Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Limits of Pluralism

Kyle would like to give a shout out to secular pluralism, and pluralist secularism:
Pluralism, which entails both a plurality of worldviews and a widespread respect for that plurality, helps keep secular society from becoming an authoritarian instrument of a particular secular worldview. It shies away from forcing people to think and act in a certain moral way. It prefers dialogue and persuasion to command and enforcement. It values hospitality and dissent and disagreement and criticism. It looks suspiciously at all grand narratives and comprehensive doctrines, especially those espoused by people with guns.
It was the people with guns who might espouse grand narratives and comprehensive doctrines that got me. I had to respond.
Men with guns aside, there's an extent to which I perhaps agree with Kyle. If by secularism, one simply means not having the state enforce the practice of religion, then I of course support it. And if my pluralism one means keeping the power of the state modest enough (in certain dimensions at any rate) to allow as many different sorts of people to practice their beliefs, rather than imposing a uniformity of life and practice on all of them, then again I am for it.

The problem seems to be that when "pluralism" is actually stated as a goal, people seem to develop a sort of gardener's eye about the whole thing. Those protecting pluralism start to look for all the way in which those with one set of beliefs might be stepping upon those with another set. Not "imposing beliefs on others" becomes and end unto itself, and since most beliefs actually do have implications that would touch on others, soon the gardener is uprooting one thing and then another, sorting and separating and trying to impose and orderly "pluralism" on the whole. Just as the parent who tries to stop all fights and unfairnesses among a large gathering of children tends to make them either bitter or bored (or occasionally both) if we set the goal of rigorously enforcing pluralism, we soon find ourselves wiping out nearly all beliefs other than the admiration of pluralism itself.

It seems to me that what is more likely to achieve real pluralism if one does "impose" certain shared values or beliefs, while leaving a fairly wide range for people to do as they will in other areas. Ironically, given my jumping off point, imperial might ("men with guns") has, in some cases, been one of the less problematic shared values to tie a highly pluralistic empire together. Thus, for instance, the British empire was, in a sense, able to maintain a more pluralistic society than its successor states of India and Pakistan, because it was clearly being run for the benefit of the British empire. Once that layer of force and order was accepted, pluralism was possible because it was not necessary to define what it was to be Indian other than "the British rule it". Independence brought the necessity of definition, and with national definition, such high levels of pluralism were no longer tolerable.


Brandon said...

The link you make between pluralism and imperialism is interesting, and I think it's generally true. It reminds me of Kant's argument that Prussian despotism is the key to Enlightenment, and, in particular, the optimal expansion of freedom of thought. In a sense, one can read Kant's essay as an argument for precisely the point in your last paragraph.

Foxfier said...

I seem to remember that John Derbyshire has a similar observation, though is is more on the social side-- if there is enough of a shared culture, oddness can be allowed. When the number of shared assumptions go down, so to does the ability of people to be different with fairly low friction.

(no idea how one subscribes to comments, now....)

Kyle Cupp said...

"It seems to me that what is more likely to achieve real pluralism if one does 'impose' certain shared values or beliefs, while leaving a fairly wide range for people to do as they will in other areas."

That's part of it. You can't help but impose values and beliefs, but it's prudent, in my view, to have mechanisms in place to appeal and correct such impositions. That's why, for example, I think even supporters of the Affordable Care Act should welcome constitutional challenges of it in the courts.

The Ubiquitous said...

With diversity as with all things: Love it, but not as "ism."