Asking Too Much? Civility vs. Pluralism

Philosophical Topics 41 (2):59-78 (2013)
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In a morally diverse society, moral agents inevitably run up against intractable disagreements. Civility functions as a valuable constraint on the sort of behaviors which moral agents might deploy in defense of their deeply held moral convictions and generally requires tolerance of other views and political liberalism, as does pluralism. However, most visions of civility are exceptionless: they require civil behavior regardless of how strong the disagreement is between two members of the same society. This seems an excellent idea when those required to do the tolerating might otherwise smash us. However, the demands of civility are universal and fall upon everyone, including ourselves. They may seem to require us to tolerate the intolerable, leading us not into pluralism but rather into functional relativism, and also require the powerless to moderate their demands for redress. They also place moral agents in a very difficult position with respect to realizing our deeply held moral values. Isaiah Berlin’s pluralism, by contrast, allows us to violate tolerance when we come up against values which, put into practice, are incompatible with a form of life we can tolerate. Despite the many fronts on which civility and pluralism align, they are also pitted against each other. Only a qualified (not exceptionless) civility based in respect for persons can cohere with pluralism and thus resolve the double bind in which the moral agent seemed to be placed by exceptionless civility. I develop a rule for Accepted Exceptions that helps to explain how moral agents can be civil, value pluralism, demand redress, and maintain their own deeply held moral commitments.

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Alison Reiheld
Southern Illinois University Edwardsville


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