In Defense of Pragmatic Pluralism



            In this paper I will attempt to define pragmatic pluralism. I will examine Robert Talisse’s problems with pluralism and specifically attempt to address the challenge to define pluralism in such a way so as to distinguish it clearly from vulgar relativism which claims any belief is as good as any other.  Pluralism is a complex philosophical idea with metaphysical underpinnings that connect to its practical implications, and I will analyze its many facets.  Drawing upon the William James, John Dewey, Isaiah Berlin and others, I will define and defend a view of pragmatic pluralism that recognizes the validity of other viewpoints while still allowing one to maintain their preference for their particular viewpoint.  Additionally, and perhaps most vitally, pragmatic pluralism will offer a path to make progress on ethical conflicts.


In Defense of Pragmatic Pluralism


Talisse’s Problems with Pluralism

            Robert Talisse has written extensively about pragmatism, pluralism, and democracy, and his writing deserves the attention of anyone who takes these areas and their intersection seriously.   In this paper I want to focus on his understanding of pluralism and then in turn define my own concept of pragmatic pluralism.  One of the many things that strikes me about Talisse’s writing is how he is constantly drawing distinctions.  In Why Pragmatists Can’t be Pluralists, he and Scott Aiken distinguish pluralism into three distinct types: shallow pluralism, deep pluralism, and modus vivendi pluralism.  He briefly defines shallow pluralism as essentially tolerating difference.  Deep pluralism goes deeper into the ontological structure of moral reality.  Deep pluralism maintains that irresolvable conflicts of values are embedded in reality. “Given that conflict is interminable and built into the very fabric of moral reality, one must adopt a kind of agonistic attitude toward all values, where there could be no moral reason to adopt any view over another” (Tallise and Aiken, 103).  This deep pluralism is clearly linked to (and is perhaps indistinguishable from) vulgar relativism, which holds that any belief  is as good as any other.  Modus vivendi pluralism is distinguished from deep pluralism by prescribing tolerance and not agonism in response to the ontological understanding of value conflict, and is distinguished from shallow pluralism by seeing tolerance not “as a kind of epistemic modesty in the face of different answers to big questions, but rather as a Hobbesian truce” (Talisse and Aiken,  103).  Modus vivendi pluralism is broken down further into two alternatives: an indifferent version that ignores differences and a recognitionist version that can not evaluate differences.  After all of these distinctions there does not seemto be a difference that makes a difference between modus vivendi and shallow or deep pluralism.

            Furthermore, none of these types of pluralism are acceptable to Talisse and Aiken, at least in part, because they seem intent linking pluralism with relativism.  They show their intent when they claim that a “background policy of recognition is one that is itself inconsistent with pluralism, since it requires that the duties of recognition and reciprocity override the values driving the conflicts. (Talisse and Aiken, 109-110)  The problem as I see it is that Talisse and Aiken see pluralists as unable to consistently hold any position because they believe that pluralists are compelled to recognize the equal validity of all value claims.

            In A Pragmatist Philosophy of Democracy, Talisse continues his penchant for distinctions by distinguishing between value pluralism and reasonable pluralism. Talisse claims that value pluralists like Isaiah Berlin maintain that “there are objective moral facts, but they do not form an internally consistent set and hence actually conflict” (Talisse, 34).  Berlin recognizes that value claims are held to be objective or absolute by their holders, but this does not entail that they are in fact objective or absolute.  For Berlin what is important is that there is no objective standard with which to evaluate differing moral values, and in that sense no one’s values can be taken to be objective.

