Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Confident Pluralism: A Response

Bryan McGraw


The following article is from the response given at the recent 2016 Annual Kuyper Lecture “Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving Through Deep Difference,” delivered by John Inazu which can be read here.

In thinking about how to respond to the “fact of pluralism,” John Inazu offers us a rich and attractive vision of how we might inhabit and sustain a pluralistic society that avoids the alternative errors of monism and indifference. We might, after all, decide to try to overcome that “fact” and impose on others our own conception of human flourishing. Or, alternatively, we might wash our hands of our neighbors and leave them quite alone. The former is not only impractical; it is often quite unjust as a generalized strategy. The latter may seem like a much preferable option, but to be indifferent runs up against another “fact” -- that of human sociability. We can no more leave one another alone than we can consistently live alone; it’s impossible to care for our neighbors if we’re indifferent to them.

So neither monism nor indifference is a plausible or attractive strategy for dealing with the “fact of pluralism,” whereas confident pluralism is both plausible and attractive. Alas, we live in an age where plausible and attractive all too often don’t win the day. In light of that, let me offer two worries about the argument, one sociological and the other theoretical.

Sociological Concerns: Toleration vs. Recognition

One of the great virtues of Inazu’s work is that it attends to both culture and institutions. Confident pluralism both prescribes the kinds of institutional and legal changes that would protect the groups and associations that make genuine pluralism possible, and it describes the habits and inclinations—what Inazu calls aspirations—that would make those institutions effective. While his institutional prescriptions will be challenging enough, it is his aspirations, and in particular toleration, that some armchair sociological observations suggest may be slipping out of reach.

Consider the sorts of demands made by students across the country regarding what they take to be their respective campuses’ racial (and other) inequities. For the most part, the demands are pretty ordinary—more resources for certain sorts of faculty and staff, new or newly funded academic programs, and so on. More interesting, to me at least, have been the demands to require “diversity training” or classes focused on racial oppression or even the imposition of speech codes to govern not just students but faculty as well. We might add to this stories of disinvited speakers, “safe spaces,” trigger warnings, and the like, and the picture we get of American campuses is not one of confident pluralism, but of something quite different.

Toleration involves a studied refusal to intervene against a belief or practice you find morally noxious, even when you could plausibly do something about it. It is, as we all recognize, a rather difficult virtue (or aspiration), as it requires simultaneously holding the idea that what someone is doing or saying is wrong and holding the idea that we should permit that person to do it. Some have suggested that toleration is “paradoxical” precisely in that it requires us to tolerate the “intolerable,” but that’s just untrue. If something is indeed “intolerable,” then we shouldn’t tolerate it.

Rather, toleration involves distinguishing the things that are merely “wrong” from the things that are indeed intolerable. We tolerate immoral beliefs or practices not because they are not wrong, but because we judge that other goods are worth overlooking their wrong-ness. You don’t, if you have good manners, generally blow up a family reunion because some relative has noxious political views, typically because you decide that your relationship with your family (or that relative) is more important than winning some argument.

Note something very important here: toleration necessarily carries with it a negative moral evaluation of a belief or practice. I may tolerate my relative at the reunion, but I still think he’s wrong. So being tolerated, while no doubt better than not being tolerated, can still be an unpleasant experience. A number of scholars have argued of late that toleration is insufficient morally and what’s required instead is recognition, or a kind of positive regard for one’s beliefs and practices-- in the parlance of the day, one’s identity. The goal is not just for pluralist societies to get along with mutual forbearance in the context of deep disagreement, but to find ways of positively appreciating one another as a means of making us all comfortable (privately and publicly) in whatever kind of lives we choose (or find ourselves living).

That sensibility, the desire for recognition and not “mere” toleration, is what fuels some significant portion of our campus unrest, and it is what makes me rather pessimistic regarding Inazu’s relatively modest aspirations. Confident pluralism cannot succeed in a society where the desire for recognition becomes the rule rather than the exception. If others’ critical regard is determined to be a source of serious moral injury and correlative grounds for punitive political action, what space can there be for genuine and serious moral disagreement? Confident pluralism needs individuals and groups with enough confidence in their own views that they can let others be without simply being indifferent to them. My observation is that those individuals and groups are in relatively short supply and that there is little reason to think we are likely to see a renaissance in their kind anytime soon.

