To return to some thoughts from some time ago, on the subject of political and legal philosophy, I would like to explore briefly the subject of pluralism. By pluralism I mean the promotion of various world-views, various “total perspectives”, or as some might put it, various “value systems”. By promotion I mean just that – the tendency of the society at large to see pluralism as the de-facto position deserving social support. Pluralism, then, is a complex phenomenon that is at once the situation in which there are various world-views and the situation in which that variety is actively promoted at large. I myself prefer not to use the term “values” whenever possible for the reason that it is so readily associated with pluralism. The way I understand it here, pluralism is the situation we find in which there are competing and incommensurable total pictures of “the way things are and should be” (to speak rather broadly). That these pictures, these value systems, are incommensurable and irreconcilable at some fundamental level should be readily recognizable – it is a Moorean Fact as it were, or close enough. (Moorean facts are such that they cannot be rationally denied. For example, that I am conscious of my own consciousness.)
To be more precise, and by way of example, I mean the following sort of cases (which can be symptoms of larger sets of core beliefs, thereby forming world-views). Take two persons, neighbors even, with differing beliefs (I dislike the term “differing views” – again, it seems to presuppose pluralism as a given) on the moral standing of abortion. One, neighbor A, believes that all forms of abortion are fundamentally and egregiously immoral (given that it is a form of murder) and, as a result of that moral belief, believes that the law of the land should reflect this in banning abortions from taking place. After all, the law is in place to protect the lives of all persons; fetuses (babies) are persons, merely of the younger variety; therefore the law must protect their lives also. And as all forms of murder are fundamentally at odds with the obligations of the law, so all forms of abortion are fundamentally at odds with the obligations of the law. The other, neighbor B, believes that an abortion is merely a medical procedure having no bearing on a living human person, much less the ending of a person’s life, and as such is no different in (moral) kind from, say, having one’s appendix removed or having plastic surgery on one’s nose. As a result of this belief neighbor B draws the further conclusion that the law of the land should permit abortions to take place (even on demand, as plastic surgery is) and should not interfere with a person obtaining one. After all, the law permits anyone to obtain plastic surgery on their nose if they so want and it would be an imposition of the law – a stepping beyond its bounds – to ban a person from such a course of action. Therefore, the law would be stepping beyond its bounds in banning abortions.
Here it is clear that neighbor A and neighbor B, while they may agree that the weather is pleasant or that one should obey the posted speed limit on the roads, or that the value of a college education is decreasing over time – that is, despite much agreement on rather mundane things – there is a basic and underlying DIS-agreement over core beliefs. To disagree over the loveliness of the sunshine falling on a green lawn is trivial. These beliefs are not in the same category of importance as the weather, or speeding, or the state of higher education. They are at once both moral beliefs and metaphysical beliefs; beliefs about the way reality is and the way things in reality ought to be. Those beliefs are opposed to each other, are incommensurable, and cannot be made to exist in harmony. It is either the case that something is a person or is not a person (the metaphysical issue), and it is either the case that persons have moral standing or they do not have moral standing (the moral issue), and it is either the case that the law recognizes the protection of all persons or the law does not recognize the protection of all persons (the legal issue). There is the further issue of whether one lets one’s beliefs on matters such as this direct one’s political involvement or the type of political environment one hopes to live in (the political issue).
Pluralism says to our friends, neighbor A and neighbor B, that they ought to simply “live and let live” and disregard their fundamental differences. In one sense there is some wisdom here, for in all matters there must be pragmatic decisions to set aside some differences and exist with one’s neighbor. Yet, at the same time, beliefs have consequences and, ideally, when people are trying to find true beliefs they try to live out the logical implications thereof. This happens both practically and theoretically (practically, in that persons do not always think through their beliefs and are irrationally influenced to behave one way or another; or theoretically, in that some persons live more consciously aware of their beliefs and attempt to have a harmony between action and beliefs). Regardless of the practical or theoretical route, however, there are unavoidable differences between certain world-views; and to attempt to either deny these differences as merely “personal views” or to put a pragmatic band-aid on them (i.e. ignore them by force of law) is fundamentally irrational. It is irrational to deny there being logically irreconcilable positions (truly irreconcilable ones, not ones that are merely confusedly un-reconciled), and it is also irrational to look for merely pragmatic solutions to serious irreconcilable beliefs (and, further, the logical consequences of those beliefs). Thus, to continue with the example given above, it is irrational to deny that there is a difference between neighbor A’s and B’s beliefs and the consequences of those beliefs (if they are true beliefs), and it would be irrational for the law of the land to seek a merely pragmatic solution (which, as it stands, it does not in this country) to a problem that is of core importance to the purpose of the law itself. The law cannot be what it is and “pragmatise away” problems such as these – it would make of itself an irresolvable contradiction and undermine itself; in effect, it would cease to be law.
Now, to connect this to previous posts, bring in John Rawls and liberalism generally. Rawls states that there exists, in his terms, a “fact of reasonable pluralism.” That is, he recognizes the reality of differing beliefs, even radically different core beliefs/world-views, and has no desire to find that problematic. He does not, as far as I can tell, add the aspect of what I above called promotion to the concept of pluralism. Nevertheless, such promotion by necessity exists (and, as I have said in past posts, is a pernicious element of liberalism) – for Rawls goes on to use pluralism as his launching point for a political and legal philosophy. Recognition without remorse is de-facto promotion. Worse, it is logical promotion. Logical, I contend, in that one cannot have Rawlsian political and legal philosophy without pluralism. For one, there would be no need for Rawls to structure his philosophy in the manner that he does (having given up later in life on the grounding of the hypothetical Original Position). Having found his launching-off point in the existence of divergent and irreconcilable core beliefs, he must continue to promote a society in which such beliefs exist and remain un-reconciled – we have no reason to adopt his liberalism otherwise. Without pluralism we would not be tempted by liberalism, so promotion of pluralism as the social norm follows upon liberalism logically, as neighbor A’s and neighbor B’s beliefs about the law follow logically upon their moral beliefs. But, since pluralism about core/important/fundamental beliefs and their consequences is both irrational (as above) and untenable in society because of the operation of law, the promotion of pluralism is irrational and untenable (both personally and in society). To be clear, when I say “untenable” I mean unreasonable (where “reasonable” here is in line with the better usages of pragmatic considerations). Indeed, all forms of pluralism (personal and societal) are really no such thing. There is no way to have a true pluralism – all pluralism is dogmatism, for it is a dogmatism itself to promote, as a matter of principle, pluralism. To seek merely pragmatic solutions to irreconcilable fundamental divisions is just as dogmatic a position as in the example of the beliefs of neighbors A and B. There cannot be, then, any such thing as a fact of reasonable pluralism – not about anything important at any rate and not about core beliefs about reality, morality, and society. As a result, liberalism is a rather pernicious form of dogmatism (not all dogmatism is pernicious) in that it cannot wear upon its sleeves, as it were, its true foundation, given that it rests upon a contradiction. And from a contradiction anything follows – that is how one arrives at Rawls’ political and legal philosophy.
I once knew an otherwise intelligent philosophy major who told me that he held no beliefs. He had opinions about this or that, but when it came to beliefs he had none. It did little good for me to point out that his very statement of such betrayed a belief that he had no beliefs and so, strictly speaking, he had at least one belief – somehow the point was lost. It seems that both formally and informally, in logic and in the morass of one’s jumbled thoughts, from a contradiction anything follows.