Toleration and Liberal Commitments

43 Pages Posted: 25 Jun 2004

Date Written: Spring 2004


This essay defends the ideal of toleration as against familiar criticisms coming from opposing directions. The "illiberal" objection argues that toleration is too permissive. Given the choice, why should we knowingly put up with error? The "ultraliberal" objection, reflected among other places in current free speech and religion clause jurisprudence, complains that "mere" toleration is condescending and illiberal because it declines to treat ideas and persons with equal concern and respect. This essay argues that both sorts of objections are misconceived and that if the valued liberal commitments of the American constitutional tradition are to be maintained, then we will necessarily have to embrace an ideal of toleration. The essay further argues that a renewed commitment to toleration is especially imperative at the present time as we try to cope, internally, with an exhausted ultraliberal discourse reflected in increasingly ineffectual Supreme Court opinions and, externally, with a so-called "clash of civilizations" or cultures that calls upon us to defend our central values rather than complacently pretend to rest in an "overlapping consensus" that needs no more foundational justification.

Keywords: toleration, dissent, liberal

JEL Classification: K00

Suggested Citation

Smith, Steven Douglas, Toleration and Liberal Commitments (Spring 2004). U San Diego Public Law Research Paper No. 04-04. Available at SSRN: or

Steven Douglas Smith (Contact Author)

University of San Diego School of Law ( email )

5998 Alcala Park
San Diego, CA 92110-2492
United States
619-260-7969 (Phone)
619-260-2492 (Fax)

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