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date: 22 January 2019

Pluralism and Toleration in James’s Social Philosophy

Abstract and Keywords

William James wrote almost nothing that would count today as political philosophy. However, it is clear that much of his work is animated by rather profound concerns with our social lives. In this sense, it may be said that James is a social philosopher. The core of Jamesian social philosophy is the doctrine of value pluralism, which animates all of his moral writings. In these essays, James repeatedly attempts to establish that this pluralism underwrites a policy of social toleration. James’s idea is that the irreducible plurality of goods entails that we each must strive for conditions under which as many goods as possible can flourish. This chapter evaluates James’s pluralist argument for social toleration. Ultimately, the chapter argues that James’s value pluralism does not provide a stable basis for social toleration. But the chapter also argues that James has at his disposal a far more promising epistemic argument for social toleration that he left largely undeveloped.

Keywords: pluralism, political philosophy, value pluralism, toleration, epistemic argument

Introduction: James as a Social Philosopher

William James wrote almost nothing that would count today as political philosophy.1 However, it is clear that much of his work is animated by rather profound concerns with our social lives. One might say, then, that James’s philosophy is a thoroughly social philosophy. To cite one obvious case, James introduces his pragmatism by way of an anecdote in which he employs the pragmatic maxim to resolve a “ferocious metaphysics dispute” (P 1907, 27) among an otherwise friendly group of campers concerning a squirrel. Following James’s pragmatist intervention, the group that had turned “obstinate” was able to abandon the “threadbare” dispute and return to its prior sociable state (P 1907, 27–28). This image of pragmatism as a philosophical means by which one could settle “disputes that otherwise might be interminable” (P 1907, 28) and thereby “smooth out misunderstandings” and “bring in peace” (P 1907, 259) runs throughout James’s pragmatist writings. In fact, given James’s analysis of the “present dilemma” in philosophy with which his Pragmatism lectures begin, it is fair to say that the central motive behind James’s pragmatism is conflict resolution. And James is keenly attuned to both the personal/internal and interpersonal/social faces of intellectual conflict.

James’s attunement to social life emerges in other writings as well. Recall that the ultimate upshot of his famous “The Will to Believe” is that a properly empiricist stance with respect to matters of faith not only bars scientistic “vetoes” of religious commitment, but also fosters a “spirit of inner tolerance,” by which we each fully embrace—rather than merely endure—one another’s “mental freedom” (WB 1897, 33).2 Although the details of his argument are notoriously obscure, the core of James’s “will to believe” doctrine runs as follows: Once it is recognized that, with respect to certain questions, “the universe will have no neutrals” (WB 1897, 89), the empiricist must not only allow but insist upon the intellectual respectability of a broad range of believing attitudes, including those attitudes that involve accepting a hypothesis so that the evidence in its favor (should there be any) could be revealed. James holds that the empiricist must therefore protect the social space where the full range of permissible religious experiments may be conducted; religious beliefs, he says, must be afforded the liberty to “live in publicity” where they can be openly and fully tested in the lives and experiences of those who adopt them (WB 1897, 8).

In this way, we find in James a concern not simply with conflict resolution and the corresponding “live and let live” attitude that contributes to conflict avoidance; his view also involves a positive commitment to a certain kind of social and political order, namely one in which contending ideals and commitments—including, crucially, opposed moral and religious commitments—are lived. To put the matter in more current jargon, the “right to believe” (SPP 1911, 111) that James envisions is a positive right, a right to certain social resources, not merely a negative right, an entitlement against obstruction.

