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Relativism - Pluralism

standard framework standards acceptable

With respect to some areas of thought and discourse, unbridled relativism will be less attractive than a relativism that requires certain boundaries be respected. As we have seen, it is difficult to see how tolerance about alternative standards of Fness can be maintained unless we suppose there is some viewpoint independent of these alternative standards from which to evaluate them. Many philosophers have come to the conclusion that there is such a viewpoint, although it can only be a very broad standard imposing limits on the range of acceptable standards. Some such philosophers, such as David Wong and Michael Walzer, do not shun the label "relativists," but they are perhaps better described as "pluralists." Pluralism holds that a range of different standards of Fness exists and can be tolerated, but only within limits. One sort of pluralism might be based on a kind of indeterminacy among acceptable standards: Begin with a universally valid framework for any acceptable standard, including, for instance, demands such as that any valid standard must treat like cases alike. Such a framework alone is not itself a standard for Fness and so cannot provide any kind of guidance. It is, rather, a second-order standard, or a standard for any acceptable first-order standard Fness. Suppose, further, this framework marks off a "range" property of standards, in the sense that no standard fits the framework any better than any other standard fits the framework (as when, for a given circle, no point within the circle is more within it than any other) (see Rawls, p. 508). As long as a given standard fits the framework, it is acceptable, but an indefinite number of different standards could meet it. This case offers no grounds for judging that any standard of Fness is "better" or "worse" than any other, based on the second-order framework, except to say that either a standard fits the framework or it does not. Limited tolerance, then, would amount to approving of those standards within the range that fit the framework and disapproving of those outside of that range, based on the second-order standard of acceptability provided by the framework.

A different sort of pluralism would be based simply on epistemic modesty (i.e., a justifiable reticence to assert claims that one does not know to be true). One can even combine this with parametric universalism: a single universally valid framework yields standards that deliver opposed conclusions in a given case depending on the circumstances. Modesty implies that even if there is a determinate answer to the question whether, for any given thing, it is F or not, it may not be possible to be confident enough of this in any case. Suppose, then, no one can be confident that he or she knows how that framework is to be put into practice in any particular culture or time. That is, she does not know which of the available standards that fit the framework is best given the circumstances. Then, where one is not confident, one should be tolerant.

Whether pluralism of either kind can meet the challenge of developing a coherent defense of tolerance is not clear. For one thing, pluralism based on epistemic modesty implies a kind of diffidence in the face of alternative standards that is sufficient to prevent the modest judge from condemning the alternative standards. Yet it must also leave one confident in the importance of one's own standard. Moreover, although pluralism based on indeterminacy allows one to see one's own standard as acceptable based on meeting a sort of minimum, this is hardly the sort of endorsement that can sustain its grip on us in the face of a variety of equally acceptable alternative standards.

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