Value pluralism

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In ethics, value pluralism (also known as ethical pluralism or moral pluralism) is the idea that there are several values which may be equally correct and fundamental, and yet in conflict with each other. In addition, value-pluralism postulates that in many cases, such incompatible values may be incommensurable, in the sense that there is no objective ordering of them in terms of importance. Value pluralism is opposed to value monism.

Value-pluralism is a theory in metaethics, rather than a theory of normative ethics, or a set of values in itself. Oxford philosopher and historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin is credited with being the first to write a substantial work[citation needed] describing the theory of objective value-pluralism, bringing it to the attention of academia. (cf. the Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library). The related idea that fundamental values can and, in some cases, do conflict with each other is prominent in the thought of Max Weber, captured in his notion of 'polytheism'.


Value-pluralism is an alternative to both moral relativism and moral absolutism (which Berlin called monism[citation needed]). An example of value-pluralism is the idea that the moral life of a nun is incompatible with that of a mother, yet there is no purely rational measure of which is preferable. Hence, moral decisions often require radical preferences with no rational calculus to determine which alternative is to be selected.

Value-pluralism differs from value-relativism in that pluralism accepts limits to differences, such as when vital human needs are violated.[citation needed]


William James anticipated Berlinian value-pluralism in an essay on "The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life", which he first delivered as a lecture in 1891. He wrote that none "of the measures [of goodness] that have been actually proposed has, however, given general satisfaction (...) The various ideals have no common character apart from the fact that they are ideals. No single abstract principle can be so used as to yield to the philosopher anything like a scientifically accurate and genuinely useful casuistic scale."

Joseph Raz and many others have done further work clarifying and defending value-pluralism. For instance, political philosopher William Galston, former policy advisor to President Bill Clinton, has defended a Berlinian approach to value pluralism in books like Liberal Pluralism[1].


An important critique of value-pluralism has been advanced by the philosopher Charles Blattberg, who was a student of Berlin's. Another notable critic of value-pluralism in recent times is Ronald Dworkin, who attempts to forge a liberal theory of equality from a monist starting-point. The deliberative democrat Robert Talisse has published several articles criticizing the pluralism of Isaiah Berlin, William Galston, Richard Flathman, and John Gray. Alan Brown suggests that Berlin ignores the fact that values are indeed commensurable as they can be compared by their varying contributions towards the human good.[1] Regarding the ends of freedom, equality, efficiency, creativity etc., Brown maintains that none of these are ends in themselves but are valued for their consequences. Brown concludes that Berlin has failed to show that the problem of conflicting values is insoluble in principle.[2]

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  1. ^ Brown, A. (1986) Modern Political Philosophy; Theories of the Just Society, Middlesex, Penguin Books pp 157-8
  2. ^ ibid p157-158

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