Pluralism is the acceptance of more than one set (a plurality) of beliefs, opinions, or ways of understanding concepts or ideas. As a theory, it is applicable to a wide range of topics and fields of study.

As a political theory (often referred to as liberal pluralism), it looks upon society as consisting of a number of groups and individuals that, although fundamentally united in their recognition of a political order, pursue their own advantage in competition with one another.[1]

Pluralistic Morality


In the study of ethics, moral pluralism argues that questions of moral significance can be answered more than one way. Moral pluralism recognizes multiple irreducible "truths”, “rights” or “goods” that guide moral judgment and action.

“Pluralism in ethics, as I understand it, is the view that there is an irreducible plurality of values or principles that are relevant to moral judgment.”[2]

Pluralism inhabits various foundations of ethical thought: consequentialist theories of value; deontological theories of obligation; and virtue ethics.

Pluralistic Theories of Value


Philosopher G.E. Moore (1873-1958) held that moral action should be guided by that which yields the greatest “value”. Contrary to monistic utilitarianism and hedonism which claim that the principles of "happiness" and "pleasure" should guide our actions, Moore argued that there exists more than one intrinsic value that guides moral action.[3]

In Principia Ethica, Moore acknowledges that a plurality of “intrinsic goods”, such as friendship and aesthetic experience (appreciation of beauty), are of no less intrinsic value than "happiness" or "pleasure". Each of these irreducible “goods” has its own value that is not derived from another.[4]

“... pleasure is certainly not the sole good... It is, I think, universally admitted that the proper appreciation of a beautiful object is a good thing in itself…”[5]

Many contemporary utilitarians suggest that an even greater plurality of "intrinsic goods" exist. Preference utilitarianism theorizes that any experience, object or state of affairs can be the subject of someone’s preference and can therefore be of ultimate value.[6]

Pluralist Theory of Obligation - Mixed Deontology


A deontologist and intuitionist, W.D. Ross (1877-1971) believed that morality is founded on fundamental principles that guide moral action. According to Ross, we have a “duty” to act based on moral truths that exist.[7]

Unlike Kant who argued for a single universal principle, Ross theorized a plurality of irreducible basic moral principles that guide moral action.[8] Two such principles are the duty to express gratitude and the duty to be fair. Ross acknowledged that these fundamental duties may at times conflict, and that there is no explicit way to resolve such a moral conflict.[9]

In The right and the good, Ross outlined the plurality of fundamental principles that we are intuitively aware of. Ross called these our prima facie duties. The prima facie duties are as follows:

  1. Fidelity
  2. Reparation
  3. Gratitude
  4. Non-injury
  5. Harm prevention
  6. Beneficence
  7. Self-improvement
  8. Justice[10]

Pluralistic Virtue Ethics


Aristotelian virtue ethics teaches that moral action is not guided by any fundamental obligation or intrinsic value. Rather, morality is derived from a personal disposition to act virtuously (action based on a mean between two extremes — excess and deficiency).[11] Our actions focus not on acting “good”, but on being “good” persons.

According to Aristotle, there is no precise way to determine where the virtuous mean lies in any particular set of circumstances; virtuous action must be determined individually. This conception of virtue leads to an indeterminate and pluralistic view about what is “good” or “right”.

In virtue ethics: A pluralistic view, Christine Swanton says virtue is having a set of character traits that give us a pluralistic set of "good" moral attitudes and dispositions. She argues that these "traits" are necessary for connecting with the moral world and living a good life.[12]

Summary


As Susan Wolf states, "In understanding and interpreting moral disagreements, pluralism offers an alternative to the relativist position that my views are right for me and your views are right for you, as well as to the absolutist position that only one of us can be right...If, as pluralism says, there is a plurality of values or principles or reasons for favoring and disfavoring things that does not form a complete well-ordered system, then it seems reasonable to expect that the realm of moral facts will contain pockets of indeterminacy."[13]



  1. ^ Nesbitt-Larking, P. (2007). Politics, society, and the media (2nd ed.). Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press.
  2. ^ Wolf, S. (1992). Two Levels of Pluralism. Ethics, 102(4), 785-798
  3. ^ Moore, G.D. (1903). Principia Ethica: Chapter VI: The Ideal. Retreived Sepember 29, 2009, from http://fair-use.org/g-e-moore/principia-ethica/chapter-vi
  4. ^ Moore, G.D. (1903). Principia Ethica: Chapter VI: The Ideal. Retreived Sepember 29, 2009, from http://fair-use.org/g-e-moore/principia-ethica/chapter-vi
  5. ^ Moore, G.D. (1903). Principia Ethica: Chapter VI: The Ideal. Retreived Sepember 29, 2009, from http://fair-use.org/g-e-moore/principia-ethica/chapter-vi
  6. ^ Waluchow, W.J. (2003). The dimensions of ethics: An introduction to ethical theory. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press.
  7. ^ Ross, D. (2002). The right and the good. (P. Stratton-Lake, Ed.). New York: Oxford University Press Inc.
  8. ^ Audi, R. (2007). Intuitionism, pluralism, and the foundations of ethics. In R. Shafer-Landau & T. Cuneo (Eds.), Foundations of ethics: An anthology (pp.402-418). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
  9. ^ Waluchow, W.J. (2003). The dimensions of ethics: An introduction to ethical theory. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press.
  10. ^ Garrett, J. (2004). A simple and usable (although incomplete) ethical theory based on the ethics of W. D. Ross. Retreived September 30, 2009, http://www.wku.edu/~jan.garrett/ethics/rossethc.htm
  11. ^ Waluchow, W.J. (2003). The dimensions of ethics: An introduction to ethical theory. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press.
  12. ^ Swanton, C. (2003). Virtue ethics: A pluralistic view. New York: Oxford University Press Inc.
  13. ^ Wolf, S. (1992). Two Levels of Pluralism. Ethics, 102(4), 785-798