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Tolerance and Ethics

by Robert E. Cranston, MD, MA (Ethics)

At the 2017 CMDA National Convention, physician, biochemist and apologist Dr. John Patrick told us a story from when he taught in a university setting. In order to winnow the number of students he was responsible for down to a manageable number, he would often open his first lecture by declaring—tongue in cheek—that they should know he was “a very intolerant person.” This typically sparked immediate pushback, but it also began an ongoing dialogue throughout the semester as to what true tolerance meant. They talked about how, as thinking persons and without respect to the suppositions of Christianity or any other religion, no one should or can be completely tolerant. Why not? What does tolerance really mean?
 
Dictionary.com defines tolerance as “a fair, objective and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, beliefs, practices, racial or ethnic origins, etc., differ from one’s own; freedom from bigotry.” It then goes on, less than helpfully, to state that bigotry is characterized by the absence of tolerance.
 
In evaluating the professional characteristics physicians should be recognized for, a new medical school included “tolerance,” which it elaborated in part as being evidenced by behavior which “actively listen(s) to others’ points of view and handles disagreements with professionalism and with discretion…demonstrates ability to accept people and situations.”
 
On further reflection, it was recognized in a statement on professionalism that it wasn’t helpful to define a term by itself, so in subsequent drafts “handles disagreements with professionalism” was changed to “manages disagreements with tact and respect,” a great improvement, I think. That still leaves the question as to whether we unqualifiedly should “demonstrate ability to accept people and situations.”
 
The ethics committee at our hospital is populated with philosophers, physicians, nurses, chaplains, social workers, community representatives and resident physicians. In a recent ethics committee I was chairing, we somehow drifted into a question of deeply held personal beliefs. One articulate, though occasionally impulsive, MD/PhD blurted out, “Well, of course, there are no moral absolutes!” At which point a number of us burst out laughing with him. I quickly added, “Except, of course, the statement which you just made!” To his credit, he immediately acquiesced, but said, “Well, there are a lot of deeply held beliefs that we don’t all agree on.” Ah, that’s the crux of it.
 
Our definition of tolerance above notes that this “fair, objective and permissive attitude is directed toward those (people)” with whom we disagree. It doesn’t mean that all ideas hold the same intellectual or moral merit. Not all ideas are of equal worth. There are some bad ideas. Our job is to treat those with bad ideas lovingly, in the manner in which we would wish to be treated.
 
Ravi Zacharias, well-known apologist and founder of Let My People Think, often reminds listeners that people, with very few exceptions, are not argued into the kingdom of God. Nonetheless, we must always be ready to have answers to questions of doubters and skeptics. We must have a firm grasp of what Scripture tells us real truth is and be able to winsomely explain what those truths are.
 
Additionally, for our arguments to carry any heft in the public arena, we must be able to defend those truths with historical precedent, tact and logic. Like Paul in Athens at the Areopagus, we need to be able to engage our listeners in terms they will understand and find convincing. While we root our worldview deeply in Scripture, we will be excluded from the debate if Scripture is all we bring. The unbeliever’s eyes are veiled in regard to Scripture, and like Jesus speaking with the Samaritan woman at the well, we must begin where our listeners are. Only then will our intolerance of evil deeds gain a hearing.
 
Finally, while we hate evil deeds and sinful ideas, we must always, like Paul and like Christ, love those to whom we are sent. We are to be intolerant of evil, but loving to all. Christ came to save sinners, and He commands us to love those He came to save.

P.S. Additionally, “discrimination” (a defined, objective term) has morphed into “prejudice” in common parlance—a grave misunderstanding, but a discussion for another day.

Related Resources

The Erosion of Tolerance

Counter Culture

Standing Against Persecution: My Journey to Start a CMDA Campus Chapter


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