Value pluralism does not support liberalism

Following hints in the writings of Isaiah Berlin, some political theorists hold that the thesis of value pluralism is true and that this truth provides support for political liberalism of a sort that prescribes wide guarantees of individual liberty.1 There are many different goods, and they are incommensurable. Hence, people should be left free to live their own lives as they choose so long as they don’t harm others in certain ways. In a free society there is a strong presumption in favor of letting individuals act as they choose without interference by others. William A. Galston has developed this argument with exemplary clarity.2 He is wrong. The idea that value incommensurability is a reason for toleration of diverse ways of life and protection of the individual’s freedom to choose among diverse ways of life is a mistake. In his paper for this volume, What Value Pluralism Means for Legal Constitutional Orders, Galston undertakes to resolve a further problem, namely, whether the presumption in favor of individual liberty that value pluralism establishes can be kept within bounds. In his words, “Within the pluralist framework, how is the basis for a viable political <span class='Hi'>community</span> to be secured?”3 On one construal of these words, Galston is seeking the solution to a non-problem. Value pluralism does not establish any normative presumption in favor of liberty, so the worry “does this presumption hold without limit” or, “are there good reasons that constrain it at some point”, is otiose. On another construal, Galston is addressing a different question: if most of the members of society came to believe that given value pluralism, they ought to be left free to live according to their own conception of values, then would a “decently ordered public life” be impossible to sustain?4 On the second construal, the issue being posed is a genuine empirical question, which philosophical arguments cannot answer.
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