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Thoughts on “pluralism”

The accepted wisdom about Islam is that it has to accept pluralism to become a good citizen of the modern world. “Pluralism,” as a practical matter, is the view that the only public truth about religion is that no religion is better than any other and all religion ought to be kept private. Christianity, it is said, has already accepted pluralism, or at least its legitimate forms have. If the West wants to tell Islam to reform, the least the West can do (it is said) is crack down on its own anti-pluralists. So opponents of “gay marriage” or abortion can’t be distinguished from the Taleban, and it’s hypocritical to oppose the one without taking a stand against the other.

The essence of “pluralism,” then, is that liberalism comes first, and within the limits of liberalism you can be anything you want. As long as you agree it’s obligatory to honor equally all preferences that accept liberal equality you are perfectly free to have and pursue your own preferences. You can, for example, admire and love the scriptures, teachings, rituals and personages of Christianity or Islam as long as that admiration and love is wholly subordinate to liberalism. Your religious preference must be understood as a purely personal matter, and the true value of your preferred religion must be understood as its adumbration and poetic presentation of liberal teachings. Further, you must be willing to keep quiet about your religious beliefs, at least if there’s some risk they might be understood to be meant as authoritative. It’s against pluralism, for example, to say “Merry Christmas” in a Western society in which Christianity has historically (until a few years ago) had a privileged position.

The basic argument in favor of “pluralism” is that in a world in which beliefs do in fact differ it is the only way to achieve peace. The advantage of that argument, from the standpoint of those making it, is that it does away with the need to argue the truth, goodness or rationality of liberalism itself. It makes the unquestioned supremacy of liberalism a brute practical necessity that all other views must bow to as a precondition for avoiding the war of all against all and so being able to achieve any good whatever. For liberals, it’s a shortcut to total victory.

It’s not clear that the argument makes sense, though. It’s no doubt true that things will be peaceful if everybody strictly subordinates all interests to liberalism, but it’s equally true that things will be peaceful if everyone strictly subordinates all interests to Catholicism. One could, for example, have a Catholic pluralism in which you’re allowed to be liberal or Islamic, and admire John Stuart Mill and the concept of freedom or Mohammed and the Koran, as long as you strictly subordinate those things to the discipline and doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, view them as valuable strictly to the extent they can be understood as parables of Catholic truth, and keep quiet about them if there’s a risk they might be taken literally, so that in Egypt you’d have to keep quiet about Islam and in America about liberalism.

That kind of pluralism would have the same logical structure, and the same effect with regard to peace, as the kind deep thinkers want to enforce on Christianity and Islam. Would liberals be willing to render it the same submission they demand from Christians or Muslims with respect to their own version of pluralism? The fact of the matter is that if there are differences in belief there will be conflicts. It’s often possible to avert or moderate the practical consequences of conflicts, but the claim that there’s some principled way to dissolve conflicts altogether while leaving the conflicting beliefs as they are is obviously phoney. It’s an attempt to make a particular belief dominant by stealth, and no-one is required to accept it. Life, and the issues life presents, are real. It follows that when the good, beautiful and true come into question there’s no substitute for dealing with the issues actually presented.




Turnabout has a good post about liberalism’s bid to defeat the Islamic threat through cultural and religious plurality: The basic argument in favor of “pluralism” is that in a world in which beliefs do in fact differ it is the

It did, and thanks for the reference. A very helpful discussion.

“Tolerance” is a Weapon.

Turnabout has some interesting comments. In this entry, he makes the following suggestion: In particular, it’s crucial to confront notions like “inclusiveness” and “tolerance.” What those ideas mean is that every social institution other than b

Frank Exchange of Views

I came across this critique of pluralism on Turnabout (via 2blowhards). I don’t want to start anything personal, so rather than saying it’s a load of pus-filled bollocks, I’ll just say that I see some very glaring flaws in its…

Watch The Straw Men Burn

I ran into this via Nick’s page. Now, Nick has already thoroughly destroyed it, I want to rip apart the fake definition this guy threw together. “Pluralism,” as a practical matter, is the view that the only public truth about…

To Ben: if your friend wants an exchange of views he should learn the difference between frankness and abuse.

