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  • Peter Francis Fenwick

The Virtue of Tolerance

Tolerance is an important virtue in a modern liberal democracy. This has been highlighted by the current brouhaha about ultra-Orthodox Jewish men refusing to sit next to women on planes.

Formerly, many societies shared common cultural and religious beliefs. Nowadays most societies are pluralist. The political culture of such democratic societies is marked by a diversity of opposing and irreconcilable religious, philosophical and moral disciplines. It is important to realise and accept that such views can be reasonably held.

Consequently there is a need to embrace often conflicting values. You need to tolerate others' views even if you do not agree with them.

Moreover, you need to avoid inflicting your views on others. If you wish to change others' views it should be done by persuasion never by coercion. Tolerance is needed whenever there are situations where competing values clash.

As John Rawls explained, justice requires that "each person has an equal claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic rights and liberties".

A recent story in The New York Times told of a woman who was asked to give up her seat on a plane because the man seated next to her held religious views that prevented his sitting next to any woman other than his wife. She was offended by the request and declined. There has been considerable comment about this on social media, much of it short and vitriolic, but occasionally well-reasoned, even academic.

In essence, the conflict is between the man's right to have his religious views respected and the woman's right to be treated as an equal citizen.

In resolving this, it is important that neither party is coerced into a solution that they would not accept willingly. The airline staff should not force the man to sit next to the woman; they should not force the woman to move. Ideally, they need to find a third person willing to sit next to the woman freeing a suitable seat for the man. Preferably this should be done before everyone has boarded the aircraft. The man may need to be tolerant; he may need to accept an inferior seat in order to have his religious views accommodated.

The solution suggested most frequently on social media - that the man should avoid the problem by buying two seats - has just a hint of the intolerance that we need to avoid.

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