Political Science Liberal Pluralism
Monica Mookherjee
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 January 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0193


Recalling J. S. Mill’s consciousness of the different goals of human life, the modern debate about pluralism has gathered momentum in liberal philosophy largely as a consequence of the intellectual historian and political theorist Isaiah Berlin. In his seminal essay, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” Berlin prompted thought about the potential overlap between the plurality of human values and the liberal tradition. In the years following, a vigorous debate with numerous strands has arisen around a synthesis of these concepts, in the form of the theory of “liberal pluralism.” A key area of controversy is whether the acceptance of pluralism supports a “perfectionist” theory of the state; or whether, by contrast, it generates a neutral liberalism that abstains from difficult questions about the highest good. A related question is whether the concepts of liberal pluralism fit together at all. Some of Berlin’s interpreters such as John Gray suggest that value pluralism does not privilege liberalism, and that the relationship between these ideas is historically contingent. Liberal pluralists such as George Crowder disagree. From their perspective, liberals defend first-order political values such as fairness or personal autonomy, to protect the various conceptions of the good life citizens personally endorse. Moreover, the most recent decades have seen a burgeoning examination by analytical political theorists of the implications of liberal pluralism for state neutrality and the protection of minority cultural or religious rights. While the equally vast literature on toleration, political liberalism, and the politics of recognition is not considered in depth in this article, unless it explicitly invokes the theory of liberal pluralism, key works that apply liberal pluralism to minority cultural, religious, and ethnic identities are represented in the later sections. Therefore, this article overall reflects different dimensions of debate on a complex and much debated contemporary theory. Following the overview of Foundational Works, and background readings on the relationship between liberalism and the politics of difference and identity, the next substantive section covers critical studies of Berlin’s liberal pluralism. This is then followed by a section addressing the conceptual relationship between value pluralism and liberalism generally, before moving on to consider more specific works addressing the relation between liberal pluralism and the concept of neutrality. The final sections consider critical literature applying liberal pluralism to conditions of ethnic, subnational, cultural, and religious diversity. This is crucial, because the defense of liberal pluralist theories is clearly designed to be applied to such real-world situations of diversity.

Foundational Works

The central works in liberal pluralism in this section are all monographs. Edited collections on this subject have been integrated into the more specialized sections of the bibliography (see the Relationship between Liberalism and Value Pluralism; Liberal Pluralism, Nation, and Culture; and Liberal Pluralism and Religion). Among the works presently considered are the crucial, and contrasting, responses to pluralism offered in the 1980s by Rawls 1993, authored by a defender of liberal neutrality, and Raz 1986, written by a key defender of a perfectionist liberal state. While these works do not typically invoke the term “liberal pluralist,” their thought remains foundational to the debate. Responding more directly to Berlin’s pioneering essay (Berlin 1969), the early years of the millennium witnessed a set of original and insightful monographs developing theories of liberal pluralism specifically. Bellamy 2002 directs attention to the democratic negotiation of difference and away from the internal debate about liberal values. Galston 2018, in contrast, argues for a “minimal perfectionist” internal reading of the liberal values needed to support pluralism, through which the author highlights the concept of “expressive liberty.” Finally, in apparent contrast to Bellamy but like Galston, Flathman 2005 emphasizes the internal tension between liberal values, including that between commitments to unity and diversity.

  • Bellamy, Richard. Liberalism and Pluralism: Towards a Politics of Compromise. London: Routledge, 2002.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203007327

    This monograph is a careful, clearly written, detailed application of liberal pluralism to a range of issues, mostly affecting liberal democracies in Europe, including the citizens’ charter, constitutional reform, and the Rushdie Affair. The monograph provides one of the most insightful conceptual discussions of liberal pluralism. The innovative argument is that a pluralist liberalism must be more than a “meta-political” theory about liberal values and more a democratic “politics of compromise.”

  • Berlin, Isaiah. “Two Concepts of Liberty.” In Four Essays on Liberty. By Isaiah Berlin, 118–172. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969

    Acclaimed for his seminal defense of the distinction between forms of liberty, Berlin’s essay is famous for its defense of negative liberalism as the framework to recognize the plurality of human values. Partly owing to Berlin’s allusive style of argument and to the tensions within it, this text provides the most thought-provoking starting point for examining the modern idea of liberal pluralism, for both undergraduates and more advanced researchers alike.

  • Flathman, R. E. Pluralism and Liberal Democracy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.

    Appealing to advanced scholars, Flathman’s perspective is more specialized than more standard liberal texts. It draws from more eclectic theories than liberals generally tend to do. Flathman reaches toward the insights of William James, Hannah Arendt, Stuart Hampshire, and Michael Oakeshott. By considering, for instance, Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1951), Flathman contends that classical liberalism is challenged by the recent emergence of more demanding forms of pluralism, such as separatist and secessionist movements.

  • Galston, William. Liberal Pluralism: The Implications of Value Pluralism for Political Theory and Practice. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511613579

    Against criticisms of theorists such as John Gray (see Gray 1988, cited under the Relationship between Liberalism and Value Pluralism), Galston takes value pluralism to support a “minimal perfectionist” politics based on the value of expressive liberty. Galston also argues against “monist” theories, which rank all human goods hierarchically and presuppose a single, most rational way to live. As one of the most insightful readers of Berlin 1969, Galston’s perspective would appeal to advanced researchers and undergraduates alike.

  • Galston, William. Anti-pluralism: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018.

    A recent wide-ranging exploration of contemporary conditions in advanced democracies, such as the growing urban-rural divide and the challenges of addressing immigration and the attendant “populist backlash” against a postwar liberal consensus on the value of diversity. Accepting that liberal democracy will always leave some citizens dissatisfied, this work defends the enduring value of liberal pluralism—so long as the permanent threat of dissatisfaction with liberal priorities is openly confronted and accepted.

  • Rawls, John. Political Liberalism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

    In contrast with Raz, Rawls provides what has been widely viewed as one of the most significant justifications within contemporary political philosophy for a neutralist, anti-perfectionist liberal politics. This politics accommodates human beings’ reasonable disagreements about their conception of the good within the nation-state. This text is foundational for the study of modern liberalism generally. It is essential reading for any researchers keen to understand a liberal response to diversity and pluralism, from the perspective of a modern social contract theory.

  • Raz, Joseph. The Morality of Freedom. Oxford: Clarendon, 1986.

    Raz provides a seminal defense of a liberal-perfectionist accommodation of pluralism on the basis of explicitly accepting value pluralism. More specifically, Raz offers a political theory that defends autonomy as a higher good. It is through this good that human beings choose between different, equally valuable modes of living. If, as Raz argues, human ends are incommensurable and potentially conflicting, the important issue is the human freedom to choose between them.

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