Tolerance does not (necessarily) equal approval

If you’re a certain type of nerd who follows a certain type of blog roll, you’re probably familiar with Scott Alexander’s writings on the Mott-and-Bailey fallacy. This is a close cousin to the classic fallacy of evocation, where the same word is used to mean different things during an argument. The fallacy of equivocation, in its most obvious form, looks something like this:

Tax is a headache. Tylenol relieves headaches. Therefore, Tylenol eliminates the tax.

Looking wrong? Of course you will. What we mean by “headache” when we use the word to describe taxes is not what we mean by the same word when we talk about the effects of painkillers, so obviously statements about painkillers do not apply to taxes. The Mott-and-Bailey fallacy, as Scott Alexander describes it, is more of a sneaky argumentative trick than a logical fallacy—he even suggests the less clunky term “strategic equation” to describe it. In his words:

So the Mott-and-Bailey doctrine is when you make a bold, controversial statement. Then when someone challenges you, you retreat to an obvious, debatable statement and say that’s what you’ve meant all your life, so you’re obviously right and they’re silly for challenging you. Then when the argument is over you go back to making bold, controversial statements.

I’ve noticed something of a Mott-and-Bailey thing going on over the last few years with the concept of tolerance. Tolerance is a virtue, we’re told, and being identified as an intolerant person in public means walking around with a scarlet letter “I” for the rest of your days. But what tolerance means, and what it requires, seems to be changing. Originally, tolerance was meant quite literally. To be tolerant of some, well, that was exactly it. It simply means you put up with it – you put up with it. You may dislike it, grumble about it, publicly deny it, and avoid it, but as long as you endure it, you have fulfilled your obligation of tolerance.

These days, however, the goalposts have changed. Tolerance is no longer simply a call to tolerate something. It now means something more like active approval and confirmation. if you rejection of X, or if not actively supporting and affirming X, then you now, intolerant X’s. But… that’s nonsense, isn’t it? Surely, we all know that something can be rejected but still tolerated, right? That’s where Mott-and-Bailey comes in. On the one hand it seems very common for people to claim “tolerance as positive acceptance”, but then insist that they are after “tolerance as tolerance” when pressed a bit.

Classical tolerance does not mean approval, it does not mean affirmation, it does not mean acceptance – it simply means tolerating something. Outlawing same-sex marriage is intolerant of same-sex marriage. Trying to ban the burqa is equally intolerant. But you can disapprove of same-sex marriage or the burqa and still tolerate it.

I believe in classical tolerance. Asserting your right to tolerance, however you define it, is also placing an obligation on others. Classic toleration, the kind of toleration originally meant, places an equitable obligation on others. It does not require their approval. In fact, I can vividly recall how those who emphasized tolerance over the last few decades made it clear that approval was not required or even desired. The attitude was, “It doesn’t matter whether you approve of me or not – your approval is not what I’m doing. Leave me free to live my life as I see fit, and to pursue happiness as I please, and you may stew about it to your heart’s content with disapproval, as much as I care.”

Tolerance as acceptance, however, is making too many demands on people. It says “It is not enough that you leave me to live in peace. You must approve of how I live. I have the right to demand that your personal thoughts, feelings, and beliefs be disposed of favorably toward me—if they are not, you have failed in your duty to me.” That’s extra. People don’t have the right to stop you from living the life you want, but they do have the right to be wrong. has


Kevin Corcoran is a Marine Corps veteran and a consultant in healthcare economics and analytics and holds a Bachelor of Science in Economics from George Mason University.

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