The Problems of Pluralism

The following seems to occur more and more often in my life: I am in a social situation and a morally substantial issue is raised, such as animal rights or the role advertising should play in society. I have thought about both of these topics at length and feel I have a lot to contribute to a meaningful conversation, but that is often not what I get. When raised, someone either very quickly makes a joke (e.g. “But bacon”, “More meat for me”) or they attempt a couple of arguments and then in the face of a counter-argument utter something like Well, listen. You do what you want to do and I’ll do what I want to do, as if to further the conversation would be a violation of their rights or that our positions should both be considered equal and undecidable. This is the ultimate pluralistic statement, and the conversation has to end here. It is extremely common and it is extremely disappointing.

Pluralism, the idea of a society’s recognition of everyone’s different lifestyles, interests, convictions, values, etc., has its roots in an intuitive (to Modernity) notion: No one should be able to control you or force you to do things. You are no longer under control of a king who dictates the bounds of your freedom. You are no longer a serf or a slave who works the land, subservient to the will of others. With the Enlightenment came individualism. These all sound like good things, and to a large extent they are. I argue, however, that our modern version of pluralism goes too far, and impoverishes our democracy, our understanding of one another, and our personal morality.

A little background: Political theorists have historically struggled with two intuitive concepts: rights and “the good”. Rights are the things that persons have that cannot be taken away for any reason (theoretically). You just have them by virtue of the fact that you are a person, and no one should be able to violate them.

The philosophical notion of “the good” or “the good life” is more abstract. It is that thing that a government strives to provide for its people, and what people want to provide for their families. People have different definitions of what the good is, and that causes serious debates. People’s different conceptions of the good have come into conflict with each other throughout history and the story usually ends with the strong person/land imposing their will on the weaker.

People have been arguing over rights and the good for a long time now. Some believe that the good has a priority over the right, such as the utilitarian thinker Jeremy Bentham. This means that if you go back and time before World War II you are morally obligated to kill Hitler given the chance, because the good of the many takes the precedence over the rights of the one. Seems easy enough. It also means, however, that if you as a healthy person go to the doctor for a checkup, and you have 5 organs which 5 other dying patients urgently need, that the doctor is justified (indeed, required!) in killing you to save the others. Seems wrong. “What about our right to live?” we want to say.

Others, such as Immanuel Kant, have thought that the right has absolute priority over the good. It does not matter what the circumstances are, you have your rights. That means you must not shoot Hitler and you are safe at the doctor’s. “I can live with that”, you might say. But imagine that a crazy person hijacked a plane you are on and is about to kill all of the passengers, including him- or herself. Can’t you stop them by killing them? I mean, they die in either case. No, says Kant and thinkers like him: they have a right to live and you cannot take that away, no matter what the circumstances are. Doesn’t seem so good now.

Okay – I always try to sneak in a bit of philosophy into my posts, and that is probably enough for this time, and a good refresher from this post. Back to the main point: Over the past couple hundred years, with the goal of avoiding oppression from peoples and governments, we have seen more “right over the good” type theories. This, in addition to increases in market and capitalistic thinking, have caused the tabling of many discussions of the good life, with the idea that we all have the right to do whatever we want without reference to any particular good and that markets will non-judgmentally decide the outcome of moral questions. This has led to a very pluralistic attitude toward morals and values: to each his or her own. You think prostitution is wrong? Well, don’t do it – but let buyers and sellers in that market do what they want. Think abortion is wrong? Well, don’t do it – but don’t tell others that they shouldn’t. As Michael Sandel, political philosopher, claims, this type of hands-off framework, leads to a very impoverished democracy. It makes discussions of moral questions seem superfluous, as all values have the illusion of being equal.

I strongly believe moral issues such as these should be able to be discussed and further, should be discussed, even if should is a dirty word these days. Consider my example of animal rights presented at the beginning of this piece. When I engage on the topic, people usually say pretty early on “you do what you want to do, and I’ll do what I want to do”. The implicit clause of this argument is “our decisions on this matter are morally equal.” or “This isn’t a moral issue at all.” or “I have a right to do what I want, even the right to not consider what is moral and what isn’t.” But do you have the right to ignore a moral argument in the face of good argumentation? Does a slavery advocate have the right to ignore anti-slavery arguments? Are the positions on slavery morally equal? Moral questions don’t go away just because we do not talk about them, and not all moral positions are equal. Sandel argues that the rise in religious extremism could be partially a result of our unwillingness to engage in moral debates. When everyone takes a passive approach to morality, it allows those with extreme opinions at the fringes to push through and take a bigger piece of the pie. Regardless of the truth of this claim, I believe we as a society need to engage more with moral questions and should feel safe raising such issues, even if and especially if they are controversial. When we are afraid of offending others by broaching a moral issue or when we brush off moral argumentation as “to each his or her own”, we passively assert a falsity: that all moral positions are created equal.