Boo hoo.

Nicholas Liu’s entire detailed critique (linked by Ben, above) does nothing but make apparent over and over again his ignorance of the extent to which pluralism is taken to an extreme in the U.S. and Europe, with the resulting displacement/replacement/gradual destruction of centuries and millennia of traditional culture and social arrangements that had grown up which the people still loved but the ruling classes wished done away with. Nothing like what’s been going on here in pluralism’s name has been seen by the inhabitants of Mr. Liu’s Singapore, long known—certainly since the sixties when Prime Minister Lee first took the reins of power—as a society governed in authoritarian fashion where nothing is permitted to “rock the boat” of the stability of longstanding social customs, institutions, and arrangements. I do not think Mr. Liu even comes close to appreciating the socially catastrophic situation that has arisen in the West because of “pluralism” and related post-modern socio-political “movements” (actually, more properly referred to as pathologies). I hope what’s happening here never happens to Singapore, a pretty decent place from all I’ve heard. Singaporeans can be thankful that Lee Kwan Yew, no dupe, never would have permitted the sort of nonsense we’ve seen here these past thirty-five years or so to get within a million miles of Singapore.

To the extent Mr. Liu has anything coherent to say on his linked blog, it is to distinguish between keeping one’s religion purely personal and keeping one’s _expression_ of his religion purely personal. The entire structure of his substantive objection, to the extent he has one, hinges on this distinction. Translating Mr. Kalb’s basic contention into Mr. Liu’s language might be to say that the only religious view that is allowed to express itself in the form of public authority is liberalism; whereas other religious views must express themselves only personally, to wit:

“The only thing about it that must be kept personal, to an extent, is your expression of it. Thus, you can evangelise to your bowling buddies, but you can’t make it company policy that all your employees must convert or be fired.”

Precisely. In any instance in which one’s religion says something _authoritative_ that authority must be interpreted as applying only to onesself and only in those very few dealings that do not involve authority over other people. It must be understood that no religion has authority over any other who has not voluntarily accepted it. And since authority is exactly that which binds us irrespective of our will, no religious view (other than liberalism itself) is permitted to have authority, period.

However it is that Mr. Liu wants to express it, the substantive point is that there is only one religious view that is allowed, in the postmodern West, to have binding public authority: liberalism. Any religious view that does not acknowledge liberalism as the only legitimate binding public authority is viewed as invalid. Mr Kalb expressed this succinctly this way:

“…the true value of your preferred religion must be understood as its adumbration and poetic presentation of liberal teaching.”

Quite. All legitimate authority is liberal authority. Those who do not bow low before her will not be tolerated (I think the remarkably candid and quite popular bumper sticker is “educate, communicate, eradicate”).


Hello there,

I just found this blog as a consequence of its being linked from 2blowhards. I must admit I was previously unfamiliar with Jim Kalb, but from what I’ve seen I look forward to the 2blowhards interview.

I was interested to read this particular entry, as rather similar ideas occurred to me when discussing the recent French proposal to ban religious expression, in particular the wearing of Hijab, in public schools. I consider myself to be a liberal, in the sense of that word that is closer to “libertarian” than to “social democrat”, and found the ban to be counter-intuitive and unnecessary, but it seems to represent a conception of liberalism, different from mine and closer to that Jim describes, which considers the overt expression of religion to be a threat to the authority of the state. A clear case of religion only being OK if it conforms to liberal requirements, I think.

Historically there is an Islamic parallel to this kind of liberalism in the form of the limited toleration granted to “peoples of the book” under the millet system.

My conception of liberalism has always been that the state should not interfere with individual lives unless there is a clear conflict. Which is not to say that there should not be a clear community structure - just that it should not depend on state control. From this perspective relgious pluralism means freedom to practice religion - in both public and private spheres - provided it does not contravene anyone else’s right to do likewise. So headscarves are fine, but (one understanding of) jihad is not. From this understanding, liberalism is not superior to religious ways of life, because it has no commitments of its own about how life should be lived: it merely wishes to maintain the balance between different faiths.

So, Jim, a question for you: do you think this kind of liberalism makes sense ? Or is the only real choice between conservatism and the kind of liberalism you (rightly, I think) seem to be criticising ?

I don’t think that classical liberalism of the type you favor works in the long run. I agree with the basic impulse to restrict the social role of government, but it nonetheless seems to me that government should ally itself with the moral institutions that make the life of the society what it is. Otherwise it’ll generate its own moral institutions and force them on everyone, as in the hijab situation.

In classical liberal society the work of social order is done by informal moral understandings and habits that the people treat as authoritative. As a result the state doesn’t have to do much. The messy and contentious issues have already been answered outside politics. There’s a problem though. The political order tends to undermine those informal habits and understandings because its ultimate ethical commitment is arbitrary freedom—the goodness of doing what one feels like doing. That kind of commitment tells in the long run. The political order decides questions of life and death and so necessarily demands profound moral adherence. Its fundamental standards can’t possibly remain bottled up. They tend to become authoritative in private life as well.

Things get worse of course when the political order becomes as active and intrusive as our own is. It seems to me the very active PC social services state we have now is a natural outcome of the basic liberal tendency to identify what is good with what is wanted. The tendency leads to the conclusion that all wants are equally good (hence PC), and all wants should be advanced as effectively as possible by all possible means (hence social services).

Here’s some stuff that seems relevant from a long piece I’m working on:

“Liberalism hopes to eliminate the need to choose substantive goods by putting its principles of social order at the level of procedure and turning government into a rational system for advancing each man’s goals. The effort must fail. Since man is social, social order is human. It participates in all the levels of being in which man participates, from the material to the spiritual and metaphysical …

“Nor can questions of final goals be avoided. An answer is implicit in any wide-ranging scheme of action, including any coherent scheme of government. To say something is good is simply to say that it is rationally worth pursuing as a goal. The ultimate purpose of an action is part of what makes it reasonable. To claim, as liberalism does, that something as comprehensive and enduring as a political order should take no position on ultimate goods is either to embrace political irrationalism—the view that we should live together socially in a certain way with no idea why—or to impose an unstated ultimate good while denying doing so …

“Further the advanced liberal state is everywhere. It educates the young, confers honor, disgrace and punishment, and intervenes to reform public attitudes on things as close to home as relations between the sexes and the rearing of children. As a state it demands a loyalty that extends to life and death decisions. How can anyone possibly claim that the public/private distinction enables it to avoid the need to take a comprehensive moral stance?”

Unadorned’s point is that in America, and Western countries generally, extreme anti-religious (“anti-fundamentalist”) views are really quite common. It’s not an argumentum ad hominem. He just mentioned as an aside that the situation might not be evident to someone in Singapore. Otherwise a statement like “the idea that pluralism entails thought-policing to weed out unliberal beliefs is simply ludicrous” becomes difficult to comprehend.

Even though the view that opponents of abortion and “gay marriage” are in principle equivalent to the Taleban is no doubt odd, many educated, respectable and well-positioned people think there’s a great deal to it and aren’t afraid to say so. To see for yourself try sticking “gop taliban,” “republicans taliban” and so on into Google. For some relevant polling date see the section on the anti-fundamentalist voter in the piece on the Democratic Party at .

As to the relation to pluralism and liberalism, it’s evidently very close. Philosophers often say liberalism is basically an attempt to organize society without reference to ultimate religious or philosophical commitments and giving as much play as possible to individual views on such things. See for example Rawls’ Political Liberalism. Such views make the two basically equivalent.

At bottom the issue, of course, is the nature of “pluralism,” whether it’s simply a code of conduct that doesn’t pick sides or whether it’s a comprehensive understanding of human life that claims the right to shut down other perspectives. To me it seems odd to claim that pluralism as it actually exists in the West, which says that ideological liberals can insist that their doctrine be taught in schools, forced on employees and made the point of all public celebrations, doesn’t pick sides between ideological liberals and people with opposing views.

I find it amusing that you’re putting all this effort into writing these “essays,” and have no conception of the difference between moral obligations and contractucal oblingations. The democratic state is not an entity that mandates moral systems, but an entity that exists as a compromise between the citizens who live under its laws - the constitution outlining the agreed terms under which these citizens occupy the same land and subject themselves to the governing of the state.

The state does not punish murder because it’s “wrong,” but because its citizens do not want to be murdered. It does not punish theft because it is “wrong,” but because its citizens do now want to be stolen from.

You would do well to catch up on the last 400 years of social and political theory.

Also, I don’t know how you theocrats have managed to control the dialogue on this, but no one is banning the “religious instruction” in schools. The state is taking a neutral position by not providing religious instruction in the schools it provides. You’re certainly welcome to withdraw your children and send them to a religious institutions. If liberalism were so prevalent, forcings its moral mandates upon you as it claimed you would, you certainly wouldn’t have that right.

“Pluralism” only takes one side - it takes the principle of “my right to move my hand only extends to where your face begins” and applies it to religion. Under that system, it’s not right for the state to restrict homosexual marriage because it harms no one. It makes it unlawful to kill children because your religion mandates so because it harms others.

Beyond that, this country was founded on the idea that restricting rights without just cause is wrong, and as freedom of religion is guaranteed (by the contractual agreement which currently stands), forcing others to practice your religion goes against everything which we the citizens of the US have gotten ourselves into.

I mean, seriously. Political Science 101 here. The government doesn’t judge things by whether they’re immoral or moral, but whether they’re legal or illegal. It’s contractual. The government is not forcing anyone to accept a certain “moral perspective,” but to abide by the laws. You can think things are wrong or right to your heart’s content, and the government can’t change your mind, nor say, “No, consider this wrong.” Even murder. All the government can say is, “We will punish actions like murder because they violate the laws of this country.”

You can have different feelings about what is legal and what is moral.

Ben: let me get this straight, the government’s prohibition of murder is contractual? where’s the contract? As for “we will punish actions because they violate the laws”, this amounts to “it’s against the law because it’s against the law”. I mean seriously, Political Science 101 here….

The legal order does not influence the moral order? Laws are not ever created by people trying to advocate a certain moral order?

My Political Science 101 teacher seems to have been somehow defective.

The last was in reply to Ben and not to Paul.

Did I say “laws are not ever created by people trying to advocate a certain moral order?”

Look at the Roe v. Wade court decision:

Though the State cannot override that right, it has legitimate interests in protecting both the pregnant woman’s health and the potentiality of human life, each of which interests grows and reaches a “compelling” point at various stages of the woman’s approach to term.

Where does morality come up? The case was decided on issues of balancing the interests of multiple parties.

Murder is against the law because the state is appointed the role of the protector of its citizens. Thus the whole “The state versus…” title of court cases.

You could get “it’s against the law because it’s against the law if you failed to read the beginning section of my argument”

The democratic state is not an entity that mandates moral systems, but an entity that exists as a compromise between the citizens who live under its laws - the constitution outlining the agreed terms under which these citizens occupy the same land and subject themselves to the governing of the state.

Under which it’s quite simple to see that I was talking about two separate parts, the first in which laws are made through the compromises citizens with different beliefs and backgrounds come together in order to live at peace with one another, and the second having been about the state’s role in forcing a legal order, as opposed to a moral order. Of course, reading within context seems to be beyond you people.

