structured moral pluralism (a proposal)

(New York) Isaiah Berlin recalled that the Russian novelists he read as boy shared with “the major figures [of philosophy], especially in the field of ethical and political thought,” a common “Platonic ideal.” This ideal implied,

In the first place that, as in the sciences, all genuine questions must have one true answer and one only, all the rest being necessarily errors; in the second place that there must be a dependable path towards the discovery of these truths; in the third place that the true answers, when found, must necessarily be compatible with one another and form a single whole, for one truth cannot be incompatible with another – that we knew a priori. This kind of omniscience was the solution of the cosmic jigsaw puzzle. In the case of morals, we could then conceive what the perfect life must be, founded as it would be on a correct understanding of the rules that governed the universe (2013, p. 4) .

This passage is a simplification of intellectual history (Berlin himself cites Vico, Herder, and others as opponents of the view that he attributes to “the major figures”), but he accurately describes one tendency. For some important thinkers, moral truths–if they exist at all–must form a single whole, like a completed jigsaw puzzle or like a mechanism in which some components support or drive others. Not only should the elements be compatible, but articulable reasons or arguments should connect them together. If you believe A, you should be able to say why in terms of B. If you believe A and B, but the two seem to conflict, then you should be able to resolve the conflict by adjusting the two principles.

By the way, you can hold this model of moral thought even if you doubt, given our cognitive and moral limits, that we will ever see the whole puzzle correctly. The truth may still be a coherent structure even if what we know is always partial and confused.

Another view is very different from this one. It is the theory that human beings have instinctive, affective reactions to situations. After we form those reactions, we may rationalize them with arguments, but our arguments are always insufficient to determine our reactions, and we are good at gerrymandering our general principles to fit what we want to conclude about specific cases. Thus our arguments do not explain our judgments. However, empirical psychologists can detect patterns in our various reactions, which suggest the existence of unconscious latent factors that do explain what we feel about cases. Those factors may not be mutually compatible, which is why we are often ambivalent or inconsistent. They may also vary from person to person. But they exist, and what we say about moral issues is inconsequential compared to this structure of latent factors (see, e.g., Haigt and Graham et al.).

This view could be correct, although I suspect it is partly an artifact of the research methods. To the extent that it is true, it denies the value of moral deliberation, which is a fundamental obligation in the tradition that Berlin calls “Platonic.” Moral positions, Haidt writes, are “nearly impregnable to arguments from outsiders.” That implies an answer to the question that opens the Federalist Papers–“whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” If latent factors determine responses, then we are destined to depend on accident. I hope that is not the case.

Berlin famously dissented from the “Platonic” view of morality and developed a version of pluralism. There are the main elements of his position:

  1. “There is a world of objective values” (p. 11). In other words, some things really are valuable. It is wrong to deny an actual value, such as freedom or equality, or to add something to the list of values that doesn’t merit inclusion. In short, there can be a right or a wrong answer to the question whether something (e.g., love, war, desire, loyalty) is a good. This is different from Moral Foundations theory, which presumes that we must value whatever we value.
  2. But the genuine “values can clash – that is why civilisations are incompatible. They can be incompatible between cultures, or groups in the same culture, or between you and me” (p. 12).
  3. Because of the nature of morality and/or human nature, there is no possible world inhabited by human beings in which all the goods are perfectly compatible. “These collisions of values are of the essence of what they are and what we are. … The notion of the perfect whole, the ultimate solution, in which all good things coexist, seems to me to be not merely unattainable – that is a truism – but conceptually incoherent; I do not know what is meant by a harmony of this kind. Some among the Great Goods cannot live together” (pp. 13-14).
  4. The misguided effort to harmonize all worthy values into one structure is a dangerous illusion (p. 15), or even “the road to inhumanity” (pp. 19-20), because it justifies the imposition of moral beliefs on others without compromises.

I am basically pluralist, but I would alter Berlin’s view in one important respect. He seems to assume a list of fully distinct and potentially incompatible goods. I observe that people make connections among some of their own ideas. They say that one value implies, or supports, or resembles another value in various respects.

These structures seem to me to have merit. Connecting two ideas means giving a reason for each of them, because now they hang together. We ought to reason in order to live an examined life and to deliberate with other people. We are prone to very grave limitations and biases if we merely rely on our instinctive reactions to moral situations, taken one at a time, or if we allow latent factors to determine our reactions. We should struggle to put our ideas together into explicit structures and should present portions of those structures to other human beings for inspection and critique. That is just an idiosyncratic way of saying that we must reason together about values. Reasoning does not mean endorsing various Great Goods, one at a time, but rather connecting each idea to another idea.

This view is still compatible with Berlin’s pluralism, for two important reasons. First, the structure of moral ideas that each of us gradually builds and amends may contain incompatible values. Each of us can be a pluralist, even as we attempt to connect many of our own ideas into networks. Our networks can contain gaps and loose links and can reflect tradeoffs. Second, is it likely that even human beings who strive to develop the best possible structures of moral ideas will never produce the same structures. That is because moral reflection is deeply dependent on local experience and on conversations with concrete other people, each of whom is affected by her own conditions. So we will forever disagree. In contrast to the image of a “cosmic jigsaw puzzle” that we are all working together to complete, I’d propose a great web of loosely connected ideas that we are all perpetually creating and linking together.

See also: 10 theses about ethics, in network termsJonathan Haidt’s six foundations of moralityan alternative to Moral Foundations Theory; and everyone unique, all connected.


Berlin, Isaiah. The crooked timber of humanity: Chapters in the history of ideas. Princeton University Press, 2013.

Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Pantheon, 2012)

Jesse Graham, Brian Nosek, Jonathan Haidt, Ravi Iyer, Spassena Koleva, and Peter H.Ditto, “Mapping the Moral Domain,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 101(2), Aug 2011, 366-385.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
This entry was posted in moral network mapping, philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.