            Value pluralism is contrasted with the reasonable pluralism of Rawls, which Talisse claims is epistemological and not ontological.  In his discussion of Rawls’ reasonable pluralism he says, “of course, each of us must take it that those who hold moral positions and doctrines that are inconsistent with our own are mistaken” (Talisse, 36).  This is a view that Talisse shares with Cheryl Misak, who says, “In order to engage others in conversation or dialogue, we have to see their disagreements as implying a mistake on someone’s part. Otherwise we are merely talking past each other” (Misak  16).  I think that Talisse and Misak get things backwards.  If we see disagreements exclusively in terms of mistakes, then we begin to talk past each other.  Talisse is also in agreement with Misak in thinking that the scientific method is the only way which we can truthfully and correctly form beliefs. (Talise, p. 62)  According to Talisse, the scientific method, in Peircian fashion, then brings about arguments and truth values with which no reasonable person can disagree.  Talisse wants to treat epistemic considerations of truth as separate from practical- moral reasoning and then use them to inform our moral reasoning  and essentially eliminate the possibility of error or disagreement between reasonable people.  The problem is that epistemic considerations are not decided in a vacuum to be used later to make ethical decisions, they are formed with practical-ethical considerations in mind.

            Talisse seems to be hung up on the impossibility of rational consensus that results from certain views of pluralism.  I don’t see this as a problem, since I understand pluralism as being open to other views, but this does not preclude temporary and even long-lasting and widespread consensus on certain views.  I think that Talisse’s understanding of pluralism is wrong-headed, but a proper response is needed.  It is not enough simply to say that Talisse gets pluralism wrong, because his problems with pluralism bring up legitimate issues that need to be properly assessed.  The main problem that Talisse has, that needs to be addressed as I see it, is the connection between pluralism and what I am calling vulgar relativism.  Talisse seems to be asking: is there a meaningful, pragmatic understanding of pluralism that does not devolve into vulgar relativism.  In what follows I hope to give a response that shows that pluralism understood according to pragmatic principles does not devolve into vulgar relativism. 


Understanding Pluralism: Metaphysically, Politically and Practically

            Pluralism can be understood on a deep metaphysical level and still be pragmatic. The metaphysical pluralism I have in mind is described by William James in A Pluralistic Universe and in “The One and the Many” in Some Problems of Philosophy.  In those writings, James defines pluralism in opposition to monism and absolutism and traces the dilemma to the problem of the one and the many, which is a metaphysical problem that is as old as philosophy itself. James thought that the problem of the one and the many or monism versus pluralism was, “the most pregnant of all the dilemmas of philosophy” (James, 258).  It was a vitally important metaphysical question with many practical and ethical consequences for philosophy and life and therefore requires close study. Monism maintains that reality exists collectively, i.e. that reality consists of a collective unity of things, which cannot be separated or distinguished in any meaningful way. Pluralism maintains that reality exists distributively, i.e. that reality consists of a distribution of individual things that can be understood as individually and connected with other things.  Monism is an absolute and totalizing closed system while pluralism is an open-ended one. 

            In order to resolve this dilemma James applies the pragmatic rule of ‘what’s the difference that makes a practical difference.’  “Suppose there is a oneness in things, what may it be known as? What differences to you and me will it make?” (James, 263)  Based on the pragmatic rule, James accepts pluralism, and thinks that others should as well, because it is more practically useful for solving ethical problems. Pluralism allows us to deal more effectively with practical problems, because it coheres more with the world of science, common sense, and allows for free will.  For James the most important aspect of resolving this dilemma is that it demonstrates the importance of metaphysical issues to the problems of life, which leads into the ethical-political dimension of pluralism. Richard Bernstein echoes this idea when he describes pluralism as “part of the larger theme . . . of the one and the many . . . with endless variations” (Bernstein, 519-520).  He then goes on to discuss the importance of the “practical twist” that James, as well as Dewey and the other pragmatists gave to this theme (Bernstein, 521).

            The ethical-political dimension of pluralism is described by Isaiah Berlin in Two Concepts of Liberty.  Berlin puts forth a conception of pluralism which maintains that it is crucial to pursue many values, because there is no one correct value. For Berlin, pluralism is a fact of life.  There are many views and they must be argued for, because they are often in conflict with one another. Furthermore choices between competing views and values must be made, and this is in fact what connects pluralism to the freedom which is so essential to the human condition. 

