A black and white photo of the face of a statue of a woman
"Personification of Tolerance", a statue displayed in Lužánky. Part of a larger display honoring Joseph II that was dismantled by Czech nationalists following their independence, as it was considered a symbol of German culture.[1]

The paradox of tolerance states that if a society's practice of tolerance is inclusive of the intolerant, intolerance will ultimately dominate, eliminating the tolerant and the practice of tolerance with them. Karl Popper describes the paradox as arising from the self-contradictory idea that, in order to maintain a tolerant society, the society must retain the right to be intolerant of intolerance.[2]


Preston King describes tolerance as occurring when one objects to but voluntarily endures certain acts, ideas, organisations and identities.[3] This involves two components:

  1. An objection component, wherein an agent objects to an item. For instance, a follower of one faith may assert the beliefs of another faith are wrong. If this objection component is absent, the agent is not tolerant but simply indifferent.
  2. An acceptance component, which does not resolve the objection but instead offers positive reasons for overlooking it, e.g. social harmony. This acceptance must be voluntary — enduring an oppressive government, for example, is not an instance of tolerance because it is not voluntary, as the person enduring such a government has no choice but to accept this state of affairs.

Deciding whether to tolerate an item involves a balancing of reasons, for example when we weigh the reasons for rejecting an idea we find problematic against the benefit of accepting it in the name of social harmony, and it is in this balancing of reasons that the paradox of tolerance arises.[4] Most formulations of tolerance assert that tolerance is a reciprocal act, and the intolerant need not be tolerated. This necessitates drawing a limit between the tolerant and intolerant in every implementation of tolerance, which suggests that any act of tolerance requires an act of intolerance.[5]

Proposed solutions

Philosopher Rainer Forst resolves the contradiction in philosophical terms by outlining tolerance as a social norm and distinguishing between two notions of "intolerance": the denial of tolerance as a social norm, and the rejection of this denial.[4]

Other solutions to the paradox of intolerance frame it in more practical terms, a solution favored by philosophers such as Karl Popper. Popper underlines the importance of rational argument, drawing attention to the fact that many intolerant philosophies reject rational argument and thus prevent calls for tolerance from being received on equal terms:[2]

Less well known [than other paradoxes] is the paradox of tolerance: Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be most unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.

Popper also draws attention to the fact that intolerance is often asserted through the use of violence, drawing on a point re-iterated by philosophers such as John Rawls. In A Theory of Justice, Rawls asserts that a society must tolerate the intolerant in order to be a just society, but qualifies this assertion by stating that exceptional circumstances may call for society to exercise its right to self-preservation against acts of intolerance that threaten the liberty and security of the tolerant.[6] Such formulations address the inherent moral contradiction that arises from the assumption that the moral virtue of tolerance is at odds with the toleration of moral wrongs, which can be resolved by grounding toleration within limits defined by a higher moral order.[4]

Tolerance and freedom of speech

The paradox of tolerance is meaningful in the discussion of what, if any, boundaries are to be set on freedom of speech. In The Boundaries of Liberty and Tolerance: The Struggle Against Kahanism in Israel (1994), Raphael Cohen-Almagor asserts that to allow freedom of speech to those who would use it to eliminate the very principle upon which that freedom relies is paradoxical.[7] Michel Rosenfeld, in the Harvard Law Review in 1987, stated: "it seems contradictory to extend freedom of speech to extremists who ... if successful, ruthlessly suppress the speech of those with whom they disagree."[8] Rosenfeld contrasts the approach to hate speech between Western European democracies and the United States, pointing out that among Western European nations, extremely intolerant or fringe political materials (e.g. Holocaust denial) are characterized as inherently socially disruptive, and are subject to legal constraints on their circulation as such,[9] while the US has ruled that such materials are protected by the principle of freedom of speech and cannot be restricted, except when endorsements of violence or other illegal activities are made explicit.[10]

Criticism of violent intolerance as a response to intolerant speech is characteristic of discourse ethics as developed by Jürgen Habermas[11] and Karl-Otto Apel.[12]

Homophily and intolerance

A relationship between intolerance and homophily, a preference for interacting with those with similar traits, appears when a tolerant person's relationship with an intolerant member of an in-group is strained by the tolerant person's relationship with a member of an out-group that is the subject of this intolerance. An intolerant person would disapprove this person's positive relationship with a member of the out-group. If this view is generally supported by the social norms of the in-group, a tolerant person risks being ostracized because of their toleration. If they succumb to social pressure, they may be rewarded for adopting an intolerant attitude.[13]

This dilemma has been considered by Fernando Aguiar and Antonio Parravano in Tolerating the Intolerant: Homophily, Intolerance, and Segregation in Social Balanced Networks,[13] modeling a community of individuals whose relationships are governed by a modified form of the Heider balance theory.[14][15]


A photograph of Karl Popper
Karl Popper wrote on tolerance of intolerance in Vol. 1 of The Open Society and Its Enemies, published in 1945.

