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Pluralism is, in the general sense, the acknowledgment of diversity. The concept is used, often in different ways, in a wide range of issues. In politics, pluralism is often considered by proponents of modern democracy to be in the interests of its citizens, and so political pluralism is one of its most important features.
The term pluralism is also used to denote a theoretical standpoint on state and power - which to varying degrees suggest that pluralism is an adequate model of how power is distributed in societies. For information on the political theory of pluralism see Pluralism (political theory).
In democratic politics, pluralism is a guiding principle which permits the peaceful coexistence of different interests, convictions and lifestyles. In this context it has normative connotations absent from its use to denote a theoretical standpoint. Unlike totalitarianism or particularism, pluralism acknowledges the diversity of interests and considers it imperative that members of society accommodate their differences by engaging in good-faith negotiation.
One of the earliest arguments for pluralism came from James Madison in The Federalist Papers #10. Madison feared that factionalism would lead to in-fighting in the new American republic and devotes this paper to questioning how best to avoid such an occurrence. He posits that to avoid factionalism, it is best to allow many competing factions to prevent any one dominating the political system. This relies, to a degree, on a series of disturbances changing the influences of groups so as to avoid institutional dominance and ensure competition.
Pluralism is connected with the hope that this process of conflict and dialogue will lead to a definition and subsequent realization of the common good that is best for all members of society. This implies that in a pluralistic framework, the common good is not given a priori. Instead, the scope and content of the common good can only be found out in and after the process of negotiation (a posteriori).
Still, one group may eventually manage to establish its own view as the generally accepted view, but only as the result of the negotiation process within the pluralistic framework. This implies that, as a general rule, the "operator" of a truly pluralistic framework, i.e. the state in a pluralistic society, must not be biased: it may not take sides with any one group, give undue privileges to one group and discriminate against another one.
Proponents of pluralism argue that this negotiation process is the best way to achieve the common good: since everyone can participate in power and decision-making (and can claim part of the ownership of the results of exercising power) there can also be widespread participation and a greater feeling of commitment from society members, and therefore better outcomes. By contrast, an authoritarian or oligarchic society, where power is concentrated and decisions are made by few members, forestalls this possibility.
Proponents in contemporary political philosophy of such a view include Isaiah Berlin, Stuart Hampshire and Bernard Williams. An earlier version of political pluralism was a strong current in the formation of modern social democracy, with theorists such as Harold Laski and G. D. H. Cole, as well as other leading members of the British Fabian Society. Horace Kallen coined the term cultural pluralism to express the condition of a democratic nation which sustained, and was sustained by, many cultural traditions.
Note, however, that political philosophers such as Charles Blattberg have argued that negotiation can at best compromise rather than realise the common good. Doing the latter is said to require engaging in "conversation" instead, room for which is made within what Blattberg calls a patriotic, as distinct from pluralist, politics.
For pluralism to function and to be successful in defining the common good, all groups have to agree to a minimal consensus regarding shared values, which tie the different groups to society, and shared rules for conflict resolution between the groups:
The most important value is that of mutual respect and tolerance, so that different groups can coexist and interact without anyone being forced to assimilate to anyone else's position in conflicts that will naturally arise out of diverging interests and positions. These conflicts can only be resolved durably by dialogue which leads to compromise and to mutual understanding.
However, the necessary consensus on rules and values should not unnecessarily limit different groups and individuals within society in their value decisions. According to the principle of subsidiarity, everything that need not be regulated within the general framework should be left to decide for subordinate groups and, in turn, to individuals so as to guarantee them a maximum amount of freedom.
In ultimate consequence, pluralism thus also implies the right for individuals to determine values and truths for themselves instead of being forced to follow the whole of society or, indeed, their own group.
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