The term "pluralism" in ethics characterizes two things equally well.

What we might call "social pluralism" is the view that diverse and often mutually inconsistent ethical outlooks should be respected and that there may not be any single moral principle or set of principles, however basic, that all moral agents must acknowledge. Human rights, for example, may be widely acknowledged in the West, but not in other parts of the world; hence, from a social pluralist's point of view, for Western governments to try to impose standards of human rights upon non-Western societies is inappropriate.

Personal pluralism, on the other hand, is the view that a single moral agent may endorse a variety of different moral principles, some ofwhich may be mutually inconsistent, and employ one or another in different morally charged situations. For example, in resolving ethical questions about diet, a personal pluralist might apply Singer's principle that one should not cause sentient beings unnecessary suffering and therefore decide not to eat factory-farmed meat. In resolving ethical questions about abortion, he or she might apply Schweitzer's reverence-for-life principle and vote for an anti-abortion candidate for public office. And, in resolving ethical questions about species conservation, the same person might embrace Leopold's principle that one should preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community and help save an endemic plant species by shooting the feral goats or pigs threatening it.

Social pluralism appears attractive because it seems to imply inclusiveness and tolerance. In extremis, however, social pluralism is vulnerable to the same sort of criticism that ethical relativism, in extremis, has attracted. A social pluralist recognizes no universal ethical values or principles, he or she has no means of ethically challenging any one else's sincerely held moral beliefs. Further, if there are no universal ethical values or principles upon which to base agreement, then radical and intractable differences of moral outlook are irreconcilable. How then can they be resolved except by coercion?

Personal pluralism arose in environmental ethics because finding a single moral principle that could guide our actions in respect to other people, animals, plants, species, ecosystems, the atmosphere, the oceans, and the biosphere proved difficult (Stone). Moreover, our inherently rich and complicated moral lives may be distorted if reduced to a single master principle of action and we are frequently misled if we try rigorously to follow one (Brennan). According to Mary Midgley (1992), we may read the history of Western ethical theory, from Plato and Aristotle to Singer and Leopold, not as a series of formulations of and justifications for competing master principles of action, but as a series of illuminating insights into human ethical experience that can deepen our moral reflection and help us to make wise practical choices.

Proponents and critics alike of personal pluralism have noted some obvious problems. An agent who has a variety of principles and their theoretical justifications at the ready, with no faithful commitment to any of them required, may be tempted to choose the most convenient or self-serving. But all ethics, whether pluralistic or unitary, assume good will on the part of moral agents. A more difficult problem is how to select which principle to apply when more than one is relevant at some moment of decision, and when those that are relevant indicate different and incompatible courses of action. But to demand an algorithmic solution to this problem is to beg the question against personal pluralism.

Moral principles, however, do not exist in an intellectual vacuum (Callicott, 1990). They are often derived from and are always associated with a complex of supporting ideas—usually an ethical theory, which is in turn supported by a moral philosophy. In choosing to act upon a moral principle, a personal moral pluralist thus also endorses— whether consciously or not—the ethical theory and ultimately the moral philosophy supporting it. But the ethical theories and moral philosophies supporting such popular principles as the Christian golden rule, the Aristotelian golden mean, the Kantian categorical imperative, the utilitarian greatest-happiness principle, and so on, offer radically different visions of nature and human nature. Are we morally autonomous rational ends-in-ourselves for whom nature exists only as means, as Kant argues; or are we vessels of pleasure and pain, equal in this morally relevant respect to all other sentient animals, as Singer holds? How can we be both at once?

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