Thus far, I have been drawing out some of the social commitments that are merely implicit in James’s writings. Insofar as it could be claimed that James proposes a social philosophy, it seems to be one that is abidingly individualistic, concerned strictly with the social requirements for individuals to live in accordance with moral and religious ideals that are, according to a Jamesian empiricism, epistemically respectable. But individualism is only part of James’s story. Consider James’s popular moral essays. These seem at first glance to fix on the strictly individual aspects of morality, such as the significance of one’s own life (TTP 1899, 150–167) and, indeed, the question of whether life is worth living at all (WB 1897, 34–56). Yet even here his concern ultimately lies with the interpersonal and communal. For the lesson of many of James’s examinations of the “meaning of life” is that in order to live well, we must join with others in large-scale struggles (TTP 1899, 154) and fights (WB 1897, 54) to redeem, or at least improve, the world. It is, according to James, our participation with others in “the everlasting battle of the powers of light with those of darkness” (TTP 1899, 153) that provide the distinctively moral content of human nature, the very possibility of living well or badly. Accordingly, in these writings James is often found lamenting the comforts and pacifications of modern bourgeois society and the “irremediable flatness” (TTP 1899, 154) and “unmanly ease” (ERM 1910, 172) that they bring to individual lives. Although his unforgettable invocations of “the strenuous mood” are most often indexed to the inner lives of individuals, it is no accident these are frequently coupled with mentions of overarching and “imperative” social ideals and loyalties, including justice and freedom (WB 1897, 159–160).

This general strand in James’s thinking turns to topics that are decidedly political with the central proposal of his 1910 essay on “The Moral Equivalent of War.” He longs for a “reign of peace” (ERM 170) and a future in which “acts of war shall be formally outlawed,” but thinks that the “martial virtues” of “intrepidity, contempt of softness, surrender of private interest, obedience to command” and “patriotic pride” (ERM 171) must be preserved. The task, according to James, is to develop social institutions that supply occasions for fostering the martial virtues while sparing the need for actual carnage. For this, James proposes a “conscription of the whole youthful population to form for a certain number of years a part of the army enlisted against Nature” where soldiers would work on large-scale public service projects—James mentions work on iron mines, freight trains, and fishing fleets and tasks such as road-building and tunnel-making, among others (ERM 1910, 172).

It is important to note that the central political thought driving James’s proposal is that there’s something worthy of indignation (at least to “reflective minds”) in the fact that “by mere accident of birth and opportunity” some citizens are doomed to lives of “toil and pain” while others “natively no more deserving” are spared any discomfort at all (ERM 1910, 170–171). This thought will be familiar to contemporary political philosophers familiar with ongoing debates about “luck egalitarianism,” according to which the fundamental task of social justice is to ensure that each individual’s holdings of whatever benefits and burdens political institutions have to distribute reflect her choices rather than her (good or bad) luck.3 And James here seems to fall in squarely with the central luck egalitarians: There is something objectionable in the fact that gross social inequalities emerge out of morally irrelevant and desert-insensitive contingencies. It is, James holds, part of the political task to mitigate these inequalities, and he holds that the way to do so is to create institutions by which privileged citizens (James refers to a “luxurious class”) would no longer be able to remain “blind” to the hardiness and travail that plague the lives of their disadvantaged fellows. A regime of compulsory social service, James thinks, would not only knock the “childishness” out of privileged youth but would also foster in them “healthier sympathies and soberer ideas” (ERM 1910, 172).

It seems, then, that although James is by contemporary standards not a political philosopher, his thought manifests a familiar (and attractive, it seems to me) social vision according to which individuals must be afforded the mental and physical freedom to pursue publicly their life projects (including their religious projects), under the stipulation that they remain internally tolerant of others’ similarly tolerant practices. As was noted earlier, James sees the requisite freedom as involving a positive dimension; that is, he insists upon social conditions that enable, rather than merely allow, a broad range of individual pursuits. And this requires a political and social environment that fosters within each citizen a kind of fellow-feeling and “civic temper” (ERM 1910, 172) that, in a way, endorses and affirms the experiences, commitments, projects, and experiments of others, including those others whose lives embody ideals alien from one’s own. For ease of expression, let us call this general collection of commitments James’s doctrine of social toleration.

