Is Racial Tolerance the Best We Can Do? [Good Life series]

Racist attitudes are a holdover from primitive times. There is still plenty of racism, but we have made progress in some parts of the world, as this Washington Post graphic of most and least racist nations shows.

In much of Europe, North and South America, Australia and New Zealand, and a few other places, racism has retreated significantly. One hypothesis is that the least-racist cultures are those most influenced by the European Enlightenment of the 1700s. That was when, for the first time in history, individualist ideas successfully overturned the ingrained collectivisms that taught people to sort themselves and others primarily into groups based on sex, class, ethnicity, religion, and race.

But even within the most progressive nations, there are unpleasant signs.

In Europe, the cradle of Western civilization, the resurgence of neo-Nazism in Europe is discouraging.

The same is true, in the United States, of the instantly-polarized debates over the significance of race in the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner.

And even when growing up in nice, tolerant Canada, I recall seeing “Paki-stomper” t-shirts worn casually on the streets of Toronto after a wave of immigration brought a number of Pakistanis to Ontario. I also remember a conversation with a bus driver in Quebec City who opined at length that perhaps it was okay if a few blacks and Japanese came to Canada — but that he was uncomfortable with their staying and “breeding” in large numbers.

It’s sometimes tempting to note, consolingly, that sometimes cultures change slowly. Group-based thinking was part of every culture around the world for tens of thousands of years, so perhaps only slow progress can be expected in the few centuries since the Enlightenment.

Or it is tempting to give credence to the evolutionary-psychology hypothesis that group-based thinking is now hard-wired into humans, so it will take a difficult and constant process of education to unlearn and overcome that hard-wiring.

Or it’s tempting to note that we live in an immigrant-friendly part of the world, and each generation brings into our mix many people with old-fashioned attitudes from less-civilized parts of the world. So, again, perhaps only a slow process of cultural education can be expected.

Even so, I’m impatient. How can we speed up the civilizing process?

Sometimes we are told that we need to teach and learn tolerance. But here we need to be especially careful about language, because the solution is not racial tolerance.

This is a point I first heard from philosopher David Kelley. Tolerance is the practice of “allowing or permitting a thing of which one disapproves.” It requires that one “bear or endure” something that one believes to be wrong. But should we think that there is something wrong with different skin hues? Are race differences something to be disapproved of — but put up with in the name of civility? Of course not.

Tolerance properly applies to differences that have normative significance and that are matters of choice. Take religion as an example. Individuals make difference choices about religion, and all religions embody beliefs and practices with moral and political significance — about money, sex, power, and the meaning of life. But a crucial feature of religion is that each individual must make his or her own choices. That means in social contexts that we must respect each person’s right to make his or her own choices — and that means putting up with the unpleasant fact that others will make disagreeable choices. That is tolerance.

None of that is true of race. The amount of pigment in one’s skin is not a matter of choice. And being more or less brown, white, black, red, or yellow is not something that is morally or politically significant.

Suppose, analogically, that instead of skin color we focus on hair color. Hair colors naturally range from red to blonde to brown to black. We can of course divide people into hair-color groups, but it would be ridiculous to say that we have to tolerate redheads or blondes. Or that we put up with green- or hazel-eyed people. Or that we have to learn to bear and endure the fact that some people are taller or shorter. Tolerance is the wrong concept in all of these cases.

We might have aesthetic preferences about hair colors and skin tones, just as we have color preferences about clothes and home decor. And there may or may not be medically relevant factors for which race is a vector (physician Keith Norris here summarizes our current state of knowledge).

But tolerance is the wrong concept because there is no reason to think that race is relevant to ethics or politics.

Ethics is about values, character, actions, and habits. What should my major goals in life be — the pursuit of happiness, love, wealth, beauty, adventure, and so on? What virtues of character — integrity, honesty, courage, and so on — should I strive to embody? What particular actions should I take to achieve my goals? And what habits of thought, feeling, and action should I make automatic?

The point about ethics is that skin color is irrelevant. Anyone of any skin color can become noble or a rotter. However one tries to group people as yellow, white, black, or red, there are plenty of examples in each group of lazy, hypocritical, cowardly, and outright evil individuals, as well as many exemplars of dignity, courage, and accomplishment. There is also no evidence that the top values of friendship, health, or success are more or less important to individuals depending upon their skin hue.

Nor is race a politically-relevant trait. Politics is properly about defining and protecting the social space within which individuals will pursue their own conceptions of the good life. Individuals are and should be treated as self-responsible agents with life, liberty, and property rights. Those rights do not vary with skin tone, or sex, or height, or weight — or even intelligence. Einstein might have been twice as smart as I am, but he doesn’t thereby get twice as many rights as I do. Whatever the distribution of intelligence is however individuals are categorized is politically irrelevant: every individual needs to govern his or her own life and be able to act freely according to his or her best judgment.

So let us set our sights higher than racial tolerance. In a world where some people have negative attitudes about race, a first step might be to encourage them to stifle and not act on those attitudes. But we also know that billions of individuals have already learned the not-too-difficult lesson that what really matters is individual character and respect for individual rights. So it’s not too much to expect that primitivism about race will continue to decline as we continue to advance civilization.

[This article was originally published in English at and in Portuguese at]

One thought on “Is Racial Tolerance the Best We Can Do? [Good Life series]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *