Objective, Relative or Plural? Value Pluralism and the Status of Universal Values (1)

By Whiteley, Benjamin | Melbourne Journal of Politics, Annual 2006 | Go to article overview

Objective, Relative or Plural? Value Pluralism and the Status of Universal Values (1)


Whiteley, Benjamin, Melbourne Journal of Politics


Abstract

Recent debates about the concept of value pluralism have sought to draw out important implications for political thought and practice. A key issue has been the idea that there exists a set of "universal values 'that captures the outline of a common core of humanity. These values have been deployed as an objective critical standard and evaluative tool to avoid a perceived tendency towards relativism that haunts all discussion of the diversity and plurality of values. However, it will be argued that upon closer inspection the idea of universal values as expressed by William Galston and George Crowder, amongst others, must be called into question. Specifically, the nature and status of such universal values are unclear, and the content of these values is defined in vague and uncertain ways. It will be further argued that these problems can be overcome by developing an alternative vocabulary to express the fundamental insights that value pluralism suggests.

Introduction

A key issue within recent debates about value pluralism has concerned the relationship between value pluralism and liberalism. Critics of liberalism have suggested that the fundamental insight of value pluralism is that there exists a plurality of values, of which rational ordering is not possible in the abstract, which has implications for liberal theory that have not been fully appreciated. On the other hand, liberal theorists have maintained that value pluralism is not just consistent with liberalism, but provides positive arguments in support of a liberal political regime.

Crucial to the attempt to draw a connection between value pluralism and liberalism is the idea that there exist certain values that we can describe as universal. These values are considered essential to the living of all meaningful lives in all societies at all times. By specifying the content of these values, liberal pluralists such as Isaiah Berlin, George Crowder and William Galston have sought to show that liberalism is the best candidate for securing the recognition and protection of what we might describe as essential preconditions for the flourishing of human life. (2) On this account, failing to recognise the existence of universal values will lead to a moral relativism that denies any transcendent standards of judgement and analysis. The existence of universal values therefore serves as one important link between value pluralism and liberalism.

However, the use of universal values by liberal pluralists is often problematic. The identification of such values remains unclear because there is considerable disagreement as to what rightly constitutes a universal value and to what the specific content of these values actually is. If it is difficult or impossible to come to any agreement on such fundamental matters, it is hard to see how universal values can be used as a critical standard for assessing the relative merits of value systems and ways of life. This confusion also raises doubts about the issue of ethical relativism within the value pluralism debate, as universal values are seen as an important objective standard that operates as a corrective to the more relativistic implications of value pluralism.

It will be argued that the strong liberal emphasis on the importance of universal values is fundamentally flawed to the extent that it actually subverts the positive potential that value pluralism offers by importing into the value pluralism discourse a range of liberal values and norms that those committed to the truth of value pluralism need not necessarily accept. While our current understanding of value pluralism has emerged from, with and against such liberal norms, there is an important need to develop alternative vocabularies that better express the insights that value pluralism offers. By developing the value pluralism discourse in such novel ways, it is possible to draw upon a range of different theoretical insights that have to this point been excluded from the value pluralism debate. …

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