To repeat, social toleration forms the central plank of a very attractive social and political philosophy. But it is of course not unique to James (or to pragmatism). Similar themes lie at the heart of historical expressions of progressivist social thought, such as is found in Wilhelm Von Humboldt (1792/1854) and John Stuart Mill (1859/1991). Moreover, the kind of social toleration that James advocates is a highly general expression of the core ideals of liberal democracy as expressed, in varying ways, by contemporary political philosophers such as John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, and Martha Nussbaum (Rawls 1999; Dworkin 2006; Nussbaum 2008).

What is distinctive, though, is James’s proposed philosophical route to his social toleration doctrine. Rather than arguing from utilitarian or social contractarian premises, James proposes to base social toleration on his pluralist conception of value.

The aim of this chapter is to evaluate James’s value pluralist argument for social toleration. Ultimately, I will argue that James’s value pluralism does not provide a stable basis for social toleration. But I will also argue that James has at his disposal a far more promising epistemic argument for social toleration that he left largely undeveloped.

The remainder of the chapter proceeds as follows. The next section is devoted to discerning the general contours of James’s value theory. In the third section, I will raise some criticisms of James’s value pluralism, focusing particularly on James’s proposed argument from value pluralism to social toleration. In the fourth section, I will propose an argument rooted in Jamesian epistemological commitments for a kind of social toleration. The chapter ends with a brief conclusion.

James’s Value Theory

In two of his most profound essays, “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life” and “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” James develops the distinctively pluralist conception of moral value that he claims underwrites his doctrine of social toleration.4 In the former essay, James begins from a pragmatic analysis of fundamental normative concepts, contending that “Goodness, badness, and obligation must be realized somewhere in order really to exit”; he then asserts that the “only habitat” of these moral properties is “a mind which feels them” (WB 1897, 145). Hence moral terms apply to certain states of mind, such as feelings and desires. “[T]he words ‘good’, ‘bad’, and ‘obligation’” refer not to “absolute natures” of acts but instead are “objects of feeling and desire” that “have no foothold or anchorage in Being, apart from the existence of actually living minds” (WB 1897, 150).

Consequently, James holds that “nothing can be good or right except so far as some consciousness feels it to be good or thinks it to be right” (WB 1897, 147). To say that x is good is to report that someone in fact thinks it good or actually desires it. The same goes for obligation. A moral obligation arises, James says, only when “some concrete person” actually makes a claim or a demand that something or other should be done (WB 1897, 148). Indeed, “The only possible reason there can be why any phenomenon ought to exist is that such a phenomenon actually is desired” (WB 1897, 149).

James concludes that “the essence of good is simply to satisfy demand” (WB 1897, 153).5 Hence he identifies the meaning of moral claims such as, One ought never to lie, as expressing a demand that one might make to always be told the truth; one makes such a demand on the basis of one’s desire to not be lied to. The good is the satisfaction of desire.

Now, despite possible appearances, James’s view is not a variety of ethical egoism. The egoist ties moral value to one’s own interests, but James recognizes the moral status of any demand, even those issued by others. Whereas the egoist identifies the right action in any given context with that action that best furthers the interests of the agent, James acknowledges that “every … claim creates in so far forth an obligation” (WB 1897, 148). Consequently, on James’s view, the interests of others can be the source of our obligations, regardless of whether satisfying those interests benefits us. In this way, James’s value theory involves an egalitarian component: Every demand and every interest, no matter whose demand or interest it may be, morally counts. From this, James infers a maximization thesis. He holds that as the satisfaction of demand as such is “the essence of good,” then a state of affairs in which more demands are satisfied must be better than one in which fewer are satisfied. Consequently, James bids us to satisfy “as many demands as we can” (WB 1897, 155); this policy amounts to the imperative to improve the world to that degree we are able. This injunction to satisfy as many demands as possible is James’s meliorism.

All of this might suggest that James is a utilitarian. Yet he is not. Utilitarianism in all of its forms employs a paradigmatically monist conception of value, whereas, as I have already indicated, James holds a pluralist conception of value. The distinction is crucial. To get a grip on it, consider a simplistic version of utilitarianism, the “classical” or “hedonistic” version of the view found in Bentham and others. The centerpiece of the classical utilitarian’s conception of value is the monist claim that there is but one thing of intrinsic value, namely pleasure. And the utilitarian’s monism has a close corollary: Seeing all valuable things as either quantities of pleasure or variously efficient means of producing quantities of pleasure, the classical utilitarian is also committed to the claim that all goods are commensurable. This is the thesis that for any two values, A and B, it is necessarily the case that either one is better than the other, or else they are equally good.

The pluralist denies that there is a single intrinsic value to which all other values are reducible, and thus denies that there is a common measure by means of which different goods can be rank-ordered. Instead, the pluralist countenances “an exuberant mass of goods with which human nature is in travail,” and holds that “there is hardly a good which we can imagine except as competing for the possession of the same bit of space and time with some other imagined good” (WB 1897, 155–156). Holding that goods are heterogeneous, the pluralist denies that for every two values, it must be the case that either one is better than the other or else they are equally good. Consequently, the pluralist countenances some moral conflicts that admit of no morally optimal resolution. In fact, the pluralist claims that some moral conflicts are such that no morally comfortable resolution is possible; with respect to conflicts of this kind, there is no third value to which someone may appeal in deciding how to choose. To put the point in a different way, for the pluralist, nothing plays the role that pleasure plays in hedonism; the pluralist contends that there is no summum bonum in light of which conflicts can be resolved. Thus moral choice is frequently tragic: We must choose between incommensurable goods, without the guidance of reason or principles, and we inevitably suffer a moral loss. As James explains, “there is always a pinch between the ideal and the actual which can only be got through by leaving part of the ideal behind” (WB 1897, 153).

From Pluralism to Social Toleration?

I trust that the sketch provided in the previous section suffices to convey the complexity of James’s value theory. To employ some contemporary nomenclature, Jamesian ethics combines the following elements:

  1. 1. A subjectivist conception of the good, according to which the good is a certain state of a person’s mind, namely the satisfaction of felt desire, expressed as a demand.

  2. 2. A pluralist view of the nature of value, according to which desires and their satisfactions are heterogeneous, that is, different not only in degree or intensity, but in kind.

  3. 3. A content neutral view of moral obligation, according to which the satisfaction of every desire is to some degree good, and the satisfaction of every demand is to some degree obligatory.

  4. 4. A maximizing consequentialist or meliorist view of right action, according to which the right action is the one that satisfies as many demands as possible under the given conditions.

My task in this section is twofold. First, I will ask whether this combination of elements is internally coherent. Then I will turn to whether James’s value theory supplies a plausible basis for social toleration.

It is not clear that the commitments at the heart of Jamesian ethics are internally coherent. As was shown previously, James thinks that as the “essence of good” is the satisfaction of desire, and as desires and their satisfactions are heterogeneous and therefore incommensurable, the “guiding principle for ethical philosophy” is “simply to satisfy at all times as many demands as we can” (WB 1897, 155). I can see no way that James’s meliorism is consistent with his subjectivism and his pluralism. Here’s why. If demands and their satisfactions are, as James’s pluralism would have it, heterogeneous, then there is no sense at all in which a state of affairs in which more demands are satisfied is better than one in which fewer are satisfied. A state of affairs in which twenty demands are satisfied cannot be better than one where only ten demands are satisfied unless a world in which more demands are satisfied is a world in which there is more good. But, again, the central pluralist premise of James’s ethics is that desires (and the demands that express them) are heterogeneous states with “no common character” (WB 1897, 153); thus, the satisfaction of a greater number of demands does not cause there to be a greater quantity of good, only more goods. More good in the world is surely better than less good; but what is the value of there being more goods? In short, on a pluralist view of things, more goods is not necessarily better. In fact, on James’s view, there can be no moral sense in which the satisfaction of more demands is better. But if more is not better, then there is no way to draw the meliorist result from James’s implicit premises.

Contrast James’s view on this point with a familiar utilitarian perspective. The utilitarian is a monist about the nature of value, holding that every good is either a quantity of pleasure or an instrument for producing a quantity of pleasure. Once pleasure is held to be the single thing that is intrinsically valuable, maximizing consequentialism follows easily: If pleasure is the only thing that is good in itself, a state of affairs in which there is more pleasure must be morally better than one in which there is less pleasure. Hence, the utilitarian contends, we should act always to bring about that state of affairs which contains as much pleasure as possible. This notoriously simple but undeniably compelling argument goes a long way in explaining the longevity of utilitarianism as a mainstream moral philosophy. But it is driven by the utilitarian’s monist (therefore commensurabilist) conception of the nature of value. As pleasure is according to the utilitarian a homogeneous phenomenon, one can derive a sum of pleasure across an entire population. This is precisely what a pluralist view of the nature of value precludes. If demands are indeed heterogeneous, there is no sum of good to which each satisfied demand contributes. Again, James’s prescription to “satisfy as many demands as possible” is, to say the least, unmotivated. In fact, it is not clear that any prescription regarding “the guiding principle for ethical philosophy” follows from James’s premises.

Perhaps I’ve misconstrued the matter by presuming that James’s meliorist conclusion was intended to follow from his premises? One could read James as simply recommending that, given his subjectivism and pluralism, the only sensible upshot is to attempt to act so as to satisfy as many demands as possible. The force of the maximizing consequentialist conclusion, that is, might be construed as less of an entailment and more of a piece of advice. Put otherwise, we might read James as claiming that the combination of subjectivism and pluralism suggests that there is no “guiding principle of ethical philosophy” in the usual sense, and so perhaps our best strategy (in some sense of “best”) is to maximize the number of satisfied demands.

My sense is that this is the best reading of James. So let us grant that even if James’s four commitments regarding ethics do not fit happily together philosophically, his aim lies elsewhere, namely in providing practical guidance in the face of the realization that moral philosophy, traditionally construed, is unable to guide us. Now the question becomes whether James is correct to think that his pluralist view of value is able to recommend social toleration.

James’s “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings” contains his most sustained attempt to draw the implication from his pluralism to social toleration. James articulates his pluralism as the view that “neither the whole of truth nor the whole of good is revealed to any single observer . … No one has insight into all the ideals” (TTP 1899, 149). He thinks that this entails that we ought to promote, rather than simply permit, as many ideals as possible.

To illustrate this point, James tells of his experience of squatters’ cabins in North Carolina. He paints a scene of “unmitigated squalor,” with the forest destroyed by girdled trees, zizags of fences, and ramshackle cabins plastered with mud. At first, he sees it as “hideous, a sort of ulcer … Ugly, indeed, seemed the life of the squatter” (TTP 1899, 133–134). However, he later finds that he had overlooked the goods internal to that life and that landscape. “When they looked on the hideous stumps, what they thought of was personal victory. … [T]he clearing … was to them a symbol redolent with moral memories and sang a very pæan of duty, struggle, and success” (TTP 1899, 134). He concludes that given our limited purview, we have “a certain blindness” which prevents us from seeing the goods that constitute others’ lives. He holds that, consequently, no life or situation can instantiate all of the available goods. There is not enough time, space, or resources for them all to flourish, or even exist. We must then live our life in the face of a moral uncertainty of what answers are proper in the face of moral conflict. James thinks that what is called for is a life of “sweat and effort,” “struggle,” a life that is lived bravely in the face of this uncertainty. But, importantly, James holds that this struggle must be waged in a way that affords to our fellows the requisite latitude to pursue their own vision of the good. In this way, James sees his pluralism as supplying the basis for social toleration. He thinks that once we recognize that goods are many and heterogeneous, we will see that we must “tolerate, respect, and indulge those whom we see harmlessly interested and happy in their own ways, however unintelligible these may be to us” (TTP 1899, 149).

It should be noted here that James is not the only philosopher to have endeavored to derive a commitment to social toleration from value pluralist premises. In his seminal “Two Concepts of Liberty,” Isaiah Berlin famously argued from his version of value pluralism to a conception of negative liberty that is designed to protect individuals’ freedom to choose for themselves their own paths in life (Berlin 2002). But, as I have argued in other work (Talisse 2012; Talisse 2015), Berlin’s attempted entailment from value pluralism to negative liberty is doomed to fail. I will not rehearse the details, but Berlin’s arguments all feature—and, I contend, cannot avoid featuring—an illicit inference from a claim about the nature of value to a claim about what is of value.

The Jamesian version of the inference from pluralism to social toleration suffers a similar defect. In brief, it is not clear how tolerance, respect, and non-interference are supposed to follow from the claim that values are heterogeneous and thus plural. One may ask: What, precisely, is wrong with the thought that because the world contains an “exuberant mass of goods” which are in competition and conflict, one should most of all attempt to secure the conditions under which one’s own preferred values prevail? Why not draw from pluralism the lesson that one must achieve hegemony for one’s favorite goods? James could respond that this kind of moral imposition would serve to make others unhappy, or would be unfair, or would be oppressive. And surely James would be correct to say this. But what in his pluralism allows him to hold that individual happiness is paramount or that unfairness and oppression must be avoided? How could such a claim be sustained without forcing James to lapse into the monist view that individual happiness is the summum bonum, or the view that the obligation to be fair and avoid oppression is overriding?

The same thought can be pressed from a different direction. As value pluralism is a thesis about the nature of value rather than a thesis about what is of value, someone could with consistency be a value pluralist and a tyrant. Let us stipulate that the tyrannical value pluralist is someone who recognizes a plurality of objective incommensurable values, but embraces a conception according to which power, control, domination, hegemony, stability, and the humiliation of others are values. Those of us who oppose tyranny would surely disagree with the value pluralist tyrant, but our disagreement would be focused on the question of what is of value, not necessarily the nature of value. However, as there is no inconsistency in the idea of a tyrant who embraces pluralism, there is no entailment from pluralism to social toleration. This argument generalizes. There is no inconsistency in combining pluralism about the nature of value with any particular menu of what is of value. Thus, James is incorrect to suggest that, given his pluralism about value, “the first thing to learn in intercourse with others is non-interference with their own peculiar ways of being happy”; he is simply mistaken to assert that the fact that goods are many “is the basis of all our tolerance, social, religious, and political” (TTP 1899, 150). His value pluralism is consistent with the wholesale rejection of social toleration.

Once again, one might offer a relaxed reading of James on these points. One could say, as earlier, that James’s idea is that value pluralism can offer, not an entailment or a basis, but instead a kind of support for social toleration for those who are already inclined to a broadly liberal social order. This seems correct, as far as it goes. The trouble, of course, is that it does not go far at all. To see this, consider a distinction noted by Thomas Nagel (2001) between two kinds of value conflict that the pluralist must countenance. We can say that two values are incompatible when the realization or pursuit of one precludes the pursuit of the other. In cases of conflict between incompatible values, one realizes that one must choose at most one to realize; however, one may recognize in such cases that both values are, indeed, valuable. But note that there are also conflicts between values that are in opposition. When two values are opposed, embracing one involves the condemnation of the other. Religious conflicts provide handy, albeit hackneyed, examples of value opposition. Several sects of Christianity are bound to regard non-Christian religions as mere idolatry, really not “religion” at all. Proponents of such species of Christianity cannot see the demands following from the non-Christian doctrines as in any respect worthy of satisfaction. To take a different kind of case, a Millian experimenter in living is bound to regard as “the chief danger of the time” the fact that “so few now dare to be eccentric” (Mill, 1859/1991); however, the follower of Matthew Arnold’s traditionalism is bound to see the Millian experimenter as nothing short of a barbarian, an opponent of “sweetness and light” (Arnold, 1869/1993). Neither can see the other as an issuer of demands that it would be good to satisfy.