Theoretical Concerns: Reasonable, Confident, or Principled Pluralism?

Inazu frames his project as a response to “the fact of pluralism,” a term John Rawls used in an 1987 law review article as he worked out arguments that would eventually be published in 1993 as Political Liberalism.[1] The interesting thing is that by 1993, Rawls had replaced “the fact of pluralism” with “the fact of reasonable pluralism” (emphasis added), signifying his view that, normatively speaking, we shouldn’t be so much concerned with pluralism as such, but only with pluralism among those who are already committed in some significant way to the liberal democratic project.

It seems to me that when we ask how we are to respond to the mere fact of pluralism as opposed to reasonable pluralism, our attention is inevitably drawn toward the various ways people in free societies pursue human flourishing. When the Rawlsian begins with reasonable pluralism, our attention is drawn first to the health of our political institutions and only secondarily to the sorts of good lives that might support them. This is why Rawlsians (and others) are so strongly pulled toward “congruence,” the notion that putatively private institutions—civic groups, social clubs, even churches—should be pressed legally to reorganize themselves according to egalitarian public norms. Beginning with the health of the liberal state makes private associations and institutions too often little more than auxiliaries to the state’s interests.

This matters for confident pluralism. In Inazu’s admirable effort to be “reasonable,” he is asking us ultimately to play a game we can’t win and unduly neglecting the important apologetic work Christians must do going forward, namely the re-articulation of a robust, attractive, distinctively Christian view of human flourishing. That is to say that it is not enough for us to appeal to political or legal traditions to make confident pluralism a reality. We must be ready to defend a view of the good life in ways that invite respect and maybe even admiration, and to do that, we cannot avoid our own theological traditions.

Inazu’s worries about the (Kuyperian) principled pluralism claim centers on the fact that Kuyper’s arguments are indelibly theological and thus don’t travel especially well. Fair enough. But we might ask: how well does confident pluralism travel? My sense is that those who have found fault with Inazu’s arguments have done so mostly because they worry that confident pluralism provides too much protection for groups they don’t especially like.

Because confident pluralism is committed to engaging pluralism simpliciter rather than just reasonable pluralism, its critics end up rejecting its argument (or at least significant parts of it) precisely because of the substantive claims of the groups it encompasses. Of course, they (mostly) cover over this substantive view with a more abstract one, suggesting that there are good moral-political reasons for deciding that institutions like the Boy Scouts or my employer, Wheaton College, are threats to all that is good and decent in the world. But we shouldn’t be fooled: although the argument is framed in terms of reasonability, it is usually determined by judgments about whether we think that group’s values are good or not.

While Inazu is rightly worried about whether Kuyperian arguments travel outside their own theological territories, his critics are playing a different sort of game, namely one that always and inevitably makes substantive judgments about the values that animate the diverse array of associations and institutions that populate our (sometimes) civil society.

It is right to try to persuade our fellow citizens, and sometimes that means using language and reasons common to all. But it seems to me that in order to make confident pluralism a reality, we will need to do more, not less, especially for those of us who find ourselves in the position of what we might call a moral minority. If we want to persuade our fellow citizens that the institutions and associations we inhabit are worth protecting legally and politically, we will have to do the hard, maybe near impossible, work of showing the value, goodness, and even beauty of our conception of what it means to live well. If we can’t do that, either because we fail to persuade or because we have lost that conception ourselves, I’m afraid the rest may not matter all that much.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Do you agree with the writer’s definition of toleration? How would you explain the concept theoretically and in practice? How does the need for recognition potentially undermine toleration?
  2. What are some areas where you might find yourself as part of a “moral minority”? How can you explain your position to your family, friends, or colleagues in winsome ways? What are some approaches that you should avoid or discard?


-- Bryan McGraw is Associate Professor of Politics at Wheaton College.

[1] John Rawls, “The Idea of an Overlapping Consensus,” Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 7, no. 1 (1987), 4.

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