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An Explainer on Tolerance

The UN declared 1996 as the year of Tolerance, and 16th November as the International Day for Tolerance. This day has since served as a necessary reminder and platform for promoting dialogue, understanding, and mutual respect among different cultures and communities, advocating for global peace and diversity.

What does Tolerance mean? 

The word Tolerance is derived from the verb ‘tolerare’ meaning ‘to endure’ or ‘to bear with.’


In keeping with this literal meaning, philosophers often interpreted Tolerance from the negative connotation of ‘putting up’ with something one disapproves or dislikes. For instance, I don't approve of your religious beliefs but I will ‘endure it’ in the larger interest of social harmony. 

Thankfully, over the years, Tolerance has gone through a more positive rebranding.

As Gandhi rightfully said:

"Each is right from his own point of view, but it is not impossible that everyone is wrong; hence the need for Tolerance. By cultivating in ourselves Tolerance of others’ views, we acquire a truer understanding of our own."  

Evolution of the concept of Tolerance

The concept of Tolerance has a long history; over the years, its meaning has evolved. The idea of Tolerance first emerged in the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries. The concept of Tolerance originally was a demand for tolerant behaviour aimed at the religious majority by the religious minorities. 

John Locke's timely publication of ‘A Letter Concerning Toleration’ in 1667 furthered this tenet, as it focused on achieving minimum social peace that could lead to peaceful coexistence. He also vouched for the separation of the church and the state, thus laying the groundwork for modern concepts of tolerance. 

The 20th century witnessed significant strides in human rights movements. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) by the United Nations underscored the importance of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, emphasising the need for tolerance and understanding among different cultures and beliefs.

And in 1971, John Rawls, in his work of political philosophy and ethics  ‘Theory of Justice’, presented Tolerance as equal respect for all beliefs. And aptly likened Tolerance to the duty of civility.

Understanding Tolerance from an Ethical Standpoint

Tolerance from an ethical perspective involves a fundamental commitment to respect and to accept others despite differences in beliefs, cultures, practices, and perspectives. Ethical tolerance goes beyond mere acknowledgment of diversity; it involves actively embracing and valuing that diversity. This also negates the ‘to endure’ manner of dealing with things that we discussed earlier. Hence, practising tolerance is not just a moral imperative but also a means of fostering a more just, inclusive, and peaceful society where individuals can thrive without fear of persecution or discrimination.

The concept of Tolerance has the following dimensions:

Permission: Since the edict of Nantes (1598), Tolerance implied permission for the minority to practise or profess their faith privately. But the only condition was that their practices did not lead to disturbing political or social consequences. In this conception of Tolerance, there was no element of reciprocity, but it was instead an uneasy peace between the majority and the minority.  

Neutrality: Tolerance as neutrality implies that the State should be neutral in matters of faith. It should refrain from interfering in affairs of religion and ensure all competing conceptions of the good life are allowed to flourish. Further, the State must not prescribe or prohibit any religious or moral practices, but should work toward establishing a neutral ground within which individuals can autonomously pursue their chosen ways of life. 

Respect for persons: Tolerance as respect means that individuals respect each other as autonomous and equal members of the community. People are respected, and their ideas and actions are tolerated.  

In ethical philosophy, tolerance is often explored within the framework of various ethical theories and principles that guide human behaviour and interactions. Here are some ways tolerance is viewed in ethical philosophy:

Utilitarianism: Utilitarian ethics emphasises the greatest good for the greatest number. Tolerance, within this framework, can be seen as a means to promote societal happiness and well-being by minimising conflicts arising from intolerance. Accepting diverse viewpoints and practices might lead to a more harmonious society, contributing to overall happiness.

Kantian Ethics: Immanuel Kant's ethical theory focuses on universal principles and duties. Tolerance, in this context, might be seen as a moral duty based on the principle of treating others as ends in themselves rather than as means to an end. It emphasises respecting the autonomy and dignity of individuals, regardless of differences.

Virtue Ethics: Virtue ethics highlights the development of moral character and virtues. Tolerance can be considered a virtuous trait, reflecting qualities such as empathy, compassion, open-mindedness, and fairness. 

An Indian Perspective

The notion of Tolerance has permeated the whole of India's religious, political and legal history. Indian thinkers have always been conscious of the multi-ethnic and multi-religious character of the Indian subcontinent. This is why they developed a philosophy of life and worldview informed by Tolerance and peaceful coexistence. 

Application of the idea of Tolerance

Many examples of applying this idea of Tolerance can be found in India's history. Emperor Ashoka's edicts required his subjects to respect all faiths and sects and established Dhamma as the ideology of his State. Similarly, Akbar was known for convening assemblies where representatives of every sect and religion could exchange ideas. 

Lawgivers Manu, Yajnavalkya, and Political Philosopher Kautilya promoted the value of Tolerance when they demanded the victorious king should focus on winning the hearts of the people they conquered and that they respect the conquered country's practices and customs. 


Jainism and Buddhism laid great stress on the ideas of Tolerance and non-violence, which is even reflected in their epistemological concepts of anekantavada (the validity of plurality of assertions) and syadvada (the doctrine of the perhaps). Similarly, the Bhakti movement's great bard Kabirdas denounced all manifestations of intolerance. 

Earmarked events on International Tolerance Day over the years

1995 - UNESCO's Declaration of Principles on Tolerance: This document laid the groundwork for promoting tolerance worldwide, emphasising on proactively raising awareness as a means to instil respect for diversity and human rights. The United Nations General Assembly proclaimed November 16th as the International Day for Tolerance. 

1996 - First Observance: The first International Day for Tolerance was observed worldwide. 

2005 - UNESCO's Initiatives: The UNESCO-Madanjeet Singh Prize was launched for the Promotion of Tolerance and Non-Violence. This prestigious award honours individuals, institutions, or organisations that significantly contribute to promoting tolerance and non-violence. It also launched the ‘Teaching Respect for All’ initiative, emphasising the significance of education in promoting tolerance, respect, and understanding among different cultures and societies.

2010 - Notable Speech: The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon delivered a statement from the United Nations headquarters in New York City, on the International Day for Tolerance. He emphasised the need for respect, dialogue, and reconciliation among different communities.

2016 - Social Media as a tool: The theme for the year’s International Day for Tolerance was ‘Social Media for Peace: A Digital Tool for Dialogue.’ This highlighted the role of digital platforms in fostering tolerance, understanding, and dialogue. Events were organised across the globe that brought together people from diverse backgrounds to engage in dialogue and promote mutual understanding, especially in the face of rising discrimination, racism, and intolerance against religious, cultural, and ethnic groups.

2020 - Misinformation during the Pandemic: Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the day's focus was on countering the spread of hate speech, misinformation, and stigma against certain communities affected by the virus.

2022 - Continued Advocacy: Numerous NGOs, educational institutions, and governmental bodies continued to actively address current issues, such as discrimination, xenophobia, and racism, in light of the global socio-political climate.


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