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Pluralism is, in the general sense, the affirmation and acceptance of diversity. The concept is used, often in different ways, in a wide range of issues. In politics, the affirmation of diversity in the interests and beliefs of the citizenry, is one of the most important features of modern democracy. In science, the concept often describes the view that several methods, theories or points of view are legitimate or plausible. This attitude may arguably be a key factor to scientific progress. The term pluralism is also used, in several different senses, in the context of religion and philosophy.

For pluralism as a concept in the philosophy of mind, opposed to monism and dualism see Pluralism (philosophy of mind)
For pluralism in ethical theory, see value-pluralism
For pluralism in regard to the possibility of extraterrestrial life, see cosmic pluralism
For pluralism in the sense of holding multiple ecclesiastical offices, see benefice
For pluralism as it relates to the diversity of religions, see religious pluralism

Pluralism in politics

In democratic politics, pluralism is a guiding principle which permits the peaceful coexistence of different interests, convictions and lifestyles. Unlike totalitarianism or particularism, pluralism acknowledges the diversity of interests and considers it imperative that members of society accommodate their differences by engaging in good-faith negotiation.

One of the earliest arguments for pluralism came from James Madison in The Federalist Papers 10. Madison feared that faction 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 in order to avoid faction it is best to have many competing factions to prevent any one 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.

There are some objections to this model of pluralism however. Critics argue that groups need a high level of resources and the support of patrons in order to be able to contend for influence and this observation formed the basis for the theory of elite pluralism which was advanced by writers such as Elmer Eric Schattschneider who wrote that 'all groups sing with an upper-class bias'.

Pluralism and the common good

Pluralism is connected with the hope that this process of conflict and dialogue will lead to a definition and subsequent realization of the common good that is best for all members of society. This implies that in a pluralistic framework, the common good is not given a priori. Instead, the scope and content of the common good can only be found out in and after the process of negotiation (a posteriori).

Consequently, the common good does not, according to pluralists, coincide with the position of any one cohesive group or organization.

Still, one group may eventually manage to establish its own view as the generally accepted view, but only as the result of the negotiation process within the pluralistic framework. This implies that, as a general rule, the "operator" of a truly pluralistic framework, i.e. the state in a pluralistic society, must not be biased: it may not take sides with any one group, give undue privileges to one group and discriminate against another one.

Proponents of pluralism argue that this negotiation process is the best way to achieve the common good: since everyone can participate in power and decision-making (and can claim part of the ownership of the results of exercising power) there can also be widespread participation and a greater feeling of commitment from society members, and therefore better outcomes. By contrast, an authoritarian or oligarchic society, where power is concentrated and decisions are made by few members, forestalls this possibility.

Proponents in contemporary political philosophy of such a view include Isaiah Berlin, Stuart Hampshire and Bernard Williams. And earlier version of political pluralism was a strong current in the formation of modern social democracy, with theorists such as Harold Laski and G. D. H. Cole, as well as other leading members of the British Fabian Society.

Note, however, that political philosophers such as Charles Blattberg have argued that negotiation can at best compromise rather than realise the common good. Doing the latter is said to require engaging in "conversation" instead, room for which is made within what Blattberg calls a patriotic, as distinct from pluralist, politics.

Conditions for pluralism

For pluralism to function and to be successful in defining the common good, all groups have to agree to a minimal consensus regarding shared values, which tie the different groups to society, and shared rules for conflict resolution between the groups:

The most important value is that of mutual respect and tolerance, so that different groups can coexist and interact without anyone being forced to assimilate to anyone else's position in conflicts that will naturally arise out of diverging interests and positions. These conflicts can only be resolved durably by dialogue which leads to compromise and to mutual understanding.

Pluralism and Subsidiarity

However, the necessary consensus on rules and values should not unnecessarily limit different groups and individuals within society in their value decisions. According to the principle of subsidiarity, everything that need not be regulated within the general framework should be left to decide for subordinate groups and, in turn, to individuals so as to guarantee them a maximum amount of freedom.

In ultimate consequence, pluralism thus also implies the right for individuals to determine values and truths for themselves instead of being forced to follow the whole of society or, indeed, their own group.

Pluralism in the scientific community

It can be argued that the pluralistic nature of the scientific process is a major factor in the rapid growth of knowledge. In turn, an increase in knowledge arguably leads to increased human welfare due to, for example, greater productivity, economic growth and better medical technology.

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Pluralism in philosophy

Pluralism in philosophy is another name for the marketplace of ideas. Theoretically, many different schools of thought will influence each other, which may eventually lead to a more advanced and logical way of thinking. See Dualism.

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Legal Pluralism

Basic thought:

  • many things that lack the formal status law fulfill a similar function
  • unwritten rules
  • should these be considered as "law" as well?

Legal Pluralism allows for moral laws that are unwritten as formal laws. These laws include religious accommodations that are unjustified to receive a full pedigree and hence in the eyes of a positivist, law.

Sources of such pluralist laws include the Koran, Sunna, Ijma ... whereas most modern western nation-states take the basis of their legal system from the Christian superpowers of old (i.e. Britain, France, etc), which is also why moral laws found in the Bible have actually been made fully-fledged laws, with the initial grund-norm set far back in legal history, hence fulfilling the priority of both the positivists and the naturalists.

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See also


In epistemology and ontology:

In political philosophy and ethics:


de:Pluralismus fr:Pluralisme id:Pluralismehe:פלורליזם lt:Pliuralizmas (tarptautiniai santykiai) hu:Pluralizmus nl:Pluralisme no:Pluralismesr:Плурализам fi:Pluralismi (sosiaalitieteet) sv:Pluralism vi:Đa nguyên yi:פלארעליזם zh:多元

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