Pluralism exists as a compromise. Not because it’s morally right or wrong (nor does the government enforce it as so) but because those of the terms under which I, an borderline agnostic-pantheist, and you, whatever fundamentalist type religion you are, can live together. I wouldn’t want fundamentalism shoved down my throat, just as you wouldn’t want my brand of skeptical curiosity shoved down yours. Back to the “my right to move my hand ends where you face begins” argument, which you also so cleverly ignored in your reponse.

Also, notice how you completely neglected the whole point of my comparison between the enforcement in demonstrating that your second grade reading comprehension or raised on television attention span (whichever was in control at the moment) couldn’t handle following the gist of my argument - namely, that the government doesn’t force a moral order, but a legal order.

Laws are often created by people trying to advocate a certain moral order, sure. Did I say they weren’t? This does not mean, however, they they necessarily do, that they should, that they always do, etc. In fact, I think laws that are implicitly moral rather than contractual should be off the books. Why the hell should the government tell gay couples they can’t be married? What possible interest could it have in doing so? What interest do others have in keeping them from being married?

Perserving the sanctity of marriage? What about the sanctity of the wine of communion? Why don’t we end this stupid Protestant Welch’s grape juice fad. What about the sanctity of the Torah? Why should we let this mockery called the “New Testament” masquerade as truth?

The options are either start a reign of religious cleansing and persecution, or set up the government as a neutral ground through which other parties can act. Not because it’s right, or wrong, but because we are a society of many beliefs, races, and values, and to legislate a value that is not a matter of enforcing people’s rights to material and automony - that which they demand in return for allowing other citizens the same right, it’s got no business being a law.

Your argument gets a bit confusing, Ben, because it is not clear whether you are defending a government that does exist, that should exist, or whether you mean America or nations in general.

Ben needs to know that, believe it or not, many Americans don’t see the United States as merely an amusement park devoted to satisfying the mindless thrills of a certain kind of brainwashed twenty-something college graduate who’s been taught moreover by the Marxists to get a tingle up and down his spine from the feeling that he’s overthrowing big important things in life (overthrowing only certain ones, mind—his Marxist professors have made clear which others are strictly off limits as regards any sort of opposition). On the contrary, many Americans view the United States as a country—a nation in the Brimelovian sense having its own distinct ethno-culture, this last entailing transcendant elements which are not, it’s perfectly true, sensed by everyone.

The term ethno-culture, by the way, refers in part to a nation’s predominant genetic patrimony, such that a reason many of us strenuously oppose massive incompatible immigration (while not objecting to reasonable immigration) is we don’t want to live in an ethno-culture different from the traditional U.S. one, especially if the new one promises to be worse instead of equivalent or better.

In this whole conversation we’re not talking about reasonable pluralism but the extreme variety. No one is against pluralism which is not taken to a Marxist extreme, an extreme whereof the intent is to weaken society in preparation for the imposition of a Marxist dictatorship (see here: )

To paraphrase Dan Seligman writing in the pages of the old (pre-purge) “National Review” something like a decade ago, no country is morally obliged to commit ethno-cultural suicide merely in order to show how pluralistic it is.

Can Ben see that?

Ben’s friend Nicholas Liu chiming in with the pro-pluralism position (again, in this discussion we’re talking about extreme pluralism, not the reasonable kind) from Singapore, which Lee Kwan Yew explicitly kept extreme pluralism out of for decades, is like someone playing a war board game at their kitchen table at home chiming into a discussion about war between actual soldiers in a real battle zone.

Ben mentions the Hebrew Bible. Must Israel also shed its ethno-cultural particularity in favor of extreme pluralism?( * ) Or is that only incumbent upon the United States and Europe to do?

( * ) This is the policy for Israel which is favored by Prof. Noam Chomsky, Joe Sobran, George Soros, Justin Raimondo and, ironically, Pat Buchanan, Charlie Reese, and many paleos—I say ironically because paleos generally do not want extreme pluralism for the U.S.

