What Is Pluralism? Definition and Examples

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Christian, Jewish, Muslim and political leaders pose for a picture at the International Conference on 'Religious and Cultural pluralism and Peaceful Coexistence in the Middle East' organized by Greece's Foreign Minister in Athens on October 19, 2015.

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The political philosophy of pluralism suggests that we really can and should “all just get along.” First recognized as an essential element of democracy by the philosophers of Ancient Greece, pluralism permits and even encourages a diversity of political opinion and participation. In this article, we will break down pluralism and examine how it works in the real world.

Key Takeaways: Pluralism

  • Pluralism is a political philosophy holding that people of different beliefs, backgrounds, and lifestyles can coexist in the same society and participate equally in the political process.
  • Pluralism assumes that its practice will lead decision-makers to negotiate solutions that contribute to the “common good” of the entire society.
  • Pluralism recognizes that in some cases, the acceptance and integration of minority groups should be achieved and protected by legislation, such as civil rights laws.
  • The theory and mechanics of pluralism are also applied in the areas of culture and religion.

Pluralism Definition

In government, the political philosophy of pluralism anticipates that people with different interests, beliefs, and lifestyles will coexist peacefully and be allowed to participate in the governing process. Pluralists acknowledge that a number of competing interest groups will be allowed to share power. In this sense, pluralism is considered a key element of democracy. Perhaps the most extreme example of pluralism is found in a pure democracy, where each individual is allowed to vote on all laws and even court decisions. 

In 1787, James Madison, known as the Father of the U.S. Constitution, argued for pluralism. Writing in the Federalist Papers No. 10, he addressed fears that factionalism and its inherent political in-fighting would fatally fracture the new American republic. Madison argued that only by allowing many competing factions to participate equally in the government could this dire result be avoided. Though he never used the term, James Madison had essentially defined pluralism.

The argument for modern political pluralism can be traced to early 20th century England, where progressive political and economic writers objected to what they saw as the growing tendency of individuals to become isolated from each other by the effects of unrestrained capitalism. Citing the social qualities of diverse yet cohesive medieval constructs such as trade guilds, villages, monasteries, and universities, they argued that pluralism, through its economic and administrative decentralization, could overcome the negative aspects of modern industrialized society.

How Pluralism Works

In the world of politics and government, it is assumed that pluralism will help achieve a compromise by helping decision-makers become aware of and fairly address several competing interests and principles. 

In the United States, for example, labor laws allow workers and their employers to engage in collective bargaining to address their mutual needs. Similarly, when environmentalists saw the need for laws regulating air pollution, they first sought compromises from the private industry. As awareness of the issue spread, the American public voiced its opinion, as did concerned scientists and members of Congress. Enactment of the Clean Air Act in 1955 and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 were the results of various groups speaking up—and being heard—and were clear examples of pluralism in action.

Perhaps the best examples of the pluralism movement can be found in the end of white apartheid in South Africa, and the culmination of the racial Civil Rights Movement in the United States with the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The ultimate promise of pluralism is that its process of conflict, dialog, and negotiation leading to compromise will result in the abstract value known as “the common good.” Since first conceived by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, “the common good” has evolved to refer to anything that is of benefit to and shared by all or most members of a given community. In this context, the common good is closely related to the theory of the “social contract,” the idea expressed by political theorists Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke that governments exist only to serve the general will of the people. 

Pluralism in Other Areas of Society

Along with politics and government, pluralism’s acceptance of diversity is also embraced in other areas of society, most noticeably in culture and religion. To some extent, both cultural and religious pluralism are based on ethical or moral pluralism, the theory that while several diverse values may forever be in conflict with each other, they all remain equally correct.

Cultural Pluralism

Cultural pluralism describes a condition in which minority groups participate fully in all areas of the dominant society, while maintaining their unique cultural identities. In a culturally pluralist society, different groups are tolerant of each other and coexist without major conflict, while minority groups are encouraged to retain their ancestral customs.

In the real world, cultural pluralism can succeed only if the traditions and practices of the minority groups are accepted by the majority society. In some cases, this acceptance must be protected by legislation, such as civil rights laws. In addition, the minority cultures may be required to alter or even drop some of their customs which are incompatible with such laws or values of the majority culture. 

Today, the United States is considered a cultural “melting pot” in which indigenous and immigrant cultures live together while keeping their individual traditions alive. Many U.S. cities have areas like Chicago’s Little Italy or San Francisco’s Chinatown. In addition, many Native American tribes maintain separate governments and communities in which they practice and hand down their traditions, religions, and histories to future generations.

Not isolated to the United States, cultural pluralism thrives worldwide. In India, while Hindus and Hindi-speaking people are the majority, millions of people of other ethnicities and religions live there as well. And in the Middle Eastern city of Bethlehem, Christians, Muslims, and Jews struggle to live peacefully together despite the fighting around them.

Religious Pluralism

Sometimes defined as “respect for the otherness of others,” religious pluralism exists when adherents of all religious belief systems or denominations co-exist harmoniously in the same society. 

Religious pluralism should not be confused with “freedom of religion,” which refers to all religions being allowed to exist under the protection of civil laws or doctrine. Instead, religious pluralism assumes that the different religious groups will voluntarily interact with each other to their mutual benefit. 

In this manner, “pluralism” and “diversity” are not synonymous. Pluralism exists only when engagement between religions or cultures molds diversity into a common society. For example, while the existence of a Ukrainian Orthodox church, a Muslim mosque, a Hispanic Church of God, and a Hindu temple on the same street is certainly diversity, it becomes pluralism only if the different congregations engage and interact with each other.  

Religious pluralism can be defined as "respecting the otherness of others". Freedom of religion encompasses all religions acting within the law in a particular region.

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