Can Value Pluralism Support Liberalism?: The Problem of Priority and What to Do About it

41 Pages Posted: 13 Aug 2009 Last revised: 5 Apr 2010

Date Written: 2009


This paper offers a new, revised understanding of value pluralism that clarifies its political implications. Value pluralism is now regarded as one of Berlin's most important and interesting ideas. But it remains an open question whether it has any relationship to the liberalism he so vigorously defended. The task of linking liberalism to value pluralism is a difficult one because of a serious problem concerning the priority of certain norms in liberalism. It is hard to specify a recognizable version of liberalism that does not involve the priority of some values over others (e.g. liberty, rights, toleration, etc.). The problem for value pluralists is that they deny the possibility of general priority rules in principle, so it becomes difficult to see how they could endorse liberalism. In this paper, I give a critique of current approaches to this question, and argue for a weaker connection between liberalism and value pluralism than the foundational link currently sought in the literature. I argue that instead of grounding liberalism on value pluralism, value pluralists might more fruitfully seek to revise and improve upon liberal institutions and practices from a pluralist perspective.

Keywords: value pluralism, liberalism, Isaiah Berlin, William Galston, George Crowder

Suggested Citation

Bourke, James E., Can Value Pluralism Support Liberalism?: The Problem of Priority and What to Do About it (2009). APSA 2009 Toronto Meeting Paper, Available at SSRN:

James E. Bourke (Contact Author)

Fordham University ( email )

113 West 60th Street
New York, NY 10023
United States

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