            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.              Indeed, it is because this is their situation that men place such immense value      upon the freedom to choose. (Berlin, 214)


The ability to choose between equally ultimate ends marks our humanity and our civility.  “To realize the relative validity of one’s convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly  is what distinguishes a civilized  man from a barbarian.” (Berlin, 217)  Conflict is crucial and Berlin goes so far as to say that there is no way to ever completely resolve conflicting beliefs. That is not to say that no conflicts can ever be resolved, but rather that conflicts in some degree will always persist.  The best we can and should hope for is to mediate these views into a workable framework that can establish and sustain a sense of progress.         

            This view is shared by John Dewey, who asserted “the elimination of conflict is, I believe, a hopeless and self-contradictory ideal.”  He continues, “It is not the sheer amount of conflict, but the conditions under which it occurs that determine its value” (Dewey, 210-211).  I understand Dewey to be saying that conflicts as such can never be resolved completely or eliminated; i.e. agreements can be reached, but conflict always remains.  The crucial task is to transform the conflict by transforming the situations surrounding the conflicts.  The goal of philosophy for Dewey is to help us transform our experiences, and to this end we confront problems not in the hope of solving them once and for all, but with the hope of making them better in some sense. As Michael Eldridge puts it, “for Dewey thinking was not an end in itself, but a means of transforming problematic situations into more satisfying ones” (Eldridge 2005, 40).  The hope for progress through resolving conflicts, as described above, rests on a thorough-going pragmatic pluralism, which is open to various (and opposing) viewpoints and values the ability of a society to maintain different views. 

            One problem with pragmatic pluralism is how exactly to understand its openness. Or put another way, how can pluralism be a viewpoint that is open to all viewpoints? I agree with William Connolly that pluralism should set limits to tolerance to guard against unitarian movements taking over and wiping out pluralism.  (Connolly 42)  This is part of the pluralistic paradox, that as a pluralist, one must be open to all viewpoints and yet in order to maintain this ability to be open to all viewpoints, one must also maintain a view which favors this openness over views that seek to limit viewpoints.  This paradox may not be able to be solved but it can be dealt with in a pragmatic manner.  One’s openness to other views is vital to a pragmatic understanding of ethical issues and conflicts, but like one’s ethical stances it is also fallible. That is to say that a pragmatic pluralist understands his or her views to be thoroughly fallible, and would also admit that their pluralistic outlook is itself fallible.  This may seem paradoxical or problematic, but I see it as crucially providing more flexibility in our moral stance. This flexibility is crucial in facilitating communication in order to resolve ethical conflicts. 


Conflict and Communication

            Pluralism recognizes conflict or disputes and differences of opinion as a fact of life.  A pluralist accepts the existence of conflict and attempts to discern the best way to cope with conflict.  Conflicts materialize as arguments or disputes or differences of opinion.  A pluralist does not necessarily commit to saying that a particular conflict or dispute is irreconcilable or that the opposing values behind the conflict are incommensurable, but rather that the idea of conflict is irreconcilable and that there are incommensurable values that people hold.   Communication among people even with incommensurable values and opposing views is possible. Communication is possible because pragmatic pluralism does not entail the vulgar relativism that holds that any belief is as good as any other. For a pragmatic pluralist, what is crucial is not necessarily the equal validity or legitimacy of all value claims, but rather the validity or legitimacy of conflict, dissent, and contestation in general, and this is a key to communication.  Vulgar pluralism or what Richard Bernstein refers to as “wild pluralism,” “is a pluralism in which we are so enclosed in our own frameworks and our own points of view that we seem to be losing the civility, desire, and even the ability to communicate and share with others.” (Bernstein, 522)  Any understanding of pluralism worth holding on to must facilitate our communication with others to the degree that while conflict persists, individual conflicts may be worked through to some degree.

            Pragmatic pluralism points out the need to move towards an increased mutual understanding and try to make some progress on what appear to be ethical impasses.  Alison Kadlec and Will Friedman argue that the key to resolving conflicts, is to expand the deliberation surrounding the conflict to as wide a group as possible.  They further argue that the idea of consensus should be replaced with confluence because consensus implies “that there are no irreducible conflicts of interest at work in any given issue of common concern” (Kadlec and Friedman, 13). Confluence on the other hand means “a gathering or flowing together at a juncture . . . [and it] encourages participants to reach across boundaries and explore multiple perspectives by focusing together on the examination of an issue from as many points as possible” (Kadlec and Friedman 13-14).  It is a process that “clarifies serious differences as well as potential common ground and suggests ways of moving ahead on an issue” (Kadlec and Friedman 14).

