Imagine we are dealing with a person with a rather monistic mindset, thus believing, assuming or hoping that all questions can only have one right answer, that all these answers can be neatly, harmoniously ordered in one consistent system, that some people or institutions (the church, the party, the movement, the state) have better knowledge of these right answers, and, consequently, that it is rational and wise to adhere to these people or the ones speaking for these institutions. He or she might also believe or assume that the right answers should pervade and enlighten all spheres of life and society. Therefore, a separation between church and state, or between party and state, is not wanted. Neither are social and political pluralism, or a division of powers: this all incorrectly suggest that there are uncertainties and ambiguities. And then a few of the people with this mindset might also be so convinced of the truth of their answers, that they do not see any point in tolerating the false answers of others: these deceived or wicked people should be brought to the right insights with all possible means, if necessary with violence.

People with monistic mindsets are of all times and all places. They can be found among Christians, Jews, Muslims, Marxists, Maoists, Fascists, and many other passions and obsessions. The Muslim variety is represented by Islamists like Salafists and Jihadists). They all oppose pluralists, people believing that many questions, certainly ethical and political ones, can have different plausible answers, that these answers often clash and, consequently, that compromises are continuously wanted. This believe is translated in recommendations about how social and political life should be organized: freedom of religion, speech and organization, for instance, express the insight that we do not know for sure which religions, speeches and organizations do not represent some truth. Therefore, a plurality of religious, social and political organizations is the inevitable outcome of these freedoms, an outcome that should be welcomed and furthered as the expression of the truth of pluralism (cf. Blokland 1997,  1999, 2006, 2011, 2016a, 2016b,  2018).

People are driven towards monism by a variety of psychological, social and intellectual factors. Here we concentrate on ideas. Also when the motivations behind monist extremism are non-intellectual, the position itself is in the end always defended with ideas. These ideas bring forth intolerance, oppression, tyranny and violence, and for this reason need to be confronted. Obviously, we can always call in the police or the army, but before we do so, how could we get into a deliberation with people thinking, feeling or hunching in a monistic direction?

Evaluating assumptions by explicating them

First it has to be recognized that people rarely have a well-considered, coherent worldview (Lane 1962, 1972). To the extent that they have any ideas on humans, society and world, they are also not always aware of their assumptions. Much of what we believe stays implicit and unreflected (Kahneman 2011). Many of our beliefs and assumptions can also stay unfounded, unjustified, incoherent and inconsistent because we are hardly ever asked to make them explicit and to critically evaluate them. We ourselves are not always very motivated to entertain this activity either: it could create cognitive overload, doubt, uncertainty, insecurity, and indecision. Often, it simply feels better to avoid deep thinking and to stay in the dark. Nevertheless, this darkness can cause personal, social and political problems. When this is the case, the problems and their causes need to be confronted, and deliberation, a joint search for the foundations of our thinking, might help.

Thus, deliberating fundamental ideas might further the awareness of assumptions, their consequences, and the extent to which they hang or do not hang together. Awareness of assumptions might already bring people to doubt and reconsider these: “Do I really believe there is just one truth?”; “How does this correspond with my daily experiences?”. Awareness of the logical consequences of particular assumptions might cause the same: “Do I really want to suppress oppositions because I assume there is a single truth that is knowledgeable to some wise men studying a particular holy or scholarly book?”. Furthermore, because certain assumptions might not fit together, and people mostly feel a need to be consistent, people might reconsider and refute some of them: “Until now, I have assumed that there is order in the Cosmos, that some men or institutions know this order well and appropriately implement the truths of the Cosmos in our society and politics. Still, I personally experience that values continuously clash and need to be balanced, and that also the current societal implementations of supposed superior insights cause clashes and incongruences between values, and certainly with my personal values. Perhaps, there is no such Order, or maybe the people that now say to know the truths produced by this order are mistaken or misleading, or maybe, we are not able to know this order at all, even when it would exist”. Maybe, a more accurate description of our human condition is that there is a wide variety of values and goals all worth dying for but that, unfortunately, these values and goals often clash and consequently have to be balanced (cf. Berlin 1958, 1962).

Thus, deliberating monistic (or any other) assumptions could already make sense because this will make them explicit and open for evaluation, refinement, reconsideration and even refutation.

Evaluating values by confronting them with our experiences or intuitions

To continue on this road: we can explicitly evaluate or criticize values by confronting them with our daily experiences or our intuitions, or both. The assumption that when two people have different normative priorities in particular circumstances, one or both of them must be mistaken, can simply not match with how we have experienced life and interrelationships, or with our preexisting intuitions (wherever they come from).

