One of the accompanying principles of the libertarian philosophy is pluralism. If it is our belief that each individual is free to pursue happiness according to his own perception of the good, it is natural to assert that having a variety of opinions, beliefs, and practices in society is a good, as long as no one is harming anyone else. For now, we shall set aside the question of whether liberalism as a common principle even makes sense and take up the question of whether and in what way pluralism contributes to the common good.
There are, in any act, the principles that support the act and the act itself, the “doing of the thing.” In more common parlance, there is theory and there is practice. This is true in any discipline whether it be architecture, history, or politics. Before building a building, there must be design intent and before there is design intent, there must be principles of design. If these principles of design are faulty, the building will be, in essence, unbuildable, or if buildable structurally unreliable. Before writing the history of something, we must first study that subject and in order to study properly, we must have an idea of what is relevant and what is not, what is within the scope of the subject and what is not. Before we enact laws and policies, we must first know that the laws are good and therefore must have principles of the good in mind.
Thus, there are two kinds of pluralism which we can encounter in the different disciplines: pluralism of principle and pluralism of practice. Let us imagine, for an instant, what the implications of pluralism or the lack thereof would have in these two areas of human action. Is pluralism possible in all aspects of human action? Is it productive? Is its good?
It is certainly possible for there to be multiple principles within a discipline. In architecture, for example, the three classical principles are firmitas, utilitas, and venustas (strength, usefulness, and attractiveness.) However, throughout history there have been architects who have different opinions on the value of each of these principles. Some think that usefulness is the most important; buildings needn’t last as long as they serve some purpose. Others think that strength is the most important; buildings are a perennial statement of some ideal that needn’t have a purpose other than that. Still others think that attractiveness is the most important; buildings are art, primarily.
There are other principles of architecture that spring from these three and there are even a greater number of opinions as the principles become more and more specific. This plurality of opinions exists, but is it productive? While in some sense, a variety of principles can lead to the flourishing of the building culture, an attempt to use many principles in the design of a building can lead to confusion and incoherence in a building. A building cannot be designed, let alone built, if the architect is trying to do too many things at once. It is more productive to have a small set of principles to adhere to so as to produce a clear and buildable structure.
However, as I said, having buildings that are each designed with different principles will not inhibit the architectural profession. Pluralism can, in fact, be productive when the principles are distributed between projects and not forced into competition within a single design. This would seem to indicate that there are some contexts in which a pluralism of principles is productive. It is, as an architect might say, a matter of scale.
Now, whether a pluralism of principles is good is another question entirely, unless you hold a utilitarian viewpoint, in which case, we will get back to productivity and the matter of scale.
In order for a pluralism of principles to be good, each principle must be good in and of itself as well as good in relation to the other principles at play. Once again, we find an overarching principle of the “good” to be necessary for any discussion of pluralism. If we are going to embrace any sort of pluralism, we have to know which kind to choose.
For example, a dietary pluralism is good insofar as it furthers the health of the body and mind. Eating a variety of foods is good, but it has to do proportion and priority. If ice cream is given priority, it is not a healthy pluralism. (Now, if you only eat ice cream, that’s not pluralism, but it’s still unhealthy.) Even “poisons” can be consumed in small doses, as in homeopathy, for good health. However, to eat toxins and food equally is to embrace an unhealthy pluralism of diet.
The same can be said of political or social pluralism. We must not give every social principle equal weight, nor indeed can we entertain every social principle at all. There are some social principles that are harmful to society and there are some that are directly contradictory to other social principles such that they cannot be held simultaneously within the same group of people without causing division. Social principles have practical implications and this division in principle will always lead to division in practice.
As I have said, it is a matter of scale. The more general a principle, the harder it is for pluralism without strife. As principles become particularized, it is easier for a society to hold them side-by-side and even use them in cooperation with each other. Having a multiplicity of perspectives on a particular situation can help realize its full implication, and often there are more than one possible course of action to address the situation. The other side of this coin is that the less particular a situation is, the more general the principles need to be and thus pluralism has less of a place. However, any sort of judgement about what action to take will always appeal to a principle that is outside the pluralism of perspectives.
There is an inherent hierarchy of ideas when talking about justice in society. Some principles are more universal than others; some can be used in concert with others while some are contradictory. Without a common sense of justice, pluralism will result in the discord of opposing principles and ultimately will result in an unjust society. Consensus is praised when it comes to practical social questions, and indeed, in order to accomplish anything, agreement must be reached. Ultimately, however, consensus in universal principles is what will ensure justice.