            We need to try to get the opposing sides in a moral conflict to see understand each other in a more productive manner.  The goal should be a new and modified understanding of the issue and the other’s position that allows for the possibility to better cope with the conflict in both the short and long term. William Connolly captures a crucial aspect of this hen he says that,

            The most noble response is to seek to transmute cultural antagonisms between   transcendence and immanence into debates marked by agonistic respect between   the partisans, with each set acknowledging that its highest and most entrenched        faith is legitimately contestable by others. (Connolly, 47)


To do this requires, as Richard Bernstein points out, that we “learn to listen, speak, and act with others in mutual understanding, a mutual understanding that can recognize and honor genuine differences . . .  [is] . . . the central and most relevant message of the pragmatic understanding of pluralism” (Bernstein, 522).  

            Along these lines, William Caspary claims that the parties involved in conflict resolution should identify their broad underlying interests and let go of ‘fixed ends,’ which may be mutually exclusive.  This common ground may not bring an immediate solution to the main areas of disagreement, but could lay the groundwork for a more honest, open, and hopeful discussion about the core issues in the future.  (Caspary 25-29).  Caspary uses the example of the conflict between Biblical literalists and scientific empiricists, and he proposes that between these groups perhaps a common ground could be found on concrete issues of safety and civility in schools  (Caspary 34).

            Barack Obama, has attempted to follow this same pragmatically pluralistic thinking.  Obama has spoken very favorably of pragmatism in the political realm, understood as opposition to ideology.  He has even presented himself and the American public as essentially pragmatic.  "I don't think the American people are fundamentally ideological. They're pragmatic ...” (Klein, 2008).  In his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention he sought a way to get past the stalemate of perennial political and ethical conflicts.  His ideas here exemplify the idea of trying to get each side to see what they share in common with the other, to give the other view serious consideration in the hopes of being able to see the conflict in a new light and hope to transform the problem in some helpful way. The following passage clearly expresses these ideas.

            We may not agree on abortion, but surely we can agree on reducing the number of        unwanted pregnancies in this country. The reality of gun ownership may be    different for hunters in rural Ohio than for those plagued by gang-violence in             Cleveland, but don't tell me we can't uphold the Second Amendment while        keeping AK-47s out of the hands of criminals. I know there are differences on          same-sex marriage, but surely we can agree that our gay and lesbian brothers and     sisters deserve to visit the person they love in the hospital and to live lives free of            discrimination. Passions fly on immigration, but I don't know anyone who         benefits when a mother is separated from her infant child or an employer      undercuts American wages by hiring illegal workers. This too is part of America's           promise - the promise of a democracy where we can find the strength and grace to     bridge divides and unite in common effort. (Obama)


            While working out the details of resolving these issues falls outside of the confines of this paper one can begin to see the course of action that pragmatic pluralism should take when dealing with seemingly intractable ethical conflicts. To take for example the abortion issue, while one can see problems, one can also see potential.  It is probably not the case that everyone on both sides of the abortion issue can agree that they want to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies.  Some might think that there is no such thing as an unwanted pregnancy or that the elimination of abortion is the sole issue in the debate. However if there are people on both sides of the issue (and I suspect that there are) that can in fact agree that we should aim to reduce unwanted pregnancies, then we can begin to make progress on the issue.  We can begin to see that opposing sides do share some important values in common and we can begin to use this insight to seek out other similarities or points of confluence that might bear some meaningful, practical fruit.

            By making a genuine attempt to understand the other side of an issue, while not abandoning one’s own principles, ethical issues can indeed be transformed and we can potentially move past the seeming impasses of certain moral conflicts. Valuing the ability to move past conflicts in some way by seeing the validity of other viewpoints, with the goal of facilitating communication and reaching practical agreement, can help us get to the real work of transforming experience and start charting the practical consequences of our actions. This is the work of the pragmatic pluralist.






















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