People have metaphysical (e.g. the Cosmos is logically structured), epistemological (e.g. we are able to acquire knowledge of this order in specific ways) and ethical (standards for right and wrong) assumptions or convictions. These assumptions are in different degrees explicated, contemplated and interrelated. Our ethical assumptions or values are the most consequential for other human beings in our daily dealings. Discussions of ethical assumptions are therefore often most wanted for. These discussions might have consequences for people’s metaphysical and epistemological assumptions as well: finding out that values clash and have different weights in different contexts, might cause doubt regarding the assumption that we are able to know the ultimate, invariable truth regarding values, or that such a truth even exists.

What makes up a rational discussion on values? Having particular values, first of all, is not a pure coincidence. They are an expression of what we consider to be inherent to the human condition, of what we consider to be essential to human life. That explains why there is a “horizon” of significant values (Taylor 1991) recognizable for different people in different times and different cultures. That explains why we can in principle understand these people and their cultural products, even when their cultures vanished thousands of years ago. They might have balanced conflicting values in different ways, but the conflict we recognize, empathize and understand, as are the values that need to be balanced. There is a limit to the variety of values we can imagine, there is a minimum of values that we share as human beings (Blokland 1999).

In his famous essay Does political theory still exist? Isaiah Berlin cogently states that we can only comprehend the concept ‘man’ in terms of categories like good and evil, right and wrong, freedom and coercion, happiness and misfortune, and that it would therefore be rather eccentric and also inimitable to dub someone as a human being but to simultaneously add that notions such as justice, truth, freedom, hope and fear have no significance for him. Accordingly, some values are inextricably entwined with the concept of ‘man’. Berlin writes:

… if I find a man to whom it literally makes no difference whether he kicks a pebble or kills his family, since either would be an antidote to ennui or inactivi­ty, I shall not be disposed, like consistent relativists to attribute to him merely a different code of morality from my own or that of most men but shall begin to speak of insanity and in­humanity; I shall be inclined to consider him mad, as a man who thinks he is Napoleon is mad; which is a way of saying that I do not regard such a being as being fully a man at all. It is cases of this kind, which seem to make clear that ability to recognize universal – or almost universal – values enters into our analysis of such fundamental concepts as ‘man’, ‘ratio­nal’, ‘sane’, ‘natural’, etc. (…) that lie at the basis of modern translations into empirical terms of the kernel of truth in the old a priori natural law tradition” (Berlin 1962: 166).

Where do these values originate? We do not know, but it is also not really necessary to answer this question. Maybe a God created them, maybe biology and natural selection is the source. Fact is, these values exist. Their existence we all experience. We all struggle with their clashes and the needed balances. And we can build on that. When we discuss values we refer to values and conflicts we are all familiar with.

Thus, we can criticize normative positions by confronting these with the values and the clashes between values we all experience and recognize. There is a limit to the variety of normative positions we are able to imagine and willing to accept as part of the human condition. Somebody who likes to shoot people in a mall or at a school, is not a person with a unique hobby, but just a mad man.

Reflecting on values by putting them in context

But this is not all. Values hang together, are connected, in different configurations in different circumstances. A justification of a particular value also consists of references to the other values relevant for the particular case or situation. One does not look for an ultimate value behind the value that has to be justified, instead one shows in which ways conflicting values have been balanced, how other relevant values are connected and are respected by fulfilling the value that has to be justified, why the costs of realizing the value are reasonable compared to the costs of realizing other significant values. These argumentations are rational, not in the sense of ‘logical’ (when A then always and inescapably B), but in the sense of giving reasons, reasons that are explicable, explainable, understandable, debatable, coherent, consistent.

In other words, we do not deliberate single assumptions, ideas or values, but also place them in a wider context. We do not discuss ideas or values as separate, distinct entities; instead, we develop together an understanding of a web of interrelated, interdependent and mutually supporting ideas and values. This web of ideas and values in its entirety has plausibility and attraction in comparison to competing webs. The level of plausibility depends on the extent to which it resonates with our already existing normative intuitions, the extent to which this web of ideas and values forms a coherent and consistent whole, and the extent to which it can be grounded on the (always) provisional empirical knowledge we have on man and society.

Already by putting assumptions, ideas or values in context, we undermine the plausibility of monism. The context makes clear that ideas and values regularly clash, that we cannot always have it all, that we often need to strike balances, and that we cannot do this once and for all, but have to do this continuously, under endlessly changing circumstances where values have different weights and urgencies.

In other words, how we weigh up different values depends on the circumstances and the set of values relevant for these circumstances. We also do not weigh up values in the abstract, but always in relation to the costs of realizing them, the costs of realizing connected values, and the consequences of their realization for other values (cf. Brecht 1959, Lindblom 1959, 1963). Hence, the value of negative freedom – the ability to do or to be what one is able to do or to be without the interference of others – is probably ranked higher in a totalitarian state than in a stable open democracy. And when we need to balance this dimension of freedom with equality, personal autonomy, positive political freedom (the collective ability to direct social development), companionship, distributive justice, nonviolence or peace, et cetera, we will do this differently in North-Korea, Syria or Iraq than in Germany, France or the USA.

