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Political philosophers beware -- Google reports zero results for either "Is the fact of pluralism true?" or "Is the fact of pluralism a fact?" even though either (the second, especially) would be a good title for an essay on political liberalism. Now, there's no doubt that something like the fact of pluralism is, in fact, a fact, but I think it really would be worth asking the question. What sort of a fact is it -- sociological, psychological, epistemic? And what, exactly, can we truthfully claim in these regards? It certainly seems to be the case that some liberal societies are much less pluralistic in the relevant sense than are some others. The United States possesses a truly robust diversity of strongly-held religious beliefs along with a sizable block of secular people. If you factor out immigration (which isn't relevant to Rawls's fact of pluralism, though in practice it's the source of a lot of pluralism throughout the world), Northern Europe looks very different, with the population overwhelmingly secular or inclined to modernist varieties of Christianity.

This is not to say that you could ever achieve a uniform consensus on some particular comprehensive view, but surely the extent and nature of the pluralism present in a liberal society has some relevance to the sort of thing Rawls was talking about. This is particularly true if you're inclined to put a lot of weight on the prudential considerations of stability that Rawls sometimes leans on in his discussion. Very small groups of people with views very far outside the local norm (think of Canada's Hutterites) don't need to be incorporated into a joint system of public reasoning in order to build a stable society as long as you're willing to basically ignore them.

November 17, 2004 | Permalink


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Does Rawls imagine subdivisions, political heirarchies like federalism?

I grew near Amish/Mennonite communities, and while they might be ignored on a national level (tho Quakers were significant beyond their numbers), on a county or township level they would sometimes be the majority. And their influence would filter up. I would presume that a liberal society would be scalable in some fashion.

And the radical abolitionists had an influence far beyond their actual numbers, without them perhaps the majority might have avoided the Civil War.

We do set thresholds nationally for meaningful inclusion but I suspect it is perilous, especially when everyone has guns.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Nov 17, 2004 5:33:41 PM

Sorry, Matt. this is one of my pet ideas.

Pluralism is an institutional, legal fact. Internationalism, federalism, limited government, secularism, liberalism, private property, and individual rights all mandate some degree of pluralism and also relativism.

If someone thinks that less pluralism or less relativism would be better, their response would be to work to change laws in various ways, or perhaps to destroy governments whose practices are offensive, and replace them with better governments.

Grounds and philosophical justifications are after-the-fact props built underneath institutions already in place. Utopian and idealistic philosophies are proposals for instituional reform and persuasive reasons for instituting them, or else for entirely new (revolutionary) institutions.

Persuasive argument over fundamental values is not impossible, but it's very difficult and rare. There are few compelling, factual arguments leading to widespread (much less universal) agreement. In general, the existing institution is the default or null.

Many fundamental pluralistic institutions (multinationalism, the US Constitution, etc.) are just messy compromises that happened to work.

Posted by: John Emerson | Nov 17, 2004 5:39:01 PM

Value Pluralism

Liberty & Pluralism

Isaiah Berlin seems pertinent. I wish Matt had a useful link, where did this post come from? Of course tiny minorities are included in our national discussion, from peyote-smoking Indians to atheists and the Pledge. We don't completely accomodate Wiccans in their desires, but we listen to them and talk about their issues.

This strikes me as another of Matt's moments where his theoretical pragmatism goes further toward illiberalism than the real world actually requires.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Nov 17, 2004 6:18:11 PM

Actually I think it is "normative" fact as much as anything else.

On top of everything, I get the sneaky suspicion that Rawls thinks that free society OUGHT to produce a far amount of disagreement over comprehensive doctrines.

Obviously, that isn't the only sense that Rawls refers to. Also, as a constructivist, it would be mighty odd for Rawls to refer to "moral facts" in that way, but I think there is something like that screaming to get out.

Posted by: patrick | Nov 17, 2004 6:18:29 PM

Pluralism seems to a fact within a sociological discourse. Restating a political theory of pluralism that accomodates all the belief systems in the US seems to be a formidable task when the more forceful claims - call them fundamentalisms -are brought into play. The US has soft secularists who are pluralists in politics and tolerate religion. It has hard secular fundamentalists who practice intolerance towards religion. It has "liberal" religious groups which are pluralist in politics and theology. It has religious groups which are nominally pluralist in politics, and basically intolerant in theology.

The Hutterites in Canada - and by the way there are Hutterite communes in the northern Plains states - are a different case again. Their religious views on communal property have been accomodated in contract and corporate law, and their pacificist views were respected the last time Canada had a draft. Their Anabaptist theology puts demands on their members but it appears to be pluralist in respecting the rights of the rest of society to find salvation or damnation in its own way.

Posted by: Tony Dalmyn | Nov 17, 2004 7:02:33 PM

This is closely related to my PhD dissertation topic, and I can assure you that there are plenty of political philosophers working on these issues. Let me add a few very basic points.

It is a plain fact that people disagree about values. Now the philosophically interesting question is whether i) that is just a fact, or whether ii) it corresponds to some extent to the real nature of value. If i) is true, most people are just wrong in their beliefs about value, and we needn't bother trying to accommodate them and their views; if on the other hands ii) is true, at least some of the beliefs of these people (the beliefs that correspond to 'real' values) ought to be accommodated in a morally acceptable society.

Rawls thinks that ii) is correct, but in a peculiar sense. He says that some of those beliefs about value (or 'conceptions of the good', as he calls them) are valuable and thus ought to be accommodated because they are developed and held by the citizens as a consequence of the freedom that his own theory of justice envisages (notice that he is deliberately avoiding to pass any judgments about the intrinsic merit of those conceptions of the good): failing to accommodate them would be inconsistent with his theory of justice.

So for Rawls the fact of pluralism is relevant from the point of view of political legitimacy (which is a normative, moral point of view) because of his particular, liberal conception of the person, which informs his theory of justice. To put it (too) simply: people's freedom ought to be respected; this freedom causes them to develop and hold different concetions of the good; these conceptions of the good, ought to be accommodated.

With this in mind, we can consider the problem of stability, to which M.Y. hinted. The problem is not primarily a prudential one (even though it has prudential elements in it). It is a moral problem. Stability is about whether people will continue to consent to the basic arrangements regulating the political system (‘the basic structure of society’: the constitution, by and large). Rawls has to care about this from a moral point of view because, as a liberal with a liberal conception of persons as free and equal, he cannot justify forcing people into abiding by norms they don't consent to. (I hope you can see that, at least in principle, this is not a problem from a prudential point of view: if I know that my dictatorship will be effective in maintaing order, I don't have to care about the consent of the governed.) Now this is where the problem of pluralism kicks in: Rawls needs to make sure that his political system (or, more precisely, his criteria for the legitimacy of political systems) is inclusive enough to accommodate the consequences of the freedom he, as a liberal, thinks people ought to enjoy.

Then of course there are limits to this freedom (very roughly coinciding with the point where the exercise of freedom endangers other people's freedom), which is why some doctrines are deemed 'unreasonable' and ought not to be accommodated. But this is a long story, too long for me to tell it here.

This is all very sketchy, but I still hope I've clarified a thing or two.

Posted by: enzo rossi | Nov 17, 2004 7:10:05 PM

To me every question about pluralism, tolerance, and inclusion boils down to case-to-case decisions about whether some given behavior should be allowed. If a behavior (honor killing, cock fighting, forced arranged marriage) is judged unallowable, then the practitioners of that behavior can't necessarily claim intolerance or discrimination. If it's an innocuous practice prohibited just in order to exclude that group, maybe. But it's always judgement calls as to what is innocuous.

Some of the absolute definitions of tolerance are unworkable and harmful.

Posted by: John Emerson | Nov 17, 2004 7:11:50 PM

Enzo Rossi:
It seems to me that Rawls would NOT agree with ii. His official position is that he is not concerned with the "truth" of the people's comprehensive views. The validity of your statements in the second paragraph is undermined by the alternate logic contained in your summary of Rawls' principle of legitimacy in your fourth paragraph. This is more than a 'peculiar take' but a different one.

Posted by: Tim Waligore | Nov 17, 2004 7:42:23 PM


Public Reason

More Rawls & Hayek

Rawls & Hayek

I suspect this post is part of a semi-public conversation with Sanchez & Wilkinson...or maybe not. In any case these links are all interesting.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Nov 17, 2004 7:42:53 PM

Tim Waligore:

I said explicitly that 'he is avoiding to pass any judgments about the intrinsic merit of those conceptions of the good'. That is perfectly compatible with what you observe, namely that he is not concerned with the truth (why the scarequotes?) of the doctrines. In fact, it is equivalent to what you observed. But Rawls does think that there is something valuable in the conceptions, in virtue of their being the consequences of the freedom exercised by the citizens who hold those views. In other words, my conception of the good is not valuable per se; it derives its value from my freedom to hold it. It seems to me that Rawls is perhaps a bit too quick in making this inference, but this is a complex and separate matter.

For what it's worth, I presented this interpretation of Rawls (in the context of a broader paper) at several academic conferences, and most people in the audiences agreed with me.

Posted by: enzo rossi | Nov 17, 2004 8:06:38 PM

Speaking as a member of one of the more exotic fragments of American pluralism (a native-born Buddhist covert), it seems to me that the question here revolves around the implications of the establishment clause.

A country where there is explicitly no religious "establishment" inherently presupposes a set of secular values of "civil order", embodied in the law of the land, distinct from any particular religious view.

Once such secular and civil values are supposed, religious pluralism, at least as a potential, automatically follows: we are all free to disagree about values as long as we obey the law, whether we agree with it or not.

As both an American and a Buddhist, this leads in two directions. As a member of a "minority" religion, I have a vested interest in maintaining the "disestablishment" of any other religion and therefore of maintaining the sharp distinction between civil order and any "religious values". I do not, however, have a vested interest in the "establishment" of my own.

But I also have to confront the possibility of laws which compel me to act in ways inconsistent with my Buddhist beliefs. In this I am equal with the member of any "majority" religion in a society where no religion is "established".

In practice, a society which is pluralist in this way is a community of converts who are forced to accept the separation of church and state, as well as the secularization of civil order, whether they agree with it or not.

Posted by: Joseph Marshall | Nov 17, 2004 8:07:55 PM

I think that religious tolerance is a good thing, but just another example of a messy little political deal. Tolerated religious groups (which is all of them) normally learn to accept their tolerated state in a secular framework. For all their oddity, Amish have been tolerated almost everywhere because they're extremely hard-working, don't cause trouble, and keep to themselves.

The Chinese imperial political tradition, the early Muslim religious tradition, early Catholicism, the Roman empire, Napoleon, Hitler, and Stalin all claimed universal authority beyond what could ever be accomodated within a secular internationalist systems. Adherents of any of these have to learn to accept pluralism in order to be tolerated by others.

Posted by: John Emerson | Nov 17, 2004 8:24:48 PM

Gee, Matt, do you think there might be any significance in the fact that Canada has Hutterites and that the narrow-mined, conformist U.S. has them too and Amish and Old Order Mennonites and liberal, tolerant, politically correct Europe, where all of these sects got started, doesn't seem to have any?

Just askin'.

Posted by: Dick Eagleson | Nov 17, 2004 8:44:53 PM

Will Kymlicka has made a career out of just these kinds of questions, namely relating to the rights of minority cultures. He has plenty of critics, but he is perhaps the only liberal theorist who finds the philosophical resources to accomodate minority cultures specifically in Rawls.

Switching gears almost entirely,

The stability in the pluralistic society is acheived via public reason in the overlapping concensus. If one adheres to the contraints of the Rawlsian formulation of public reason, one can only advance argments that one could REASONABLY expect others to accept. Ignoring the problematic contraints and jumping ahead, some have argued that reasonableness is an inadaquate criteria for the overlapping concensus. Just because I can give reasons that others might accept does not mean that they are rational. Habermas has argued that there is much to large of a cognitive gap between acceptance and validity, whic exists “because it does not allow for a shared perspective from which the citizens could convince themselves of the validity of the principles for the same reasons.”

So for Habermas, pluralism and consensus in a procedural democracy is a matter of rationality, or cognitive validity. But Habermas also has a much looser idea of public reason which is grounded in his broader theory of communicative action. Too complicated for a blog post.

Somewhat related is the question of federalism, which Rawls does not specifically discuss at any legnth unfortunately. Very quickly, the key might lie in Rawls's discussion of primary social goods, EACH of which are distributed according to the two principles of justice accross the same politcal space. I have always wondered if a more layered conception would fit more appropirately, since different groups share social goods at different levels (everyone shares air quality, not everyone agrees on marriage laws). This is putting it crudely, to say the least, but there is no reason why the logic that produced the demarcation between the laws governing the nation-state (or People) and the 'Law of Nations' wouldn't also extend inwards down to minority groups.

Writing this post, admittedly very quickly, I realize how rusty I am. I would appreciate I harsh thrashing if it is deserved. Apologize for the spelling too. Later

Posted by: BF | Nov 17, 2004 8:50:02 PM

"and liberal, tolerant, politically correct Europe, where all of these sects got started, doesn't seem to have any?"

Maybe because a few centuries ago those states had established state religions and treated minority religions unfairly? The Amish and Mennonites didn't emigrate in the 1960's.

And also, to be fair, I suspect the US has somewhat less government intrusion into how those communities may govern themselves.
A question about pluralism arises when confronted with a minority with activist illiberal goals, like communists, Dominionists, or other Republicans.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Nov 17, 2004 8:57:10 PM

By the way, Enzo is certainly right when he argues that stability is not prudential, or at least primarily prudential.

It is important to note that Rawls really says "stability for the right reasons" and this makes it a normative notion.

Posted by: patrick | Nov 17, 2004 8:57:51 PM

T McCarthy on Habermas vs Rawls Public Reason

For BF

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Nov 17, 2004 9:02:34 PM

"“because it does not allow for a shared perspective from which the citizens could convince themselves of the validity of the principles for the same reasons"

Well, if this is an objection that's supposed to apply to particular policy debates, it's not true, since the space of public reason provides that shared perspective. If it's supposed to apply to the principles of public reason itself, then that's right enough, but not an objection so much as a restatement of the premise, if you're really taking the fact of pluralism seriously. But then, maybe I should shut up and just go look at Habermas, which I haven't in years...

Posted by: Julian Sanchez | Nov 17, 2004 9:27:15 PM

A very interesting topic, Matt; thanks for raising it (thanks also to Bob McManus for linking to my own discussion of Berlin's pluralism).
I'd like to just pull back a little here and try to clarify the discussion, by making a distinction between different kinds of pluralism (which may or may not be facts, of various sorts). Confusion among these constantly bedevils discussion of these issues (especially in the history of ideas, where different sorts of pluralism get lumped together, and confusion results). Many of the different sorts of pluralism are connected to one another in some way; but these connections aren't necessarily obvious, and anyway aren't the same as being identical. So I think we need to distinguish, first, between ethical pluralism, cultural pluralism, social pluralism, and political pluralism. Berlin talks about ethical pluralism, though he sometimes conflates this with cultural pluralism (which is one of his many problems ...) I'm less familiar with Rawls, but I take him to be talking about ethical pluralism as well, although he seems to trace it to cultural or social pluralism (I'm counting religious pluralism as part of cultural pluralism, but it should perhaps be a separate category). Then you have various people -- Laski, Cole, Figgis, later on Dahl and co. -- talking about political pluralism, which is a completely different animal.
Now, if we reformulate the question to recognise the plurality of pluralisms, we can I think arrive at some answers, at least, even if the main question is still unresolved. So, I think that claims about the 'facts' of social, political, and cultural pluralism are descriptive claims about sociological, or in some cases psychological, facts. To talk about the 'fact' of cultural pluralism, for instance, is to just make the claim (or observation) that human beings, either within a particular society or in general, are involved in a numer of different sets of beliefs and practices that we refer to as 'cultures'. Similarly, social and political pluralism make certain claims about the way that social and political life -- again, whether in a particular society, or generally -- work. One can also make normative claims -- that politics or societies ought to be pluralistic, or are better if they're more pluralistic, or the opposite -- but these are distinct from the 'facts' of these sorts of pluralism, I think. (Although one can of course make the argument that societies or cultures or politics will tend to be pluralistic, so it is good to recognise and respect this pluralism.)
Ethical pluralism seems to me to be somewhat more obscure in terms of the sort of 'fact' that it's appealing to. With Rawls, I get the sense (which may reflect my ignorance or obtuseness) that Rawls is making a claim based on a sociological, or possibly psychological, fact. Berlin's view seems to be more epistemic, although he's characteristically hard to pin down on this. But he does seem to suggest that the pluralit of values that he describes is the result of the way human beings and human thinking work (and the sociological and psychological fact of pluralism is a manifestation of this), while Rawls seems to me to say that basically pluralism is a sociological fact, and because of that we should accept ethical pluralism as a reflection of the way things are -- that is, what people believe and think and do.
Now, I wonder if this is a) correct, b)makes sense, and c)helpful at all.

