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Political Philosophy on Pluralism - Dictionary of Arguments

Gaus I 240
Pluralism/Political Philosophy/D’Agostino: The notion of incommensurability is therefore crucially important in the debate between monists and pluralists (see, especially, Chang, 1997(1); Raz, 1986(2): ch. 13). Pluralists needn't, of course, insist on across-the-board incommensurability. As Barry already argued in 1965, with his use of economists' 'indifference curves' (1990(3): ch. I, s. 2), and as James Griffin (1986(4): 89—90) and others have reaffirmed
subsequently, a single, unequivocal ranking of options is possible, even with multiple underlying
bases of assessment, so long as these values 'trade off' against one another. Indeed, pluralism and
incommensurability are logically independent; even a pluralist who believes that trade-offs are always possible does not thereby become a monist (see Dancy, 1993(5): 121). She has a basis, for instance, which the genuine monist seems to lack, for conceptualizing the regret that we frequently experience even when we choose the best option (see Stocker, 1997(6): 199). Rhetorically, it is nevertheless understandable that pluralists have tended to focus on cases where, because trade-offs seem impossible or inappropriate, incommensurability is evident.
For pluralists identify their position at least partly in opposition to monism, and incommensurability is incompatible with full-blooded monism. (This is the significance, for utilitarianism, of the debate about 'interpersonal comparability' of welfare.
Comparibility: Without such comparability, utilitarianism becomes a pluralist approach, lacking the single overall normative standard whose importance Mill stressed. See, for instance, Elster and Roemer, 1991(7). )
Diversity: There are, of course, a variety of pluralisms, of stances towards and arguments about the purported political relevance of diversity. We might believe, for instance, that, 'in the limit' , diversity of evaluations would be eliminated by the progressive correction of epistemic and/or
motivational deficiencies, much as monism presupposes. We might nevertheless also believe that, given human finitude (Chemiak, 1986(8)), such a 'limit' is unapproachable (to any very great degree) without forms of corrective action that would themselves be manifestly indefensible, ethico-politically, and, hence, that it cannot be demanded, as monism does demand, that we actually aim at the elimination of such diversity.
Rawls: This seems to have been John Rawls's view in the book Political Liberalism and he grounds such weak pluralism, as I will call it, in his analysis of the so-called 'burdens of judgment' (1993(9): ch. Il, s. 2). These are, specifically, those 'hazards involved in the correct (and conscientious)
Gaus I 241
exercise of our powers of reason and judgement in the ordinary course of political life' , which make it improbable that 'conscientious persons with full powers of reason, even after free discussion, will all arrive at the same conclusion' (1993(9): 56, 58).
Rawls himself characterizes this doctrine in terms of 'the practical impossibility of reaching reason-
able and workable political agreement' (1993: 63), and says that it expresses 'a political conception
[that] tries to avoid, so far as possible, disputed philosophical theses and to give an account that
rests on plain facts open to all' (1993(9): 57, n. 10). ((s) For strong and weak pluralism see >Pluralism/D’Agostino.)


1. Chang, Ruth, ed. (1997) Incommensurability, Incomparability, and Practical Reason. Cambridge , MA: Harvard University Press.
2. Raz, Joseph (1986) The Morality of Fæedom. Oxford: Clarendon.
3. Barry, Brian (1990) Political A,'gument: A Reissue with a New Introduction. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
4. Griffin, James (1986) Well-Being. Oxford: Clarendon.
5. Dancy, Jonathan (1993) Moral Reasons. Oxford: Blackwell.
6. Stocker, Michael (1997) 'Abstract and concrete value: plurality, conflict, and maximization'. In Ruth Chang, ed., Incommensurability, Incomparability, and Practical Reason. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
7. Elster, Jon and John Roemer, eds (1991) Interpersonal Comparisons of Well-Being. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
8. Cherniak, Christopher (1986) Minimal Rationality. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
9. Rawls, John (1993) Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press.

D’Agostino, Fred 2004. „Pluralism and Liberalism“. In: Gaus, Gerald F. & Kukathas, Chandran 2004. Handbook of Political Theory. SAGE Publications


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Explanation of symbols: Roman numerals indicate the source, arabic numerals indicate the page number. The corresponding books are indicated on the right hand side. ((s)…): Comment by the sender of the contribution. Translations: Dictionary of Arguments
The note [Author1]Vs[Author2] or [Author]Vs[term] is an addition from the Dictionary of Arguments. If a German edition is specified, the page numbers refer to this edition.
Political Philosophy
Gaus I
Gerald F. Gaus
Chandran Kukathas
Handbook of Political Theory London 2004


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Ed. Martin Schulz, access date 2021-07-29
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