Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


How Tolerant Should We Be?

Is it good to endure difficulties, excuse bad behaviors, or honor differences?

Key points

  • Tolerance is complicated, making it an imperfect virtue.
  • One can tolerate too much and also be intolerant, making it difficult to know what the right time and place is for tolerance.
  • Knowing when and how to use tolerance can be beneficial for individuals and society.
Marcy L. Paul, used with permission
Source: Marcy L. Paul, used with permission

Lately, I have been thinking about how long people will accept the behavior of others before becoming angry or disappointed enough to say something. When do we draw the line between accepting different behaviors versus calling them out as harmful? How do we reconcile allowing freedom of expression before stepping in to stop biased and hateful words and behaviors? We often cite tolerance as the reason we let certain behaviors go without calling them out as unacceptable. But the lines we draw change, from person to person and place to place. They even change over time. For example, words that were acceptable 50 years ago are insulting and socially disapproved of today. With so little clarity, what should we do with tolerance in our lives?

Tolerance is complicated

This push-and-pull makes tolerance complicated. Tolerance is seen as a behavior, a virtue, a belief, and even a theory of intergroup relations. As a behavior, tolerance can be seen in different ways. We can be tolerant, which suggests acceptance and being okay with the behaviors of others even if we don’t entirely agree. I may not like your political views, but I am not offended so I can agree to disagree with you. I can tolerate a situation, which suggests withstanding adverse conditions while thinking the behaviors of others is unacceptable. For example, I worked for a boss who was mean and a bully. I hated the behaviors, but I needed the job. I had to tolerate a bad situation.

Scholars caution us to differentiate between indifference and tolerance.1 Tolerance in the form of avoiding any disagreement, and thus hiding or ignoring what we really believe may seem polite or being neutral, but being quiet typically leads to the louder point of view gaining dominance and stifling alternative ideas. We should also take care not to become so tolerant that we become blind to bad behaviors, as in a parent ignoring destructive behavior because of their love for their child. They choose not to appear angry or disapproving, but the cost might be teaching behaviors that are not helpful for the child. On the other hand, we should embrace tolerance, as when that same parent might hold back from intervening so that the child can learn how best to navigate socially with moral teaching coming through possible consequences of their interactions with others.2

We can have too much tolerance

We can even be accused of being too tolerant. For example, we might excuse or ignore behaviors that we think are inappropriate, such as a colleague making an off-color comment or joke because we don’t want to disrupt our working relationship. Or, we can show tolerance when we think things like “boys will be boys” and do not take issue with sexist behaviors. These are times that we might think we are being cooperative by not harping on others’ behaviors, but these also might be times that we are quietly encouraging bad behavior and risking ignoring or implicitly supporting harm to others. We might use the phrase “agreeing to disagree” when we tolerate conflicting opinions rather than call people out on prejudiced or biased thinking. In these situations, we can have too much tolerance.

We can suffer from tolerance

We can also experience tolerance as a painful response to horrible conditions. When we tolerate things, we show the ability to put up with unfavorable conditions or suffer through something even if it bothers us. We even use the term to describe a biological state, such as being able to tolerate medication without a bad reaction or when we show strength by putting up with adverse effects.

Choose your tolerance carefully

We can be tolerant, and we can tolerate a lot of things. The key is recognizing when those options are good for us and when they are not. Being tolerant of others implies that you have a choice and some power to ignore or to not be affected adversely yourself. However, when we have to put up with unpleasant circumstances and thus tolerate a bad situation, we do not have as much choice, such as in the example of needing to keep a job under terrible work conditions.

With so much variability, we might see tolerance as a “flawed virtue” because at times we ignore things we should not ignore, letting bad behaviors go unchecked, while at other times tolerance has great value. In the larger society, tolerance can have the power of supporting peaceful coexistence.3 We can look past differences to get along. With such a dichotomy, our tolerance could use some guidelines.

Questions to guide us

Consider that each situation may call for differences in our ability to be tolerant. We might consider the following concerns:

  • Is my tolerance helpful, allowing the other person to learn about the consequences of their behaviors without harm?
  • Is my tolerance patient, allowing someone to find their own way and not control them?
  • Is my tolerance harmful because I am ignoring bad behaviors that are hurtful to others?
  • Is my tolerance a necessity for my survival, but not a situation that is healthy for me, meaning that I may need to make changes or other choices?

These are important questions to ask the next time we find ourselves in a situation calling for tolerance. By being aware of the complexity of tolerance, we are more likely to not ignore harmful behaviors and instead use tolerance to improve situations for ourselves and others.


1. Van Fossen, M. Burns, J.P., Lickona, T. & Schatz, L. (2022). Teaching virtue virtually: Can the virtue of tolerance of diversity of conscience be taught online? Journal of Moral Education, Volume 51, No. 4, pp. 535-553.

2. Dijker, A.J.M. (2015). Tolerance: An elusive but fundamental aspect of sociality. In D.A. Schroeder & W. G. Graziano, Eds. The Oxford handbook of prosocial behavior, pp. 582-605.

3. van Doorn, M. (2014). The nature of tolerance and the social circumstances in which it emerges. Current Sociology, Volume 62, issue 6, pp. 905-27.

More from Elizabeth A. Segal, Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Elizabeth A. Segal, Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today