The Emptiness of Pluralism

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

1274595994XBH6HaxIn last month’s post, we argued that value pluralism is the view that there are objective and heterogeneous goods, goods that are distinct and irreducible. To hold that there are distinct and irreducible goods is to hold that there is no summum bonum, no ultimate good that explains the goodness of all other goods. It also is to hold that there is no master good against which to measure the value of the other goods. According to the value pluralist, then, there is at least one pair of objective goods, A and B, such that A is neither better than B, worse than B, nor equal in value to B. This is to say that, according to value pluralism, some goods are incommensurable with other goods. Value pluralism thus is the three-pronged thesis that (1) there is a plurality of objective goods, (2) of these goods, some are irreducible to any other good, and (3) these irreducible goods are incommensurable with other irreducible goods. That’s pluralism in a nutshell. Pluralism about anything comes to this tripartite thesis, mutatis mutandis.

When presented in this way, value pluralism may seem an esoteric view. The meager degree of precision introduced above suffices to dampen the halo effect of the term. Now the term no longer seems like a catch-all for a collection of virtues or term of approval for a moral disposition. Rather, what we have with value pluralism is a philosophical thesis about the nature of value.

We will not attempt here to determine whether value pluralism is true. Instead we seek to defeat a consideration commonly offered in support of value pluralism. Consistent with its status as a paradigmatic halo term, advocates of value pluralism often claim that their view is uniquely positioned to supply philosophical backup for a politics of inclusion, toleration, open-mindedness, diversity, and difference. In fact, the father of value pluralism, Isaiah Berlin, went further than this in his famous essay on “Two Concepts of Liberty.” Berlin held not only that value pluralism entails a politics of toleration and individual liberty, he also claimed that value monism – the view that all good things are good in virtue of sharing some single property – fosters intolerance, tyranny, and despotism.

Berlin’s argument runs as follows. If value pluralism is true, then there are many distinct and objective goods that that are heterogeneous. If there are such goods, then there are also ways of life that are objectively and heterogeneously good. From this, Berlin drew the inference that human beings confront a moral universe that demands choice amongst heterogeneous values. As such values are incommensurable, there is no uniquely rational procedure that could guide our choices among them. We are, he said, “doomed to choose,” and such choices potentially involve “irreparable loss.” Berlin thought that the inevitability of choice among incommensurable goods would lead us to place supreme value on the ability to make such choices on our own. Berlin reasoned that value pluralism consequently entails a politics of individual liberty, toleration, and diversity. And then he drew the further, stunning conclusion that within all non-pluralist views of value lay the seeds of conformism and tyranny. Believing, correctly, that we have independent reasons to reject anything associated with conformism and tyranny, Berlin took himself to have devised a winning argument for value pluralism. And many philosophers since have followed him.

Not so fast. There are at least two difficulties with Berlin’s argument; we think that they are individually damaging, and jointly damning. First, Berlin’s case for thinking that value pluralism entails a politics of liberty and toleration rests on blatant is/ought errors. The facts (supposing that they are facts) that there is a plurality of incommensurable objective goods among which we must choose, that we have no recourse to a uniquely rational decision procedure for making such choices, and that we value greatly the freedom to make such choices ourselves does not entail anything about what ought to be the case in the political world. There is no contradiction in accepting value pluralism and drawing the conclusion that one must eliminate one’s moral enemies; one can accept that values are plural, irreducible, and incommensurable, and still deny that one must be tolerant and open-minded. Moreover, one can accept value pluralism and nonetheless hold that the state ought to force its citizens to adopt a specific set of values. A Philosopher King could be a consistent value pluralist. Or to put Berlin’s phrasing to use, we may be “doomed to choose,” but that doesn’t mean we are “doomed to choose” any one of the many modes of political organization. The “doomed to choose” doctrine favors liberalism no more than tyranny.

The second difficulty aims at Berlin’s estimation of non-pluralist views about value. It is easy to imagine a value monist holding that conformity to some traditional values is the only way to live a good life. Yet it is also easy to imagine a value monist who holds that diversity among lives is itself an important good. And it is similarly easy to envision a monist who holds that part of what makes a way of life good for an individual is the fact that he or she has autonomously adopted it. Importantly, the difference between these three monists is not their philosophical conception of the nature of value, but rather their views about what is of value.

To summarize: The second difficulty with Berlin’s argument is that it overlooks the fact that monists can see all valuable things as explicable in terms of the value of autonomy, or diversity, or individual spontaneity, and so on. Monists of this kind would have no truck with the conformism and tyranny that Berlin holds are intrinsic to all non-pluralist views. The first difficulty we raised shows that value pluralism is consistent with moral and political tyranny. There is nothing in value pluralism that requires one to adopt an ethic of toleration and mutual respect or a politics of individual liberty and autonomy. Although it continues to be a popular view among philosophers and political theorists, the overarching Berlinian contention that value pluralism entails these undeniable social and political goods is simply false. To reiterate the point, the difference between the intolerant moral despot and the open-minded advocate of individual liberty is a fundamentally a difference about what is of value, not a difference about the nature of value.

We think that a more general conclusion about pluralism of any stripe is warranted. As we have said, pluralism about X is a thesis about the nature of X. For some class or kind, X, the claim that Xs are plural, irreducible, and incommensurable may be true. But it seems to us clear that the truth of pluralism about X cannot entail anything normative with respect to X. Again, pluralism purports to tell us how things are, not how they ought to be. Consequently, pluralism in any of its forms is normatively empty.