Values Pluralism

I associate the idea of “values pluralism” with Isaiah Berlin, and understand it as holding that there are several genuine moral goods which are jointly unsatisfiable, meaning that no matter which goods a single life realizes, there will be others that had to be sacrificed or foresworn as a result.  On this view, modern women aren’t the only ones who can’t have it all–it’s the human condition.  Berlin was, as I recall, particularly interested in the broad political implications of pluralism so understood.  There are more than one way in which a society might be organized in the pursuit of genuine human goods, but each will be good at maximizing one (or maybe some) kind(s) of human good(s) only at the expense of others.  Freedom may be a genuine human good, for example, but one that is bought collectively at the expense of disunity and inequality.  The upshot is that idea of a perfect society–one that maximizes all human goods–is incoherent, and so dangerous even as an ideal.  I’ve come to think this is all very true.

There is apparently another view people call “value pluralism”, which is rather different.  I heard recently the label attached to the claim that there are multiple moral principles that we might appeal to guide our actions.  So conceive we can distinguish a monist like Kant–who gives us but one Categorical Imperative–from…well, it’s not entirely obvious who isn’t a monist so conceived.  The speaker I heard used the Bhagavad Gita as an example of a pluralistic picture because Krishna offers the three yogas to Arjuna as alternative routes to liberation, all of which are fine, so I’ll use it too.

I’m inclined to argue that thinking of pluralism in this way, as opposed to Berlin’s, is not very helpful.  This is mainly because it fails to allow for the distinctions people drawn to a pluralist picture want to make, and indeed the speaker I heard had to resort to some pretty simplistic readings of people like Kant to get at the point that really animates the position.  What bothers some people seems to be the idea that moral questions admit of one right answer, or that a correct moral reading of a set of circumstances forces us to an engage in a single course of action.  This it seems can be taken to be an affront to our freedom or autonomy.

The problem is there isn’t any direct correlation between the number of moral principles we recognize and our stance on this question that I can see.  Kant is a monist if we are counting moral principles.  But it requires a particularly ham fisted reading of Kant to think he thought every morally interesting question had only one right answer.  This is obviously false in the case of how we discharge imperfect duties.  But it’s not even true of what Kant says about the the matter of lying, the parade case of deontological inflexibility.  Kant actually does give us some options when the cost of truth telling will be significant–lying is out to be sure, but what we do instead allows for prudential considerations, and we’re certainly not obligated to blurt out the truth come hell or high water.  On the other hand, one version of monism that would perhaps have the result that all our moral choices are forced upon us is a simplistic version of act utilitarianism, at least so long as for any situation there is a single best route forward in terms of maximizing happiness.  (The Catholic theologian and ‘new natural law’ theorist Germain Grisez makes this argument in order to suggest utilitarianism is incompatible with genuine moral choice.  In this he seems to ignore all but the most simplistic versions of utilitarianism).  So I don’t think we move directly from monism so conceived to a particular position on moral choice.

Conversely, it’s not obvious that pluralism understood in this ways guarantees genuine moral choice, so the connection fails in that direction too.  It would depend on the principles recognized by the pluralist, but it seems conceivable that there could be a moral system according to which the unique right act is over-determined by multiple principles in any set of circumstances.  In fact, the speaker I heard may have implicated the Gita in such a view as far as Arjuna is concerned.  It certainly seems that no matter how he sliced it Krishna’s argument all led to the same conclusion: Arjuna must fight.

I propose then, that if it’s genuine moral choice we want, values pluralism understood as pluralism about principles isn’t going to help.  I may try to work out an argument that pluralism a la Berlin does.

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