Reasonable Pluralism and Political Liberalism
The accommodation of a plurality of ethical outlooks or conceptions of the good life is a central feature of liberalism. It is also a controversial one. Perhaps the most familiar controversy concerns the extent of the diversity: what conceptions of the good, if any, are not admissible within the liberal polity? A second problem concerns the role ethical diversity should play in the justification of liberalism as a normative political theory. Clearly these problems are connected to each other; however, in this paper I focus mainly on the latter. Indeed, I ask why a liberal political order should accommodate ethical diversity in the first place. This problem has achieved greater prominence in connection with the success of neutralistic liberalism, a variety of liberalism in which the accommodation of diversity acquires special prominence. In this paper, I look an extremely influential formulation of neutralistic liberalism, namely John Rawls’ book Political Liberalism (1993). I show how in Rawls’ theory the understanding of the justification of liberalism –that is, of liberal legitimacy– is presented as depending on the role of ethical diversity, and more specifically on the accommodation of what he terms ‘reasonable pluralism’. I argue that, however, this strategy fails to support principles of liberal legitimacy in a non-circular way. I conclude by discussing some possible ways out of this empasse, in relation to the recent debate on the relation between liberalism and value pluralism.