The problem of defining the good in pluralistic societies


Senior Researcher, ARENA

and Department of Philosophy,

University of Oslo (Norway)


World Culture Report 2000 UNESCO, p. 36

The problem of deciding on the concept of the 'good' in pluralistic societies, for instance through the creation of overlapping consensus or intercultural communicative practices, is a difficult one to resolve through juridical or legislative measures. In any case, negotiating such differences cannot be done if a cultural canon is made into a metaphysical condition of being which is in principle opposed to cultural negotiation.

No position on these questions is possible without explicit or implicit valuations of 'the good life', not just for the individual but for society as a whole. It is possible, of course, to suppose that autonomous individuals should be free to pursue whatever they have reason to value.

At bottom, therefore, these questions can be answered only by considering the social necessity of sharing economic and ecological resources and the common institutional mechanisms which make that sharing possible. Without this sharing, the benefits of the social division of labour, even when this is immediately promoted by market competition, may eventually be jeopardized. But shared institutions do not automatically mean real democracy, in terms of individual rights, checks on majorities and curbs on money power. Shared institutions can be based upon domination and coercion or upon participation and co-operation. Their shape and scope depend on the particular configuration of power among individuals and groups and particular mechanisms for resolving conflicts of cultural norms and beliefs.

Disagreements about conceptions of what is good tend to increase the need for answers to questions exploring the legitimate use of state power. However, such disagreements also restrict what may be regarded as plausible answers among individuals of different views.

Given the variety of views about the good life and the number of divergent world-views, there will be disagreement about the absolute and relative importance of the interest we have. Reasonable disagreement is therefore to be expected about the value of a wide variety of goods under institutional control. Nevertheless, some goods, and access to such goods, may be recognized as forming bases for reasonable claims: