Incommensurability and Deliberation: Prolegomena to Pluralist Politics

49 Pages Posted: 29 Mar 2010 Last revised: 6 Apr 2010


This paper explores the implications of certain modes of practical reasoning and judgment for liberal-democratic political practices. I approach the question of practical reasoning through the lens of a problem in the theory of value pluralism, as inspired by the writings of Isaiah Berlin. Value pluralists posit that some goods and values are incommensurable to one another; however, this claim presents a puzzle for how best to conceive of reasoned choice between incommensurable alternatives. If the objects of choice are incommensurable to one another, and thus cannot be measured or ranked, how can agents make reasoned choices among them? Are there ways of conceiving of the meaning of in commensurability and the nature of practical reasoning such that the two can fit together? While many writers in the literature on value pluralism have acknowledged this problem, no one has, as of yet, developed a satisfactory response to it. I propose to take up this task by elaborating some important features of practical reasoning, centered on our ability to give an account of our choices to one another. On my view, practical reasoning is not formal, but highly contextual. Our ability to give accounts of our choices consists in reconstructing the particular details of competing considerations, and elaborating the reasons attaching to them. This is not a process of commensuration, but it is a type of reasoning. I bring these considerations to bear on political theory by highlighting their significance for thinking about the political implications of value pluralism. On this view, value pluralism generates liberal practices that are, because rooted in this contextualism, more open-ended and deliberative than prevailing judicial, rights-based approaches.

Suggested Citation

Bourke, James E., Incommensurability and Deliberation: Prolegomena to Pluralist Politics. Western Political Science Association 2010 Annual 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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