Posted by: josh | Nov 17, 2004 10:13:14 PM

Enzo Rossi:
I read you as saying the choice is *only* between pluralism i) being simply a fact or ii) that it "corresponds to some extent to the real nature of value." Perhaps I misunderstand, but "real nature of value" sounds too metaphysical for Rawls' tastes.

You claim that if most people's beliefs are wrong, then we of course do not need to bother accomdating their beliefs. You say that alternatively, if some of the "beliefs correspond to 'real' values," then they ought to accommodated in a morally acceptable society.

Why is accomodation only needed if there is correspondence to 'real' values (I am not sure what that means)? Why are these the only possibilities? In fact, I think Rawls provides another one. You describe it as:
"To put it (too) simply: people's freedom ought to be respected; this freedom causes them to develop and hold different concetions of the good; these conceptions of the good, ought to be accommodated."
I have no quarrel with your description of Rawls' principle of legitimacy. But how is this the same as a correspondance to 'real' values? So I still think that "The validity of your statements in the second paragraph is undermined by the alternate logic contained in your summary of Rawls' principle of legitimacy in your fourth paragraph."

Posted by: Tim Waligore | Nov 18, 2004 2:48:35 AM

One thing that strikes me about this argument is the historical shift in what notions of pluralism or, specifically here, freedom of religion and belief mean. During the time our US constitution was written, and a lot of these issues of pluralism were first being seriously explored, the conflict was primarily about theology, what people believed about God. Norms of behavior were much less debated (and, not incidentally, in many ways more liberal than they later became with the cult of domesticity).

But today, almost the opposite is true. It's pretty widely recognized in Western countries, even by fundamentalists, that people have the right, legally and morally, to believe what they will about God. In fact, religious conservative groups often put great emphasis on the importance of evangelism that changes people's beliefs and results in people choosing to come to Christ. The conflicts today on gay rights, abortion, etc are about behavior, and primarily sexual behavior. I think there's a fundamental difference between pluralism about beliefs/theology and pluralism about acceptable behavior: Our systems were established to support pluralism in theology, so they are in some ways ill-fitted to debates about behavior today, and that's part of why these debates are so toxic.

Posted by: flip | Nov 18, 2004 11:09:38 AM

maybe i shouldn't have jumped over the public reason constraints above. the overlapping concensus that provides the shared perspective is judged by Habermas to be arbitrary.

Habermas writes:

Only the lucky convergence of the differently motivated nonpublic reasons can generate the public validity or ‘reasonableness’ of the content of this ‘overlapping consensus’ that everyone accepts…The citizens are denied the “moral point of view” from which they could develop and justify a political conception in joint public deliberation.


Now, calling this a "lucky" convergence strikes me as not exactly correct, but his basic criticism is still cogent.

Thus, an authoritative "shared perspective" embodied in the "overlapping concensus" is IMPOSSIBLE without bridging the "validity gap."

Posted by: BF | Nov 18, 2004 12:08:07 PM

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