- Why Pragmatists Cannot be Pluralists
- Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society: A Quarterly Journal in American Philosophy
- Indiana University Press
- Volume 41, Number 1, Winter 2005
- pp. 101-118
- View Citation
- Additional Information
Robert B. Talisse & Scott F. Aikin Why Pragmatists Cannot be Pluraliste Contemporary pragmatists often maintain that their doctrine is intrinsically allied with pluralism.1 This claim has become so common that it has taken on the lively hue of self-evidence. We contend that pragmatism and pluralism are in fact not compatible, that pragmatists cannot be pluraliste. Our demonstration of this thesis will proceed in an ordinary way: We shall first identify three distinct types of pluralism.2 We shall then identity two general styles of pragmatism.3 Then we shall demonstrate that although certain varieties of pluralism are logically consistent with pragmatism, no pluralism is compatible with pragmatism; that is, we will argue that in cases where pragmatism and pluralism are consistent there are good pragmatic reasons to reject pluralism. Thus the lively hue of selfevidence that once attended the thought that the two are deeply connected should turn to a sickly pall of implausibility. Our mission is not simply negative or polemical. We do not seek merely to refute a self-conception popular among pragmatists. Rather, we aim to further the positive agenda of encouraging pragmatists to make more explicit the nature of their commitments in a way that better enables them to engage critically and fruitfully in a broader set of philosophical conversations concerning pluralism. As we shall indicate in the closing section of this essay, we see this kind of crosstraditional engagement as essential to the health of any philosophical tradition, and absolutely essential in the case of the American pragmatist tradition, which has always upheld the importance of critical exchange. In this way, we see the following essay as a positive contribution to pragmatist philosophy and a decisive step forward in advancing American philosophy. Pluralism: Three Distinct Types Although pluralism comes in many forms, every variety of pluralism begins with a purportedly undeniable fact of moral experience,4 namely, the persistence of disagreement even among well-intentioned and sincere persons at the level of what Bruce Ackerman has fittingly called "Big Questions" (1989, p. 361).5 According to the pluralist, experience teaches that the moral universe contains a rich fund of values, not all of which can be synthesized into a single system. Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society Winter, 2005, Vol. XLI, No. 1 102 Robert B. Talisse & Scott F. Aikin Among goods, many appear incompatible, incompossible, and incommensurable with other goods. Choice among competing but incommensurable goods is inevitable, and such choices form, as Isaiah Berlin claimed in an almost existentialist mode, "an inescapable characteristic of the human condition" (1969, p. 169). However, as the goods among which we must choose are incommensurable, there is no decision procedure that we can appeal to and no summum bonum by means of which the competing options can be ranked. Thus it is no surprise that we find among persons deep differences at the most fundamental moral, religious, and philosophical levels. Moreover, because it is unclear how these differences can be rationally adjudicated, the expectation that we might soon reach widespread moral consensus seems misplaced.6 At the most fundamental level, then, all pluralisms are committed to the claim that the persistence of deep moral disagreement is not due entirely to human frailty, ignorance, stupidity, or wickedness. Stated positively, all pluralisms agree that there are some value conflicts in which every party to the dispute holds a position that fully accords with the best possible reasons and evidence. Hence moral conflict persists because of some facts about the ontology or epistemology of values, not because of some failing of human reason, intellect, or psychology. According to the pluralist, such disagreement is, as Rawls has claimed, a "permanent condition" of human life (1996, p. 129).7 This is the sine qua non of pluralism. Pluraliste divide on the issues of how best to explain this feature of the human moral predicament, and how to respond to it. We identify below the three prescriptive programs that form the basis of our taxonomy of pluralism, but let us first sketch two general explanatory strategies adopted by pluraliste. Some pluraliste offer an epistemic account of the persistence of moral dispute. The exemplar of this approach is John Rawls.8 Appealing to...