The Pluralism Test

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse6a00d8341c562c53ef015436d5a90a970c-250wi

The commentary stimulated by our November post helps to confirm our view that pluralism is a paradigmatic halo term. Many of the respondents clearly want to claim the term for their favored purposes; but the details concerning the term’s meaning are as yet uncertain. Of course, most philosophical terms admit of multiple interpretations; looseness is inevitable, as often the issues are the meanings of the terms in use. Yet we should aspire to as much precision as is possible. Resting with multiple well-defined yet conflicting conceptions of pluralism is preferable to the current state of affairs, which is less loose than mushy. Our aim is to suggest at a very general level what pluralism is by articulating some simple prerequisites for clarifying the term.

There are two criteria that can be employed in our task. The first would be applicable to any proposed philosophical term. It has two components. First, if pluralism is the name of any view at all, it had better be possible to identify some definite philosophical claims that are distinctive of the view. This is not to say that pluralism must be understood to name some single, monolithic position. Pluralism can be a philosophically distinctive position, and yet be a view which admits of different varieties.

Sometimes it is helpful when characterizing a philosophical position to identify what those who adopt it are united in rejecting. So we may state the first component of the first criterion in the following way. Whatever pluralism is, it had better be a view that is opposed to some other identifiable philosophical position. To put the point slightly more strongly, whatever pluralism is, it had better be a position that thoughtful people could reject. A view that only the insane, thoughtless, deluded, and incompetent could reject is of little philosophical significance. If pluralism is a view worth talking about, it is a view that both says something distinctive and is philosophically debatable.

The second component of the first criterion runs as follows. If pluralism is a view that makes identifiable and distinctive philosophical claims, it should be the case that pluralism is a view which is philosophically distinct from other positions. Whatever pluralism is, it ought to be a view unto itself rather than a different name for a view already in currency. Our analysis ought to, if possible, present pluralism as a distinct philosophical doctrine, rather than a case of old wine in new bottles. And so if pluralism turns out to be really another name for relativism, phenomenalism, or perspectivism, then it is best to do without the term, as it has contributed only confusion.

The second criterion is specific to pluralism. Any view properly describable as pluralism has to hold that something is irreducibly plural. For example, a view which holds that there are many religions which nonetheless, at base, are all really the same should not count as a pluralist view of religion. Similarly, a view which holds that there is a wide range of distinct ways of life which deserve to be tolerated is for similar reasons not yet a pluralist view. Any view that is properly regarded as pluralist needs to do more than recognize the Many; it needs to deny that the Many is reducible to the One. In other words, pluralism must involve irreducibility.

Given these criteria, the task of identifying pluralism is made more manageable. A range of views often described as pluralist is easily shown to be not pluralism at all. The term is frequently employed among philosophers in a casual way to name some vague collection of moral, social, political, and methodological commitments so obviously correct that no one worth arguing with would deny them. (For example, that adjudicating disagreements is hard, that there is a variety of viewpoints, or the fact of hard choices.) Alternatively, pluralism is used among philosophers to refer to the commitment to a set of values that they see as closely related, such as toleration, open-mindedness, inclusiveness, and diversity. In other cases, pluralism is the claim that each of us has much to learn from those who are different from ourselves. Additionally, some philosophers hold that pluralism is the view according to which there are many distinctive ways of life which all capture in part some element of the truth about what it is to flourish as a human being. This view is closely related to another which holds that there are several distinct paths or routes to human fulfillment. But these ways of employing the term can be dispensed with quickly; such views do not involve any claim about irreducible plurality.

Bringing our criteria together, we suggest that in order to identify pluralism, we should look for a philosophically defensible view to which pluralism is opposed. And it is easy to identify such an opposing view. In any philosophical domain in which it is asserted, pluralism is opposed to monism. Whatever pluralism is, it must be something that monists reject. But here a difficulty arises, as monism is often employed as a smear term for views holding that toleration and open-mindedness are unnecessary, or even morally pernicious. To be sure, some monisms are of this kind. But one needs only to be reminded that John Stuart Mill was a value monist to see that monism as such need not be hostile to toleration, diversity, open-mindedness, and difference.

To keep with the example of Mill, let us turn specifically to pluralism in the domain of value. Value monism holds that all good things share a common goodness-making property. Pluralism about value denies this. Utilitarianism is a paradigmatic example of value monism; accordingly, value pluralists see their view as centrally opposed to utilitarianism. We propose, then, the following as a preliminary, rough and ready test to determine whether a proposed view about value is properly regarded as a kind of pluralism:

  • The Value Pluralism Test: Whatever value pluralism is, it must be something that utilitarians must reject.

We hold that The Value Pluralism Test is a domain-specific instance of a more general test for pluralism:

  • The Pluralism Test: Whatever Pluralism in domain X is, it must be something that monists about X must reject.

The appropriateness of The Pluralism Test ought to be obvious. But in case it is not, let us look to the more intuitive Value Pluralism Test. Classical utilitarianism embraces an undeniably monist conception of value, namely, hedonism. Hedonism holds that only pleasure is intrinsically valuable. Accordingly, hedonists hold that whatever there is by way of good action, admirable character traits, just institutions, and proper desires owes to pleasure and its various dimensions. Utilitarians are eager to provide analyses of pleasure which allow for a rich complexity of features, but they must claim that whatever is good owes its goodness to its ability to produce some quantity of pleasure. Indeed, for the utilitarian, the good of anything simply is the quantity of pleasure it produces.

Utilitarianism is a complex doctrine, especially in its contemporary varieties. But we need not get bogged down in these details; for our purposes, the crucial feature of utilitarianism is its monism. According to utilitarianism, for any two things of value, it must be that either one is more valuable than the other, or they are of equal value. This means that, for the utilitarian, all good things are good just insofar as they produce the one thing that is intrinsically good.

Now we are able to say in a general way what pluralism is. Pluralism is the rejection of monism, and monism is a two-part thesis; it holds that there is a One and that the Many is reducible to it. Accordingly, monism involves a singularity component and a reducibility component. Pluralism in any domain must deny both components of monism. To return to the example of value pluralism, the pluralist about value must hold that there is more than one intrinsic good, and that some goods, even among the intrinsic ones, are good in some sui generic way. The value pluralist must deny– and the monist must affirm– that for any two goods, either one is better than the other or they are equally good. The claim that there are heterogeneous goods, goods which are sui generic and irreducible, is the distinctive claim of value pluralism. This claim satisfies The Value Pluralism Test.

We submit that the value pluralism test should serve as a model for identifying pluralism in any domain. Pluralists in any domain X must hold that X admits of a heterogeneous and irreducible plurality of entities, items, elements, states, methodologies, values, or what have you. Now, it seems to us that pluralism must countenance (at least the possibility of) conflicts among its irreducibly plural elements; and such conflicts must defy unique rational resolution. Moreover, it seems to us that pluralism cannot be a doctrine that has any specific normative or prescriptive entailments. These points will be the subject of next month’s post.