Now, the Jamesian view can provide some support to a policy of toleration in cases of conflict between incompatible values. With James, I can easily see the North Carolina squatters as engaged in the pursuit of a unique, though perhaps alien, good. But differences like these are, as we say, easy to tolerate. When it comes to the squatters, there is no cost to me in adopting James’s advice: “Hands off” (TTP 1899, 149). We hardly need a conception of toleration for dealing with such cases. It is toleration in the face of conflicts between opposing values that we most need; this is where an account of toleration’s value and importance is urgent if we are to avoid escalating hostility. Yet James’s view offers us no help here. His prescription of social toleration extends only to cases in which it is possible to see the other’s values as merely idiosyncratic, strange, or alien. When it comes to cases in which, given one’s own values, one must regard the other’s value commitments as illusory, depraved, wicked, sinful, or deformed, Jamesian pluralism offers no assistance whatsoever. It counsels only that we tolerate the tolerable.

It seems, then, that James’s value theory is internally less stable than it first appeared. More important, his attempt to support his doctrine of social toleration by appeal to his value pluralism looks hopeless. Pluralism is consistent with the rejection of social toleration, and so there’s no entailment from pluralism to toleration. Moreover, insofar as it provides any kind of motivation for toleration at all, Jamesian pluralism suggests only a thin and ultimately impotent toleration, toleration only in the cases in which toleration is costless.

A Moral-Epistemic Case for Social Toleration

I began this chapter with a very brisk review of some leading Jamesian themes that I allege suggest that James should be regarded as a social philosopher, even if not a full-bore political philosopher. I then argued that James’s own philosophical account of his social vision is not successful. In this section, then, I draw on some alternative Jamesian resources that suggest a different philosophical path to social toleration.

Part of what motivates James to adopt his value pluralism is his reflection on a salient trait of what might broadly be called moral experience. As was mentioned earlier, James’s grand conclusions in “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings” that “neither the whole of truth nor the whole of good is revealed to any single observer” and “No one has insight into all the ideals” (TTP 1899, 149) is arrived at by a sustained exploration of experiences in which one confronts clashes between purported values, including clashes between familiar and seemingly alien purported values. And James is surely right about this much: In our struggles to live morally fulfilled and truly human lives, we inevitably confront situations in which indeed it looks as if “some part of the ideal must be butchered” (WB 1897, 154); and we experience such cases as tragic, instances in which we must abandon something that is not only authentically good, but also truly and uniquely precious, something whose loss cannot be compensated for by moral gains elsewhere. In fact, we sometimes confront cases in which it seems that unique and irreplaceable goods conflict, leaving us in a condition in which no matter what we do, we do wrong. Moreover, we tend to think that there’s something stunted, unserious, shallow, and immature about a life without experiences of struggles of this tragic kind.

The question is what philosophical conclusion one should draw from the pervasiveness of such experiences. And here it seems to me that James has overplayed things. Rather than adopt a pluralist value theory that locates the source of such experiences in the structure of value itself, James might have begun with the following more modest, but I think also more potent, moral-epistemological thesis: Life often confronts us with conflicts among goods that we are bound to regard as authentic, and yet do not know how to commensurate. It is important to note that this claim declines to embrace the pluralist view that some values are indeed incommensurable, and also withholds ascent from the monist view that commensurability is a necessary condition for valuehood; it rather treats the question of value commensurability as a matter for further investigation.6

Importantly, this moral-epistemological thesis enables one to affirm that, since getting morality (including the question of whether all goods are commensurable) right is extremely important for our individual lives, we ought to uphold the social conditions under which the needed further investigation could proceed. And here’s why. It is plausible to think that progress in moral inquiry is best enabled under conditions in which a broad range of experiments, projects, and commitments are afforded the social space required for their enactment in individuals’ lives. This is because moral investigation, like scientific inquiry, is a social and collaborative undertaking, requiring large-scale coordination and cooperation among diverse and differently-situated individuals. One might say, then, that our individual moral projects (including the moral project of trying to adequately understand morality) are intrinsically dependent on those of others. To draw out the analogy with scientific inquiry, moral investigation can be conducted properly by an individual only within a broader community of investigators, and our individual investigations—scientific or moral—must be protected by social norms of non-obstruction, expressive freedom, autonomy, and the like. In short, part of what is required for moral investigation to commence is a policy of social toleration roughly of the kind that James proposes.

