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Duck Dynasty and the Difference between Rights and Tolerance

Many conservatives and “liberals” are deeply confused about the meaning of rights and tolerance, as recent controversies—including the one over Duck Dynasty—make clear. So now is a good time to clarify and distinguish these ideas.

What Are Rights?

A “right” is a moral principle defining an individual’s proper “freedom of action in a social context”; it is not a claim to the property or effort of others. You have a moral right to act on your own judgment, to produce and trade, to keep the product of your effort, to use your property as you see fit—so long as you do not violate the rights of others by using force, fraud, or the like against them.

For example, a cake baker has a moral right to refuse to bake a cake for a gay wedding—even if he does so for bad reasons. A cable television network has a moral right to fire whomever it wants—whether it has good or bad reasons for doing so. A&E has a right to suspend Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson over his irrational and bigoted remarks (as their contractual relationship permits).

Likewise, Robertson has a moral right to believe and say whatever he wants—even if he believes or says absurd and bigoted things. But he has no right to force others to provide him with a microphone, a cable show, or the like.

Thus, remarks from Ted Cruz and others to the effect that A&E’s decision somehow violates Robertson’s “free speech or religious liberty” are ridiculous. (Sadly, Cruz—a U.S. senator—does not understand what rights are or what the First Amendment means.)

What Is Tolerance?

You can respect someone’s rights without tolerating his behavior. Even though Robertson is a buffoon who says irrational and bigoted things, I will defend his right to say those things. (Again, he has no right to A&E’s resources beyond what’s laid out in their contractual relationship.) But I will not tolerate Robertson’s remarks about homosexuals by pretending that they are anything other than irrational and bigoted.

As Craig Biddle explains, although “tolerance” is often improperly used in a political context, it is a moral concept, not a political one, and its meaning is “the refusal to pass moral judgment.” Thus, tolerance is not a virtue, but a vice. If something is morally good, we should recognize its goodness and (as appropriate) praise it. If something is morally bad, we should recognize its evil and (as appropriate) condemn it.

When Sarah Palin says that Robertson’s critics are “intolerants,” she is absolutely right—but she is wrong to suggest there’s something wrong with intolerance. If you advocate toleration of Robertson’s bigoted remarks—if you say that people should not judge them as bigoted—do you not sanction his bigotry?

There is no conflict in respecting the rights of a bigot and morally condemning his bigotry. The same goes for any other bad behavior that does not violate rights. It’s time that conservatives and “liberals” alike learn this lesson.

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Image: Wikimedia Commons, Gage Skidmore

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