So let me get this straight: because someone claims to be educated, you immediately dismiss them as a Marxist, and invoke that as further proof of some wacko conspiracy theory by which all pluralism is part of an elaborate plot through which America will be weakened, being enacted by Marxists who want to stage a revolution? And all this while pretending that you’re only talking about extreme forms of pluralism while the original argument makes no such claim?

Not worth your time, Ben.

Part of the dark beauty of the whole pluralism/liberalism shibboleth is its ultimately suicidal nature. It will make a great deal of self-righteous noise as it slits its own throat; but slit its own throat it will. It will ruthlessly legislate the moral proposition that morality can’t be legislated, it will arbitrarily force people to live under the bootheel of arbitrary freedoms, it will with despotic exactitude stamp out despotisms, until its embrace of Death is complete: until it devours itself completely.

The really interesting thing to think about isn’t the self-delusions of the current crop of liberals busily conforming to liberalism’s insistence on nonconformism and imposing her ruthless regime of comprehensive tolerance. No. What is interesting is what things will look like after liberalism completes its self-destruction. That I think is just about anybody’s guess.

Matt’s having some fun! Been reading Chesterton lately?

I’m not a Marxist, nor is anyone I’ve been “taught” by. In fact, my first political science professor was a devout Catholic and chair of religious studies who was something of a moderate. Nice try, though.

It is worth saying that the assertion that morality can’t be legislated is either pragmatic or semantic, depending on whether your quibble is with what the government does, or what people call morality. Moral systems function psychologically and socially through implicit means, while legislative systems function contractually through explicit means. They may coincide at times, but they do not line up. All I see here is basic confusion over terms and issues.

As to this: again, in this discussion we’re talking about extreme pluralism, not the reasonable kind

Nope, sorry, start over again, please. Notice how the position isn’t outlined that way in the entry above? You can’t pretend that my position (that freedom of religion and the plurality that happens because of it are good) is the position you’d prefer to argue against (that people should go out of their way to create diversity at all costs), because quite simply, it’s not. Nor can you pretend that all pluralists fight for the latter stance, as the majority stand in the lot of the former.

And with the Israel bit - I actually think Israel’s openly racist propositions such as the Law of Return are rather pathetic, though I will say the equally racist and ethnocentric nonsense coming from the Palestinian side is similarly pathetic.

Oh, and it would probably be best if you’d stop implying things that are blatantly false, like the “ethno-cultural identity” of America being weakened by genetics. I mean, do you know what genetics are, or ethnicity and ethno-cultural identities, or are you just sort of winging it here? Because it doesn’t take much critical thought to see that “ethno-cultural identities” are constructed socially, not biologically, and whatever relations they have to biological factors are completely arbitrary.

Matt: If you would have bothered to read, you’d already have noticed that I already made a case for “tolerance” not being a moral agenda, but a pragmatic agenda in relation to the great compromise we call society. The best choices are:

1) Read. Agree.
2) Read. Disagree. Respond to the salient points.

Your choice of: “Don’t read, or read and completely ignore, and then put together two paragraphs of complete rhetorical nonsense about social collapse, suicide, death, and whatever particularly nasty words you can put together to form a sentence” was completely off the map.

Kind Regards,

Benjamin, Benjamin…..I’m still waiting to hear about how our laws are “contractual”. The example you gave was the law against murder. Where’s the contract?

Ah, but what makes a pragmatic agenda the right thing to do in a particular time and place? What are the goods it advances?

Mr. Kalb: no fair peeking.

For Ben: My academic training was mostly in mathematics, physics, biology (biology, biochemistry, physical and organic chemistry, gross anatomy, histology, histopathology, physiology and pathophysiology, and many other related studies including, yes, molecular biology and genetics), and medicine. My B.S. degree was in mathematics. My profession is in the medical field. I also happen to take an ongoing interest in genetics. Yes, I know something about genetics. Now, don’t bore me to death.