Lesson 3.5

Respect vs Tolerance

Dive into this topic by watching the video, followed by key explanations and exercises below.


Key Concepts:


One of the keys to exercising intellectual humility in our lives—that is, discerning when and when not to change our minds, and having the strength to do so—is having respect for other viewpoints. Being open to ideas that seem foreign to us is incredibly important for innovation, and for progress in society.

But what happens when someone else’s viewpoint is morally abhorrent?

As we discussed in Lessons 2.2 and 2.3 (see also: The Black Square chapter of Dream Teams), even bad ideas can lead us to good ideas—and often, things that look crazy or far out end up helping us make incredible breakthroughs in business and in life. So it’s important for us to be curious enough to explore viewpoints we don’t initially “get,” if we want to maximize our chances of making progress on whatever we’re working on.

And yet, sometimes that someone else is an evil dictator and his viewpoint is “we should kill all people who look like XYZ.”

What then?

Does having intellectual humility mean we need to tolerate this viewpoint?

Or what about less evil, but nonetheless unsettling viewpoints? Like, the belief that we should abolish the law that you have to clean up after your German Shepherd when it poops on the public sidewalk?

Does being tolerant mean you need to accept that viewpoint?

This question has repercussions in both business and real life, and it explains the dilemma many well meaning, open-minded people have when they encounter, say, people who don’t have intellectual humility.

The answer lies in our conflation of two similar, but different things. That is, the difference between respect and tolerance.

  • Respect is being willing to hear people out before we cast judgment. It’s seeking to understand people, not interrupting them first. It’s allowing them to believe what they believe, even if we disagree. It is not, however, allowing them to behave any way they want—say, if that involves doing harm to someone else.

  • Tolerance is allowing people to say, do, and be what they want. In most cases, this is a morally good thing. But tolerance is not morally good in all cases (e.g. Hitler). In fact, tolerance taken to its extreme means tolerating intolerance, which is self-contradictory.

Philosopher Karl Popper described this paradox of tolerance in 1945. He eventually concluded that "in order to maintain a tolerant society, the society must be intolerant of intolerance."

This is perhaps easiest understood by the following comic, which shows the spectrum between Intolerance, Tolerance, and Tolerance of Intolerance:


Having respect for human beings, no matter who they are or what they believe, is important for intellectual humility. And it’s good for innovation, as understanding bad ideas can help us develop good ones. As we’ve discussed in previous lessons, IH is about seeking to understand people and hear them out before we cast judgment.

But we shouldn’t tolerate intolerant behavior. That itself is disrespectful. It’s, by definition, cutting off other viewpoints.

We can, however, still treat seemingly intolerant people with respect—to the degree that we can listen to them before we judge them. And we can give them fair hearings when their intolerance harms other people.

By seeking to understand even intolerant viewpoints, we can do the right thing and prevent intolerant views from becoming intolerant action (i.e. evil)—and we can do it without selling out our humanity.

P.S. On the dog poop sidewalk question: I think that’s not a question of tolerance so much as negative externalities that affect society in a bad way. But I’m willing to hear out arguments in favor of not curbing your dog, before I vote against it! ;)