Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Pluralism, Relativism, and Liberalism

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Pluralism, Relativism, and Liberalism

Article excerpt

One major focus of recent value-pluralist literature has been the question of what normative consequences follow from pluralism. This essay critically examines three arguments that attempt to show that either liberalism or a bounded modus vivendi is the state of affairs that pluralism makes morally preferable. All three arguments are shown to encounter the same fundamental problem-once we have agreed that values and sets of values are unrankable, any effort to claim that one such set is morally preferable will inevitably contradict value pluralism, either explicitly or implicitly. If this is correct, it seems that pluralism leads to relativism.

Keywords: pluralism; liberalism; relativism; Berlin, Isaiah; moral irrealism

During the past thirty to forty years, the idea of value pluralism has gotten a lot of attention from political theorists.1 The basic insight is intuitive and compelling: it seems that values can conflict with each other, not only between value systems but even within them. Isaiah Berlin provides a classic and often quoted statement of the idea: "The world that we encounter in ordinary experience is one in which we are faced with choices between ends equally ultimate, and claims equally absolute, the realization of some of which must inevitably involve the sacrifice of others" (Berlin 1969, 168). A concrete example is the one offered by Sartre of the young man who must choose between caring for his elderly mother and joining the French Resistance. Sartre's point is that these are both compelling duties, that the young man cannot fulfill both simultaneously, and that there is no obvious way to decide which should "trump" (Sartre 1973, 35-37).

The academic discussion of value pluralism has focused on two main questions. First, are values plural in the way that Berlin suggests?2 Second, if values are plural, what normative consequences does that have? In particular, does value pluralism lead to, imply, reveal, or in some other way require some particular normative response?3 For example, does the condition of pluralism require us to be especially attentive to negative liberty, as Berlin suggests?4 In this article, I assume for the sake of argument that values are indeed plural and examine what normative consequences (if any) emerge from that plurality.

I look at three representative arguments - one from William Galston, one from Bernard Williams and George Crowder, and one from John Gray - that attempt, in different ways, to connect pluralism to some normative outcome. Galston argues that accept- ing the truth of plurality makes us unable to justify, without self-contradiction, imposing our value pref- erences on others. Doing so inevitably assumes the moral superiority of our value system, which we have already admitted cannot be established. Thus, societies that respect their citizens' "expressive lib- erty" to pursue their own conceptions of the good are morally preferable to societies that do not. Because liberal societies are arguably more likely to respect expressive liberty than are nonliberal societies, we have grounds for believing that liberal societies are morally preferable under conditions of plurality. Bernard Williams suggests, and George Crowder develops, the idea that if values represent objective human goods, then societies that instantiate more of them are morally better than societies that instantiate fewer. For that reason, liberal societies, whose emphasis on personal freedom and autonomy arguably makes them likely to permit the pursuit of the widest possible range of values, are morally preferable to nonliberal societies. Finally, John Gray argues that although theories such as those of Galston and Williams/Crowder cannot justify their preference for liberalism, since it is plausible that nonliberal societies may do as good or even a better job than liberal societies in permitting the expression of a wide range of values, there is nonetheless a kind of universal minimum morality that constrains the kinds of societies that are morally acceptable under conditions of pluralism. …

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