One of the earliest formulations of "paradox of tolerance" is given in the notes of Karl Popper's The Open Society and Its Enemies in 1945. Popper raises the paradox in the chapter notes regarding "The Principle of Leadership", connecting the paradox to his refutation of Plato's defense of "benevolent despotism". In the main text, Popper addresses Plato's similar "paradox of freedom": Plato points out the contradiction inherent in unchecked freedom, as it implies the freedom to act to limit the freedom of others. Plato argues that true democracy inevitably leads to tyranny, and suggests that the autocratic rule of an enlightened "philosopher-king" is preferable to the tyranny of majority rule.[16]

Popper rejects Plato's argument, in part because he argues that there are no readily available "enlightened philosopher-kings" prepared to adopt this role, and advocates for the institutions of liberal democracies as an alternative. In the corresponding chapter notes, Popper defines the paradox of tolerance and makes a similar argument. Of both tolerance and freedom, Popper argues for the necessity of limiting unchecked freedom and intolerance in order to prevent despotic rule rather than to embrace it.[2]

There are earlier examples of the discourse on tolerance and its limits. In 1801, Thomas Jefferson addressed the notion of a tolerant society in his first inaugural speech as President of the United States. Concerning those who might destabilize the United States and its unity, Jefferson stated: "let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it."[17]

A photograph of John Rawls
John Rawls argued for a view in A Theory of Justice in which, outside of exceptional circumstances, a just society must tolerate intolerance.

Philosopher John Rawls concludes differently in his 1971 tome A Theory of Justice, stating that a just society must tolerate the intolerant, for otherwise, the society would then itself be intolerant, and thus unjust. However, Rawls qualifies this assertion, conceding that under extraordinary circumstances, if constitutional safeguards do not suffice to ensure the security of the tolerant and the institutions of liberty, a tolerant society has a reasonable right to self-preservation to act against intolerance if it would limit the liberty of others under a just constitution. Rawls emphasizes that the liberties of the intolerant should be constrained only insofar as they demonstrably affect the liberties of others: "While an intolerant sect does not itself have title to complain of intolerance, its freedom should be restricted only when the tolerant sincerely and with reason believe that their own security and that of the institutions of liberty are in danger."[6][18]

In On Toleration (1997), Michael Walzer asked, "Should we tolerate the intolerant?" He claims that most minority religious groups who are the beneficiaries of tolerance are themselves intolerant, at least in some respects. In a tolerant regime, such (intolerant) people may learn to tolerate, or at least to behave "as if they possessed this virtue".[19]

See also


  1. ^ "WHAT IS BRNO? Statues in the City" (PDF). Go To Brno. TIC BRNO. 2019. Retrieved 10 December 2023.
  2. ^ a b c Popper, Karl (2012) [1945]. The Open Society and Its Enemies. Routledge. p. 581. ISBN 9781136700323.
  3. ^ King, Preston T. (1976). Toleration. Routledge. pp. 44–54. ISBN 9780714644141.
  4. ^ a b c Forst, Rainer (Fall 2017). Toleration. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University.
  5. ^ Fish, Stanley (1997). "Mission Impossible: Settling the Just Bounds between Church and State". Columbia Law Review. 97 (8): 2255–2333. doi:10.2307/1123373. ISSN 0010-1958. JSTOR 1123373.
  6. ^ a b Rawls, John (1971). A Theory of Justice. Harvard University Press. p. 220. ISBN 978-0-674-00078-0.
  7. ^ Cohen-Almagor, Raphael (1994). "Popper's Paradox of Tolerance and Its Modification". The Boundaries of Liberty and Tolerance: The Struggle Against Kahanism in Israel. University Press of Florida. p. 25. ISBN 9780813012582.
  8. ^ Rosenfeld, Michel (April 1987). "Review: Extremist Speech and the Paradox of Tolerance". Harvard Law Review. 100 (6): 1457–1481. doi:10.2307/1341168. JSTOR 1341168.
  9. ^ Lechtholz-Zey, Jacqueline: Laws Banning Holocaust Denial. Genocide Prevention Now. Retrieved October 4, 2020.
  10. ^ Kahn, Robert A. "Holocaust Denial". www.mtsu.edu. Retrieved 14 June 2020.
  11. ^ Habermas, Jürgen (1990). Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action. Polity Press. p. 106. The means of reaching agreement are repeatedly thrust aside by the instruments of force.
  12. ^ Apel, Karl-Otto (1996). Selected Essays: Ethics and the Theory of Rationality. Humanities Press International. pp. 210–211.
  13. ^ a b Aguiar, Fernando; Parravano, Antonio (2013). "Tolerating the Intolerant: Homophily, Intolerance, and Segregation in Social Balanced Networks". Journal of Conflict Resolution. doi:10.1177/0022002713498708. S2CID 146237656.
  14. ^ Heider, Fritz (1946). "Attitudes and Cognitive Organization". Journal of Psychology. 21: 107–112. doi:10.1080/00223980.1946.9917275. PMID 21010780.
  15. ^ Heider, Fritz (1958). The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations. New York: Psychology Press. ISBN 9780898592825.
  16. ^ Benjamin, Jowett (1991). Plato: The Republic. New York: Vintage Books. ISBN 0-679-73387-6.
  17. ^ "Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address, Chapter 4, Document 33". The Founders' Constitution. University of Chicago Press. 2001 [1801]. Reprint from: Richardson, James D., ed. (1896–1899). A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, 1789–1897. Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office.
  18. ^ Ding, John Zijiang (December 2014). "Introduction: Pluralistic and Multicultural Reexaminations of Tolerance/Toleration" (PDF). Journal of East-West Thought. 4 (4). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2022-04-25. Retrieved 2017-08-17.
  19. ^ Walzer, Michael (1997). On Toleration. New Haven: Yale University Press. pp. 80–81. ISBN 978-0-300-07600-4.

Further reading