To be sure, I have provided only the slightest sketch of a moral-epistemic case for social toleration. However, this sketch suggests a view that is decidedly Jamesian in spirit. For one thing, it overtly begins from the recognition that our moral knowledge is incomplete, but could be completed with further inquiry. It thus perches somewhat precariously between a moral-epistemic optimism that holds that we know the good (and simply must muster the fortitude to do it), and a moral-epistemic pessimism according to which moral inquiry is futile or impossible. In this way, the view suggested earlier holds open the possibility of moral progress. Furthermore, the view accommodates many of the Jamesian thoughts about the centrality of struggle and the “strenuous mood” for moral life (WB 1897, 159–161). It recognizes that we do not (yet) adequately understand the full nature of morality, but still must live a life; from this, it draws the conclusion that striving to understand better, to gather more data, to broaden one’s moral vision, is an essential part of the project of living a moral life. And, although there is nothing as strong as an entailment at work, the view promotes a kind of moral-epistemic humility that rides alongside its exhortation for further moral inquiry. In recognizing the need for continuing inquiry, we also recognize that our current commitments could be better informed, corrected, fortified, confirmed, and revised in light of new results. This humility is a natural cognitive counterpart to familiar understandings of toleration, open-mindedness, diversity, inclusion, and the rest. Importantly, it does not depend on an individual’s readiness to see alien value commitments as nonetheless somehow good; it allows one to see one’s neighbor’s conception of the good as decidedly wrong, mistaken, perverted, and even depraved. However, the view also enables one to see even those who are deeply and seriously wrong as epistemic resources, victims of failed yet possibly instructive experiments, people stuck in the potholes along the road of inquiry, and hence deserving of leeway. Again, the proposed moral-epistemic view may not entail social toleration, but it does provide a compelling reason—an “inducement,” perhaps—to adopt such a policy.


I have argued here that although James’s own philosophical path to his doctrine of social toleration is unsuccessful, there is a more promising track provided by James’s moral epistemology. Again, a lot more would need to be said in order to make this moral-epistemological proposal look philosophically viable. I leave it to contemporary Jamesians who seek to rescue and redeem James’s social philosophical vision to pursue this line of research. I realize that the Jamesians among my readers might here conclude that the moral-epistemic view I just sketched is no innovation at all, but simply James’s view properly understood. If so, then so much the better for James. Other Jamesians might demur from a different direction; they might complain that the proposal makes James an advocate of a rather familiar liberal progressivism of the kind canonically articulated in Mill’s On Liberty. In response, I refer readers to the dedication of James’s Pragmatism, and say, again, so much the better for James.


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(1.) One important exception is his 1910 essay “The Moral Equivalent of War,” which will be discussed later in this section.

(2.) Compare James’s discussion in his “Is Life Worth Living?” (WB 1897, 52–53), and in his 1906 follow-up to “The Will to Believe,” “Faith and the Right to Believe” (SPP 1911, 111–117), which was intended for his (unfinished) Some Problems of Philosophy.

(3.) The literature on luck egalitarianism is mountainous. For a helpful review of the issues (and a distinctive luck egalitarian proposal), see Tan (2012). See also the essays collected in Knight (2011).

(4.) The following two sections draw from Aikin (2011).

(5.) James uses “desire” and “demand” more or less interchangeably. I cannot here explore the issues this raises, but it strikes me that on James’s view, a “demand” is simply the outward expression of a desire.

(6.) As I suggest in my concluding section, this moral-epistemic view strikes me as a profitable way to reconstruct James’s writings in moral philosophy. To be sure, the epistemic interpretation of pluralism requires significant massaging of some of James’s claims; and, moreover, the epistemic reading runs against the grain of James scholarship. See the special issue of William James Studies, which is devoted to a debate about James’s moral philosophy (Vol. 6, 2011), as well as subsequent papers by Todd Lekan (2012) and Mark Uffleman (2012) for affirmations of the non-epistemic reading of James.