Pluralism and the Moral Grounds of Liberal Theory

Political liberalism, arguably the dominant liberal current, has initiated a break with the tradition of liberal thought. While liberal institutions have been traditionally justified on the basis of an account of human moral nature, political liberals have become skeptical that any account of the relevant human moral features will be capable of generating wide assent. For this reason, political liberals reject theories of human nature, and comprehensive moral views more generally, as justificatory grounds. Thus, political liberalism is openly committed to detaching political philosophy from comprehensive moral philosophy.
Recently, an unselfconscious counter-current has sought to challenge this new way of thinking about the moral foundations of liberalism. The current, known as moral pluralism, springs from a concern about the relations in which basic moral values stand to each other. According to pluralism, fundamental human values are many, conflicting, and incommensurable, such that there is no single, common standard of measurement or arbitration for all. For some of its champions, pluralism offers a more suitable foundation for liberal political institutions. They advocate a return to comprehensive moral foundations for liberalism. Liberalism, pluralists say, needs to abandon monistic moral philosophy but not moral philosophy itself. Only this time, the suggested foundation of liberal theory is radically different: it is not a view about human moral nature but a view about the nature of morality itself.
How are we to understand these positions? Assuming pluralism is true, what are we to make of these conflicting claims about its relationship to liberal politics? To answer these questions, we need to uncover the main points of contention between two ways of understanding moral pluralism and its relationships to liberal politics. In this essay I will do just that. I will bring together these literatures and provide a comprehensive and concise framework for debate by disaggregating the various arguments advanced by each side. The framework will bring clarity to the debate but also reveal the core conceptual challenges confronting each position.

Published in: Social Theory and Practice
2007 33:2