather than simply pretend they are who we would have them be.

C) The relativism argument:

No action or opinion is inherently bad.  It’s just a matter of personal preference.  The government doesn’t get involved, because there simply is no such thing as good.  Morality means nothing more than enforcement by some authority.  Conflict can be minimized by keeping people out of each others’ business.

Three different arguments for the same policy of liberty. Toleration so selfishness can lead to progress.  Toleration as a ground for compassion.  Toleration for the sake of peace and calm.

Part of the American confusion comes from our agreement about policy, largely expressed in the Bill of Rights.  This agreement gives us false confidence that we agree about the underlying arguments.  I’ve seen examples of all three camps anachronistically reading their thoughts back into the minds of the founding fathers.  Most of us think along radically different lines.  Part of the job of the Supreme Court is to find the best arguments for understanding the original intent, the modern understanding, AND the proper application of the constitutional law when the language of agreed policy does not cover a new case.

For example, freedom of religion could mean (A) that each of us should be allowed the fullest extent of religious freedom unless and until it actively prohibits religious freedom in others or (B) that each of us should be free from the presumption that we are of a particular religion or (C) that each of us should be free to completely avoid religion of any sort.

In short, toleration is a practice, which may be motivated by competition, compassion, apathy, libertarianism, socialism, egalitarianism, or a host of other values.  For me, it is not a good in and of itself, but an instrumental good.

I want compassion, but know the limitations of trying to impose it.  Thus, to protect myself, others, and our hope of loving one another more fully, I support a government that does not legislate compassion.  (It may legislate compassionately, but that’s another blog.)  Andrew Shepherd in The American President said it best:

‘America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say “You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can’t just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the “land of the free”.’

I tolerate the hateful speech of others SO THAT I may hear the love-filled speech of the wise.  I ask for liberty SO THAT I may listen and choose and advocate.  It is not enough to be politically correct.  It is not enough to not impose our will on others.  We must also be zealous for truth and compassion.  We must prove, day to day that the ideas we are free to share are worth sharing.  We must pay attention to one another and yes share our own fear, anger, and sadness at the words of others.  We must match their honesty with our own.  Because I believe, truly and deeply, that the majority of this country seeks wisdom.  I believe that the most egregious and hurtful of people have within them a spark of goodness that will respond to the goodness we share with them.

So don’t tell me I’m not allowed to disagree, disapprove, or be disappointed.  Just as I hope you will share those will me.  Toleration means that we do not compel agreement.  Compassion means we will honestly disagree.

For my part, I am not smart enough, educated enough, wise enough, or patient enough to come to the right opinions on my own.  I need your help.  I need your honesty.  And I need your compassionate correction when you think I’ve gone wrong.  So I will continue to share my opinion passionately and compassionately.  I will continue to argue for things (like Christianity, limited socialism, universal health care, …) and against things (like abortion, fundamentalism, and new atheism) WHILE I defend ardently your freedom to disagree.

Still, I hope you will not mistake my intent.  This freedom to speak your mind is, by itself, an evil thing.  The freedom to ignore others; the freedom to own anything; the freedom to take liberties with nature and property unless and until stopped by the claims of another citizen – those are selfishness and pride, nothing more.  Toleration alone is not a good thing.  It’s a tool – an excellent and wonderful tool – in a society of people striving for the good of themselves and the world.

We are a nation build on communication, a republic made up of congresses and conventions, a people who talk to one another.  To preserve our liberties without our commonalities does nothing to preserve the founders intent, or to preserve us as a Christian nation.  It should not be difficult to see that I fall in camp B above: toleration for the sake of communication.  And for that reason, I will continue to advocate for civil liberties in the light of compassion.

I even hope you’ll come around to my side. (The right, true and proper side.  grin.)



  1. I am enjoying reading your view point on such issues as “tolerance” and “Compassion”. I appreciate the ways you clarify the differences in the two.

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