Pluralism (political philosophy)

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This article is about pluralism as a political philosophy. For the theory that political power in society does not lie with the electorate but is distributed between a wide number of groups, see Pluralism (political theory). For other uses, see Pluralism (disambiguation).

Pluralism as a political philosophy is the recognition and affirmation of diversity within a political body, which permits the peaceful coexistence of different interests, convictions and lifestyles. Political pluralists are not inherently socialists (who put equality as their guiding principle), liberals (who place liberty as their guiding principle) or conservatives (who place tradition as their guiding principle) but advocate a form of political moderation. Nor are political pluralists necessarily advocates of a democratic plurality, but generally agree that this form of government is often best at moderating discrete values.[1]

As put by arch-pluralist Isaiah Berlin, "[l]et us have the courage of our admitted ignorance, of our doubts and uncertainties. At least we can try to discover what others […] require, by […] making it possible for ourselves to know men as they truly are, by listening to them carefully and sympathetically, and understanding them and their lives and their needs…."[2] Pluralism thus tries to encourage members of society to accommodate their differences by avoiding absolutism (adhering solely to one value, or at the very least refusing to recognize others as legitimate) and engaging in good faith dialogue. Pluralists also seek the construction or reform of social institutions in order to reflect and balance competing principles. One of the more famous arguments for institutional pluralism came from James Madison in The Federalist paper Number 10. Madison feared that factionalism would lead to in-fighting in the new American republic and devotes this paper to questioning how best to avoid such an occurrence. He posits that to avoid factionalism, it is best to allow many competing factions (advocating different primary principles) to prevent any one from dominating the political system. This relies, to a degree, on a series of disturbances changing the influences of groups so as to avoid institutional dominance and ensure competition.[3] Like Edmund Burke, this view concerns itself with balance, and subordinating any single abstract principle to a plurality or realistic harmony of interests.

Of course, pluralism recognizes that certain conditions may make good faith negotiation impossible, and therefore also focuses on what institutional structures can best modify or prevent such a situation. Pluralism advocates institutional design in keeping with a form of pragmatic realism here, with the preliminary adoption of suitable existing socio-historical structures where necessary.

Pluralism and the common good[edit]

Pluralism is connected with the hope that this process of conflict and dialogue will result in a quasi-common good. This common good is not an abstract value or set in stone, however, but an attempt at balancing competing social interests, and will thus constantly shift given present social conditions. Proponents in contemporary political philosophy of such a view include Isaiah Berlin, Stuart Hampshire and Bernard Williams. An earlier version of political pluralism was a strong current in the formation of modern social democracy (to balance socialist and capitalist ideals), with theorists such as the early Harold Laski and G. D. H. Cole, as well as other leading members of the British Fabian Society. In the United States, President Eisenhower's "middle way" was arguably motivated by a belief in political pluralism.[4]

While advocated by many pluralists, pluralism need not embrace social democracy given it does not a priori assume a desirable political system. Rather, pluralists advocate one based on the pre-existing traditions and cognizable interests of a given society, and the political structure most likely to harmonize these factors. Thus, pluralists have also included Michael Oakeshott and John Kekes, proponents of something close to liberal conservatism (although will often reject such political labels). What pluralists certainly do have in common is the notion that a single vision or ideological schema, whether Marxism or unbridled neoliberalism, is likely too simplistic and rigid to advocate human beings' natural plurality of values. Pluralists likewise reject historicism and utopian thinking. While some, like John N. Gray, repudiate historical progress altogether, others, like Edmund Burke, indicate that human progress has occurred, as a function of improved social harmony.

The Fourth Way[edit]

The Fourth Way is an attempt, although certainly not shared by all (or even most) pluralists, to conceptualize a pluralist political schema.

Coined by Pluralist Party leader Jonathan Bishop, the Fourth Way is meant to represent a particular approach to pluralist integrated bargaining where one finds two opposing viewpoints; the third way represents a (centerist) compromise between two such conflicting points of view, whereas the fourth way describes a process of harmonisation via the adoption of a position most likely to achieve general consensus.[5] For instance, in political systems, the first way might be for a government to make public services based on the involvement of private sector firms, the second way using public sector organisations, and the third way to use a Public–private partnership. The fourth way would be to allow the public to choose the service provider best for them based on their principles and values and not the ideological biases of government or civic officials. Likely, this fourth way will eventually manage to establish its own view as the generally accepted view, and then over time become the first way as science and society develop. This can only occur as the result of the negotiation process within the pluralistic framework, which implies the "operator" as a general rule of a truly pluralistic framework, i.e. the state in a pluralistic society, must not be biased.

Social scientist Julian A.G. Glassford argues that the Fourth Way model ought to incorporate the pragmatic pluralist contention that ideological factors which clearly threaten plurality ought to be excluded.[6]

Many pluralists (like Isaiah Berlin or Michael Oakeshott), while perhaps sympathetic to the Fourth Way's premises, would entirely reject any such formalized system. To Oakeshott, for example, laying out any single system of rules problematically reduces politics to an abstraction, which is better (and more honestly) based on a pluralist temperament in a given political climate than any systematic schema.[7]

Conditions for pluralism[edit]

For pluralism to function and to be successful in defining the common good, all groups have to agree to a minimal consensus that shared values are at least worth pursuing. The most important baseline value is thus that of mutual respect or tolerance. If no such dialogue is possible, extremism and physical coercion are likely inevitable.

See also[edit]

Notable Pluralists[edit]



  • Rajiv Krishnan Kozhikode and Jiatao Li, Political pluralism, public policies, and organizational choices: banking branch expansion in India, 1948–2003, Academy of Management Journal, 55(2), 339-359.
  • Pluralism and Liberal Democracy, Richard E. Flatham (2005).
  • "Isaiah Berlin"
  • Morality and Conflict, Hampshire, Stuart (1983).
  • From Pluralist to Patriotic Politics, Blattberg, Charles (2000).
  • Liberty, Berlin, Isaiah (2002).
  • In the Beginning Was the Deed, Williams, Bernard (2005).
  • "Michael Oakeshott and Modern Conservatism"
  • On legal pluralism and communities, see: Gad Barzilai, Communities and Law: Politics and Cultures of Legal Identities. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003.