The Rights of Error and the Death of Tolerance

Well, George Lewis told the Englishman, the Italian and the Jew
“You can’t open your mind, boys
To every conceivable point of view”


Many years ago I was a guest on a national radio show to discuss one of my books. I forget which one, but I vividly remember an encounter I had with a listener who called the program. He was clearly upset that I was offering reasons for the sanctity of unborn human life, that I was explaining in some detail why I believe that the preborn human being has a personal nature and that abortion is unjustified homicide.

After some initial small talk, and my answering his question about human personhood, the caller asserted with obvious exasperation: “Dr. Beckwith, you’re just intolerant. You seem so sure that you are right, and that everybody else is wrong.” For someone like me, who moonlights as a philosophical comedian, this sort of assertion is almost too good to be true. It’s the type of clichéd, mindless platitude that has kept the book I wrote with Gregory P. Koukl, Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air, in print for fifteen years.

I answered the caller by asking this question, “Am I wrong in thinking this way?” It is an interrogative response that Greg and I have employed on numerous occasions and have shared with many an audience. The caller replied, “Yes.” I then said, “Then, you’re exactly like me. You think you’re right and I’m wrong. The difference is that I actually admit I believe something is true. You, on the other hand, believe something is true, but act as if you really don’t.”

He then tried to restate his accusation, but stumbled badly. He couldn’t find a way to say it without collapsing into self-contradiction. At this point, he confessed, “I can’t say what I want to say without sounding ridiculous.” I replied, “That’s because it is ridiculous.”

Notice that the caller completely ignored the substance of my case, though I was not surprised. Most people I encounter – even those who have earned graduate degrees from elite institutions – do not care much about arguments, despite the fact that they often claim to be champions of “reason” and enemies of “religious superstition.”

Of course, they also claim to defend “diversity” and “multiculturalism” while maintaining that justice demands that all institutions, private and public, look exactly alike in their ethnic and gender compositions as well as in their fundamental beliefs about human sexuality, knowledge, and the role of the state.

This is why the Catholic Church’s refusal to change its views on the male priesthood, marriage, the sanctity of life, contraception, and the commodification of reproduction is met with such hysterical invective rather than with a call to celebrate the distinctive contributions that Catholicism brings to our multicultural society.

Because the Church’s critics confuse cosmetology with anthropology, they wind up calling for forced conformity in diversity drag. What appears to many of us as a hostile demand for liberal hegemony, they claim is merely an invitation to revel in our pluralism.

My conversation with that critical caller is a microcosm of this incoherency. Most people with liberal sensibilities, like this caller, often call for “tolerance” without really appreciating what that entails in a liberal democracy such as ours. 

Tolerance, if it is a civic virtue, requires that we believe that those with whom we disagree are mistaken. For when a fellow citizen and I agree, we don’t tolerate each other. We agree. Yet, ironically, many in our society believe that judging another to be mistaken – whether on religious matters or issues involving the propriety of one’s sexual powers – is itself an act of intolerance.

Under this definition of tolerance, agreement, rather than disagreement, becomes a necessary condition for being tolerant. In that case, tolerance is turned on its head, and has become, paradoxically, intolerance. 

Many of my liberal friends, like the caller, often claim that we ought to be skeptical about the confidence we place in our own judgments on matters over which reasonable people disagree. But it is precisely on those issues that some of their friends are the most judgmental, unforgiving, and punitive. They seem, ironically, to emulate the very sort of closed-mindedness and dogmatism that they often attribute to what they pejoratively call “Christian fundamentalists.” While claiming to reject institutions and ways of life that exclude those who are different, they do not practice what they preach, and in fact make it a point to exclude those that do not toe the party line.

Tolerance cannot be endlessly elastic. Both liberals and conservatives agree on that point. But if on disputed questions, for which liberalism was invented to supply a modus vivendi, tolerance cannot be coherently applied, then we have arrived at a point at which liberalism has embraced what at one time it claimed to reject, “Error has no rights.” 

In that case, tolerance is dead. 


Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).