Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Pluralism and Constraint

Our friends Scott Aikin and Bob Talisse over at 3 Quarks Daily have an interesting discussion of pluralism. Following the argument in Bob's new book, Pluralism and Liberal Politics, they call it a "halo term," a notion that has such a positive connotation and is so connected with virtue that attacking it seems beyond the pale. But attack it they do. "Vacuous!" they assert. (O.k., the exclamation point is mine, but they should be tolerant of one's punctuational choices.)

They point to certain terms like "exclusionary" that have negative connotations, that are loaded with ethical baggage. But for each negative term , there is one that expresses the same sentiment with a positive sense. "Selective" is an affirmative way of being exclusionary. The selective person excludes, but does so for good reason where the exclusionary person merely excludes for the sake of excluding. In the same way, the flip side of pluralism is relativism. The relativist is a buffoon who allows that if Joseph Stalin thought that murdering hundreds of thousands of people was morally right, then it is morally right for Stalin. The relativist is absurd, the pluralist is thoughtful and open-minded.

But there is a significant difference between relativism and pluralism. Relativism is a philosophical free-for-all. Like taste in ice cream, holding a view justifies the view. If I like vanilla more than chocolate, then I do regardless of any rational argument that could be offered. Pluralism, however, is different from relativism. Pluralism allows that there are sidelines that mark what is out of bounds, but still has plenty of room on the field of play for people to run with the ball in different directions. Pluralism implies constraint without complete determination.

We could differentiate between two flavors of pluralism: co-deterministic pluralism and under-deterministic pluralism. Co-deterministic pluralism is where the ethical, epistemological, or metaphysical constraints allow that two answers are equally correct and other pragmatic considerations must then be used to break the tie. Suppose you are ordered to build a bridge 15 plus the square root of four feet long. The square root of four is both positive and negative two, so you follow orders by building either a seventeen or thirteen foot bridge. Which should you build? It would be cheaper to build the short one, but perhaps more stable to have the long one. Other factors need to be considered, but either selection would be correct.

Under-deterministic pluralism is where the constraints simply limit the possible right answers, but do not select a unique one. Unlike the co-deterministic case, the answers are mutually exclusive; they are not both right, but which one is the right one needs further determination than the agreed upon conditions. the example I think of here comes from a short essay by Jean-Paul Sartre who considers a student who came to him during WWII with a problem. His father had become a Nazi sympathizer and thrown out of the family. his brother had been killed in the war. He was all that his beloved mother had left and she lived only for him. If he fought to liberate his country, a duty he felt, his mother would die alone and brokenhearted. If he stayed, he would be neglecting his deeply felt duty to his country and the urge to avenge his brother's death. What should he do? It seems that either decision has its virtues and its flaws. Ethical theory does not seem to answer the question. But hacking his mother up with an axe and joining the Nazis is not a moral option. There are wrong answers even if we do not have a way of absolutely determining the single right one.

It is here that pluralism is connected with open-mindedness without dissolving into relativism. I can understand that there is a limited field of possible options and I can have a sense that mine is the strongest thereof, but still have a sense that my reasoning may be faulty and be open to hearing those who want to move in the other direction. Pluralism is the admission that i need to be kept honest by someone who is smart and disagrees with me because while I think I'm right, it's only through vigorous intellectual wrestling that I can be assured of the strength of my view -- something I believe without certainty.