Living Cooperatively in a World of Values Pluralism


One of the core ideas of Isaiah Berlin is the concept of “values pluralism.” Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997) was one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century. A fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, he was the author of many books, including Against the Current, The Roots of Romanticism, The Crooked Timber of Humanity, and the Hedgehog and the Fox.

By “values pluralism” Berlin meant that open societies are characterized by different value constellations that are in competition and conflict with each other, and that not all human values can be fully realized and integrated at any given time and place in a single culture. Choices must be made between them within the body-politic, and so there is an “agonic” element in the struggle to realize multiple values. Four examples he gives of competing and divergent values include liberty and equality, spontaneity and security, happiness and knowledge, mercy and justice.

Certainly when any of these values is made exclusive and absolute an ideological monism results, and that monism enters into lethal conflict with opposing values. We see this in the ideological extremes of our American political landscape today between the right-wing libertarian Tea Party Movement and the left-wing communitarian Occupy Movement. Both sides share in common a sense of being alienated independent outsiders to the forces of concentrated institutional power. The right-wing distrusts the public sector of state power, while the left-wing distrusts the private sector of corporate power. But they also diverge sharply from each other in fundamental ways. There is a vast chasm between the right-wing ideals of an independent warrior culture and the left-wing ideals of an independent artisan culture. The difference is as great as between the values of ancient Sparta and Athens. They co-mingle no better than oil and water, which is to say not at all.

However, it also needs to be said that not all cultural values necessarily need to be made absolute, ideological, dogmatic and totalizing. Rather, they can come to live in a dialectical tension, a perpetual “push-pull” that, while agonic at times, may also create a more dynamic and adaptive, pluralistic and pragmatic society.

In his book, Culture and Organizations: Software of the Mind: International Cooperation and its Importance for Survival, Geert Hofstede outlines a set of core cultural value polarities that can enter into lethal conflict but that if moderated and qualified can live together in dialectical tension. Those value dualities include excellence and equality, the individual and the collective, assertiveness and modesty, certitude and ambiguity, short-term goals and long-term goals. Values exist within a large complex that includes rituals, heroes, symbols, and traditions, all of which are subsumed under practices. As children we learn our values not so much consciously and explicitly as unconsciously and implicitly. As Hofstede puts it, “Values are broad tendencies to prefer contain states of affairs over others. Values are feelings with an arrow to it: they have a plus and a minus died. They deal with good vs. evil, dirty vs. clean, ugly vs. beautiful, natural vs. natural, abnormal vs. normal, paradoxical vs. logical, irrational vs. rational.”

Closed ideological and totalitarian societies, whether religious or secular, tend to set up a values monism in which only one set of values is allowed freedom of expression, while opposing and counter-balancing values are viewed evil, regressive, perverse and false. Open, inclusive pluralistic societies allow divergent and counter-balancing values to co-exist in a perpetual relationship of dynamic tension. In such societies everyone must make compromises because no one gets everything they want. When the irreducible differences in visions, values, beliefs and practices significantly outweigh the commonalities, those societies fall into lethal conflict and civil war. When the exclusive values and interests of the few, usually the rich and powerful, eclipse the values and interests of the many, usually the poor and oppressed, than that society will begin to collapse into violence and anarchy. We see this today in numerous countries, including Iraq and Syria.

An absolutely dualistic “winner-takes-all” approach to values will always produce a conflict orientated individual or culture. For example, if one regards the various temperament types as either good or bad, right or wrong, then one must set up a conflict between such polarities as Introversion and Extraversion, Intuition and Sensation, Feeling and Thinking, Perception and Judgment. The mentality is, “If you are of an “opposite” temperament type from me then you are creepy, alien, strange, weird. Indeed, you are probably the Enemy.”

The same polarizing drama plays out in various areas of life. In higher education it plays out in the polarizing attitudes that often characterize those who are exclusively committed to the study of the sciences or the arts, philosophy or literature, sociology or psychology, history and mythology. Temperamental preferences become idealized and hardened into competing kinds of intelligence, as competing epistemological methods, and even as competing metaphysical assumptions.

It is in the realms of metaphysical assumptions that we see the full power of the polarizing human tendency played out. For some years now I’ve been fascinated to watch the competing worldviews of dualism, idealism, materialism and panpsychism play out their drama of competition and conflict. Each worldview tradition has established its own self-validating network of values, rituals, heroes, symbols, narrative, myths, metaphors and practices. Each demonizes and stereotypes the competing worldviews. A non-ideological ironic pragmatist, or for that matter a post-enlightenment romantic or existentialist might find each of these worldview visions and its associated values persuasive and appealing on its own terms, but falling short of anything like an absolute truth that excludes all other partial and qualified truth-claims. Rather, the pragmatic and pluralistic attitude will be, “We have met the enemy, and he/they may be partly right.”

The shift from a dualistic, polarizing absolute ideological approach to political philosophy would mean that the conservative and liberal, the libertarian and communitarian, or at least some of them, might be able to transcend their ideological dogma to the extent that they could see at least some value in the other social, economic and political camps. When narrow, dogmatic, sectarian ideologies run either the executive, judicial or legislative branches of government, the voices of passionate moderates and radical centrists, of principled pragmatists and consensus builders is silenced. Such a condition is toxic and destructive to an open democratic society.

Returning to Isaiah Berlin’s idea of value pluralism, it is not hard to recognize that different societies and cultures, like different individuals and families we meet, express their own unique sets of dominant values and practices. Some individuals and collectives prefer what I call the “left-brain” approach to life. They champion the values of rationality, logic, objectivity, detachment, the external third-person account of the world. They love math, science and technology. Other individuals and collectives prefer the “right-brain” approach to life. They champion the values of passion, paradox, subjectivity, participation, the internal first-person account of the world. They love music, art and literature. Many “left-brain” types are drawn to business, finance and politics, and to all things mechanical, strategic and military. “Right-brain” types are drawn the sensuous, aesthetic and ecstatic. The left-brain rational types seek the Stoic, Utilitarian, Productive, Quantitative, Dutiful and Heroic Life, while the right-brain types seek the Epicurean, Romantic, Creative, Qualitative, Desirous and Picturesque Life.

These are two casts of mind, two ways of life. This, then, is the society and world of value pluralism in which we live. Perhaps some values are complementary, while others are contradictory, and still others are so remote and dissimilar from each other as to be incommensurable. Whether we choose relate to different values as primarily complementary, competitive or incomparable is yet another tacit value commitment. My own temperamental preference is to follow the counsel of E.M. Forester wherever possible, who famously said, “Only connect.”


One thought on “Living Cooperatively in a World of Values Pluralism”

  1. Rich, your blog really got me thinking that with all of the great philosophers with their thoughtful labels and hierarchies, never actually offer concrete solutions! I also wonder where and why did ‘value pluralism’ begin to emerge. Was it the industrial revolution or the time between the Renaissance and Reformation? Peter Watson states in The Modern Mind, that the beginning of Modernism had a profound affect on all areas of society.

    You also cited Geert Hofstede saying values are feelings with arrows attached. That’s great. Children do learn cultural values implicitly, and when they are expressed and experienced through rituals, symbols, etc., how can we remain positive when destructive values can be so embedded?

    The pluralistic attitude of acknowledging that the “enemy” may indeed be partly right, seems to be the only way through competing polarities. Ah, but this is only possible when, for example, elected officials actually accept their responsibilities and work together! We are indeed at a toxic precipice.

    Great blog Rich. As always, thank you!

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