The Politics and Ethics of Toleration

Workshop Convenor: Johannes Drerup (WWU Münster/ Germany)

Toleration is widely considered as one of the core values of liberalism. In modern liberal societies, characterized by deep disagreements concerning the nature of the good and the just, toleration seems to be an indispensable democratic virtue. Contemporary debates on toleration and its boundaries cover an immense variety of philosophical issues ranging from controversies over freedom of expression, the legitimate role of religious symbols in educational institutions to the French burqa ban. This workshop aims to shed light on some of the conflicts and ambivalences that pervade the concept and practice of toleration by focussing on issues such as the following:

1) The concept of toleration is highly contested in contemporary political and ethical theory. This not only holds for different interpretations of the specific interplay of the central components of different conceptions of toleration (e.g. rejection component, acceptance component etc.), but also for the various ways these components are related to other important concepts (e.g. respect, recognition). Moreover, there is considerable disagreement concerning the existence of a core concept of toleration and concerning the conceptual basis for the resolution of the diverse paradoxes of toleration (e.g. the paradox of the tolerant racist).

– Are different conceptions of respect or recognition (in-)compatible with toleration? What kinds of prejudices are (in-)compatible with toleration?

– What is the role and what are the limits of conceptual analysis in understanding toleration as a hotly disputed political phenomenon? What is the relationship between philosophical reconstructions of the concept of toleration and empirical social research on attitudes and

– Does it make sense to attribute the concept of toleration in an analogous manner to individuals, to social institutions and to the state?

2) Although toleration is typically assigned a central place in the framework of values of liberal political theories, the appropriate normative foundation of justifications of liberal conceptions of toleration is still a matter of ongoing disputes. The search for a `tolerant´ theory of toleration is closely linked to the question how principles of toleration (e.g. the harm principle) relate to other important principles (e.g. equality, state neutrality) and under what  conditions toleration should count as a genuine liberal democratic virtue.

– Is there a specific connection between democracy, citizenship and toleration? Is toleration to be understood as a public virtue or rather as a personal virtue? To what extent should illiberal views be tolerated in liberal democracies (e.g. the controversy over `hate speech´ and blasphemy laws)? How are different conceptions of pluralism related to toleration? What should be the role of rationality and autonomy in conceptions of toleration?

– What is the value of toleration? Is it possible to justify toleration independently of a particular conception of the good? Is state neutrality compatible with toleration as a political ideal? What is the place of toleration in a liberal theory of justice?

– Is toleration to be regarded as a central educational aim that should be promoted in public schools? How is toleration related to other important educational aims, like personal autonomy, mutual respect or the celebration of diversity? How should liberal states deal with the claims of parents that do not share basic liberal values (e.g. debates about exemption clauses for members of religious groups)?

3) Critics of political ideals of toleration have pointed out, that political discourses of toleration are entangled with societal power struggles that regulate and produce individual and collective identities and thereby naturalize social hierarchies and conflicts. In light of these criticisms toleration not just refers to justificatory problems concerning the legitimate limits of political authority or to the peaceful resolution of conflicts that pervade pluralistic societies. On the contrary, toleration itself seems to play a significant role in the creation and perpetuation of precisely those political conflicts, it is meant to negotiate and resolve. This `Janus-faced´ structure of toleration challenges established standard views of principles of toleration in political and ethical theory and the evaluation of doctrines and practices of toleration in different societal domains (e.g. the educational system).

– What are the implications for the justification of toleration considering the claim that there is an element of hegemonic power inevitably inscribed into the way political debates on toleration function in Western societies? Is there some common ground between theoretical approaches that primarily focus on problems of the justification of toleration as a political ideal and such conceptions that above all emphasize the entanglement of political discourses of toleration with societal power structures?

– How could liberal conceptions of toleration deal with the critique of existing tolerance discourse put forward by Herbert Marcuse, Michel Foucault, Wendy Brown and others? How do different conceptions of toleration handle the problem of asymmetrical social relations (e.g. between majorities and minorities)?

– What role should `power conditions´ play in concepts of toleration?

Papers are welcome from graduate students and both early career as well as senior researchers, that address any of these and related issues. Please send you proposal (350-500 words) until May 31, 2015 to

Full papers (about 6000 words) are due two weeks before the workshop to be circulated among all participants. The publication of the papers in an edited collection is envisaged.

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