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#value pluralism
How can there be objective moral truth, but nothing can be said to be certainly wrong, not even murder?

Good question. It’s helpful to distinguish between absolute, objective, and subjective truths. A truth is objective if it is true independent of individual perspective, while a truth is absolute if it is true in all perspectives. Louis Pojman gives the following definitions for ethics:

  • Moral absolutism: There is at least one principle that ought never to be violated.
  • Moral objectivism: There is a fact of the matter as to whether any given action is morally permissible or impermissible: a fact of the matter that does not depend solely on social custom or individual acceptance.

In contrast, subjectivism or relativism only requires that an individual or a culture deem something as true (or wrong) in order for it to be true (or wrong). Infanticide is only wrong if I personally believe it to be wrong or if my society says it’s wrong.

An analogy with health and nutrition might be illuminating: It can be objectively bad for me to ingest peanuts if I have a peanut allergy. This is objectively true regardless of my beliefs. It isn’t absolutely true, however, that all humans in all circumstances should avoid peanuts. Same goes for morality. We can say that certain instances of suffering are objectively bad, regardless of subjective or cultural beliefs, without then claiming some absolute truth. Take your murder example: An absolutist would say that murder is always wrong, no matter what. A subjectivist or relativist would say that murder’s wrong only if a person or culture says it’s wrong. An objectivist would say that in most cases, murder is objectively wrong, although there may be instances where murder isn’t necessarily wrong; we must look at it case by case, but there is, in fact, an answer as to whether the instances are morally permissible. This is called value pluralism and it brings up a lot of questions about how we can measure right and wrong and whose opinion counts and so on. It opens up a bag of morality worms. But even though these things are complex and daunting, doesn’t mean they’re not true or worth exploring. I feel like a pluralistic, objectivist approach to ethics lends itself to the inherently complex subject matter. It would be nice if there were easy absolute truths in ethics, but the world appears to be far more interesting and enigmatic than that.

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“Positive liberty… is a valid universal goal. I do not know why I should have been held to doubt this, or, for that matter, the further proposition, that democratic self-government is a fundamental human need, something valuable in itself, whether or not it clashes with the claims of negative liberty or of any other goal… What I am mainly concerned to establish is that, whatever may be the common ground between them, and whatever is liable to graver distortion, negative and positive liberty are not the same thing.”

Isaiah Berlin, Five Essays on Liberty: An Introductio

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Isaiah Berlin suggested that James Fitzjames Stephen, rather than himself, deserved credit for fathering value-pluralism.[3] Stephen had observed:

“There are innumerable differences which obviously add to the interest of life, and without which it would be unendurably dull. Again, there are differences which can neither be left unsettled nor be settled without a struggle, and a real one, but in regard to which the struggle is rather between inconsistent forms of good than between good and evil. In cases of this sort no one need see an occasion for anything more than a good-tempered trial of strength and skill, except those narrow-minded fanatics whose minds are incapable of taking in more than one idea at a time, or of having a taste for more things than one, which one thing is generally a trifle. There is no surer mark of a poor, contemptible, cowardly character than the inability to conduct disputes of this sort with fairness, temper, humanity, goodwill to antagonists, and a determination to accept a fair defeat in good part and to make the best of it.”[4]

William James, influenced by Fitzjames Stephen, endorsed 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.[5]

The philosopher Charles Blattberg, who was Berlin’s student, has advanced an important critique of Berlin’s value-pluralism. Blattberg focuses on value-pluralism’s applications to Marx, the Russian intelligentsia, Judaism, and Berlin’s early political thought, as well as Berlin’s conceptions of liberty, the Enlightenment versus the Counter-Enlightenment, and history.

Another notable critic of value-pluralism in recent times is Ronald Dworkin, the second most-cited American legal scholar, who attempts to forge a liberal theory of equality from a monist starting-point, citing the failure of value-pluralism to adequately address the “Equality of what?” debate.

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.[6] 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.[6] The deliberative democrat Robert Talisse has published several articles criticizing the pluralism of Isaiah Berlin, William Galston, Richard Flathman, and John Gray, alleging informal logic and internal epistemological contradictions.

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Asking people to define “freedom” to its root is really fun, because they evantually arive at the conclusion that any form of “freedom” granted invariably results in the removal of some other “freedom”

V A L U E   P L U R A L I S M   W I L L   W I N

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