Tuesday, May 9, 2006

Varieties of Ethical Pluralism (Josh C)

With a heavy load of final papers to see to, I probably won't be posting much for the next couple of weeks or so; but to avoid feeling like too much of a deadweight, here's a very rough thing I jotted down independently a couple of weeks ago. It's an attempt to sort out, not the serious ambiguities or perplexities inherent in theories of value pluralism, nor the different variations of value pluralism that have emerged over time, but the different ways in which self-declared proponents of value pluralism have understood, and held, that position. (I'm not going to go into what value pluralism is here; an earlier account of my understanding of that position can be found here.) Given this focus, I wind up avoiding the most interesting issues -- such as what incommensurability means, for instance; nor do I offer any evaluation of the coherence or plausibility of these different positions. I'm just concerned to straighten out some confusions that I've noticed in the literature on value pluralism, which I think result from conflating a number of distinct positions, all of which endorse value pluralism in some way -- but in different ways.
There are of course many ways one can distinguish between different accounts (or possible accounts; I haven't found examples of all of the positions described below in the literature; also, some authors seem to hold, at different times, to more than one of these positions) of value pluralism in terms of three questions on which one can take a position:
1) Whether pluralism -- the idea that there are a plurality of equally valid and potentially conflicting values or goods, which do not form part of a single moral system or way of life, and which cannot be ranked or classified or decided between with reference to a single principle or rule -- is true or untrue as a claim about reality;
2) Whether the truth of value pluralism happens to be the result of certain, alterable circumstances of modern life, or whether there must, given the nature of human beings and their values (so far as these are known to/experienced by us) be such variety and disagreement;
3) Whether pluralism -- or more precisely, the condition of pluralism -- is a good thing as such, or something to be (regretfully) accepted

Now, it might at first seem that one who responded to position 1) that pluralism is untrue as a claim about reality should not be considered a pluralist at all; but I hope to suggest below that one can in fact deny the truth of pluralism in one respect, and still be a pluralist. I now outline three positions, each of which can be broken down to a varying number of sub-positions, based on how one answers the questions above.

P1. Pluralism is untrue (or incompletely true), but a social reality (either contingent or necessary) given the way things are -- that is, there is in fact one best way of life or moral system, but human beings will not come to agree on it; this may be a good or a bad thing. (One can think of various sub-positions -- based on the view taken with regard to questions 1 and 2; what characterises position-family P1 is the view that pluralism must or should be accepted as a reality about human life, even though the ethical or meta-ethical claim involved is false. One might describe this position as pluralism political (or social)-not-metaphysical; or one might not label it as pluralism at all, but rather as a doctrine of reasonable disagreement. Still, this position seems to me close enough to pluralism in its implications for the way one approaches ethics to be included here.)

P2 Pluralism as a claim about values is true (or probably true), but as a social reality is contingent (or, to be more precise, relatively strongly contingent): it is possible to imagine people agreeing -- possible even for people to agree -- on the primacy of some one value or the supremacy of some one way of life as best, even though this would be a matter of consensus rather than the discovery of the truth about values/morality (and such agreement would, in fact, obscure the truth). There are two importantly different subpositions here:
2a. This would be fine, though ultimately false; such moral consensus, and consequent overcoming of value-conflict as a reality in people's lives, may be unlikely to occur, but it is not impossible, and such a harmonious state of affairs, in which conflict and moral loss were no longer realities of social and moral life, would be desirable (so, the implicit answer to question 3 is that pluralism is undesirable)
2b. Such agreement, to be sustained, would require too much oppression for its maintenance to be desirable; so while moral unanimity is possible, it is undesirable, and for reasons other than its simple falsity (so, the answer to question 3 is that pluralism is to be welcomed). (Note that position P2b. is very close to position P1, in that both embrace pluralism as a social reality that should be accepted; where they differ is that P2b regards pluralism as a true or valid theory about values, while P1 doesn't; while P1 regards pluralism as a necessary feature of social life, while P2b regards the elimination of moral disagreement as possible and even practicable, but as involving an unacceptable cost.)

P3 Pluralism is true, and necessary: there is something in the way that human beings -- as we know them, as they exist and so far as we can tell have always existed -- are that entails pluralism; to imagine a non-pluralistic reality would be to imagine an existence radically different from that which we know as human; overcoming pluralism as a reality about human moral experience would require a transformation of either the meaning of human values, or the nature of human beings, or both. If this is accepted, there remain two possible responses based on the answer to question 3:
3a. Pluralism should then be embraced, as an essential part of what makes us human
3b. Pluralism -- and thus the human condition itself -- should be bewailed.

As far as this applies to examples of value pluralism, I take Berlin to mainly hold to 3a, though there is also an element of 3b -- in his emphasis on the tragic dimension of pluralism; there are however moments where he seems to hold to 2b (which, to the extent that he is a Humean, and therefore can't make assertions of radical non-contingency, he has to accept; indeed, the difference between 2b and some version of 3 seems to me to reflect a tension between Humean and Kantian (to use those terms both crudely, and with a very specific meaning in mind) elements in Berlin's thought. I think that Berlin would distinguish between strong contingency and weak contingency, and hold that while its possible to imagine moral plurality and conflict being overcome, this would involve a radical alteration of all of the categories and values by which we live - so that pluralism is a necessary feature of OUR lives. Rawls and Larmore, on the other hand, hold either to some version of 1, or to 2b -- it is unclear which, exactly; they try to avoid making assertions about the truth of pluralism as a meta-ethical theory, and emphasise instead its social reality; yet they also seem to decisively reject the idea of a best life, while also holding consensus to be (contingently) possible, if unlikely. But then I'm not sure how well I've grasped Rawls and Larmore's position (assuming it's basically the same), so correction is welcome.

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