Value pluralism in twentieth-century Anglo-American thought

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A sunset plus a child’s smile gives no sum; a Chartres minus a human life leaves no ascertainable remainder. Whether as human beings faced with such choices, or as theorists formulating rules of action and moral maxims, we must recognize an ultimate pluralism of goods which no pious wishes can synthesize into a simple monism. Sterling Lamprecht, 1920 … it is all a matter of compromise and balance and adjustment and empirical Popperism etc. … Isaiah Berlin, in a letter to Denis Paul, 30 December 1952 Perhaps, after all, the most attractive conceptions of the leading liberal values do hang together in the right way. We haven’t yet been given reason to abandon that hope. Ronald Dworkin, 1998 Value pluralism played little role in either British or American political thought before the mid to late twentieth century. To be sure, there were prominent currents of philosophical and psychological pluralism in the United States at the beginning of the century – William James in particular – but these did not lead to any clear-cut political prescriptions. There were occasional attempts to draw out the implications of specifically ethical pluralism – as opposed to philosophical, socio-cultural or political-institutional pluralism – for political theory, in particular the articles by Sterling Lamprecht in the early 1920s. But they remained without much of an echo. At the same time, those political thinkers commonly called pluralists in Britain and the United States were primarily concerned with the defence of group autonomy against a potentially overbearing or even repressive state. While some of them might have shared value pluralist assumptions and even drawn on them for their defence of autonomous group life, it would be hard to argue that their political commitments primarily derived from value pluralism. As Marc Stears has argued, G. D. H. Cole relied on certain value pluralist intuitions – the manifold and often contradictory ends of individuals – to make the case for guild socialism as the best means to promote individual freedom. But the guild socialist movement as a whole was clearly animated by a concern with social welfare (and, to some degree, efficiency), rather than any desire to ensure the pursuit of the greatest possible diversity of human ideals. Cole and his wife Margaret were – in Margaret’s words – ‘romantics about trade unions’; they were not romantics about the romantics in the way that Isaiah Berlin turned out to be.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationModern pluralism
Subtitle of host publicationAnglo-American Debates Since 1880
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages24
ISBN (Electronic)9781139084451
ISBN (Print)9781107017672
StatePublished - Jan 1 2012

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Social Sciences


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