Furthermore, although many of us would like to live a life that is incredibly adventurous or epic and at the same time incredibly secure or sheltered, we know that we need to strike a balance. We also know that the relative costs of achieving more security and shelter increase disproportionally the more secure and sheltered we are.

Essentially contested concepts: freedom

Let us elaborate the above via a discussion of “essentially contested concepts” and of “freedom” as an example of this kind of concepts.

As explained elsewhere (Blokland 2017, 2018), in the deliberations Social Science Works has had so far with groups with a wide variety of cultural backgrounds, we present topics as democracy, citizenship, pluralism, freedom, autonomy, respect, tolerance, and sexual equality as “essentially contested concepts”. Characteristically, these concepts are strongly interrelated and get their meaning in a somewhat consistent and coherent network of related concepts. When defining one concept we invariably make use of other concepts. And any discussion of a particular concept creates at some point the need to discuss other concepts as well (Gallie 1956; Gray 1977; Blokland 1997: 6-7). Furthermore, these concepts always get their meaning in the framework of a social and political theory or web of ideas, a theory that ultimately rests on visions on humanity, society and world. Since these visions are inescapably philosophically inspired, these meanings are always open to debate. But this does not imply that every given meaning is equally plausible.

Consequently, in collaboration with the participants of our deliberative workshops, we explore, examine and think through how ideas on concepts like democracy, freedom, tolerance and emancipation hang together, feed and support each other, and are ultimately based on our understandings what it means to be a human being and what it means to live in a decent society. Together we try to develop an understanding of a complex web of mutually reinforcing values, ideas and perspectives.

For example, every definition of freedom also rests on a particular view of woman. We have some explicit or (more often) implicit ideas and expectations on what constitutes a woman, what is a normal life, what are comprehensible, reasonable or plausible preferences and activities. These ideas and expectations are informed by what we have learned over the years about human beings in art, literature, psychology, psychiatry, sociology, anthropology, politics or history. This knowledge can always be questioned and is always provisional. But it is not completely subjective, unsubstantiated and groundless.

Besides, conceptions of freedom, autonomy, democracy, equality, justice are not just empirically, but also normatively informed. We have strong intuitions about the meaning and importance of freedom. Freedom is also an ideal about the Good life in a Good society, something we strive for, even when we know that we will never manage to fulfill this ideal completely.

Intuitions also hang together, and feed and strengthen each other. Most people have the strong intuition that they need, and also have a right on, a private sphere where they can make their own decisions and live out their own preferences. They do not like to be belittled, to be told by others how to live their life. Paternalism is a denial of their capacity for autonomy. Why do so many people have this intuition? Might it hang together with another intuition, namely that others are not able to decide how to live one’s life, simply because nobody really knows the final, absolute answers regarding the Good life and the Good society?

As implicated above, ideals like freedom also need reality-checks, have to make sense empirically. So regarding preferences, we do not consider a life that day in, day out consists of watching television, eating pizza and drinking beer as the ultimate expression of freedom, also not when the person in question happens to “choose” for this life. Since we have implicit and explicit ideas about the preferences of a “normal” person living a “normal” life, we will be strongly tempted to question this choice: Has she been raised, encouraged or empowered in an appropriate way? Is she adequately aware of alternative preferences? Might she suffer from depression?

In the same way, we can define freedom as complete independence, as no interference whatsoever in our life, as the possibility to do or to be whatever we want. This kind of freedom definitely has an appeal and we can strive for a personal life or a society where this ideal is fulfilled. But does it make sense, knowing how people usually become free, knowing how people usually reach a stage at which they long for a situation where they can do their “own thing”?

How do they usually develop their own thing, how do they develop their own preferences? Usually via a long, persistent exchange with other human beings and their cultural products. Acculturalization, socialization, education and all other influences that in the end form our identities are all interferences or invasions in our negative freedom, the ability to be or to do what one is able to be or to do, without the interference of others. Still, they are necessary conditions for the development of an autonomous person that can enjoy freedom. Striving for a society with absolute negative freedom, where people are completely on their own and where they are never influenced or bothered by others, destroys freedom (Blokland 1997, 1999).

One can compare it with artistic taste: taste, an informed, grounded sense of quality, develops via a continuous confrontation with different artistic products all laying a claim on beauty, meaning, significance. Those who assume that it is not possible to have any meaningful discussion on taste, and continuously avoid this confrontation with alternative cultural expressions, have little chance to develop a personal taste.

The value of personal freedom, the above makes clear, hangs together with other values that are also essentially contested concepts. When we need the presence of alternatives in all possible realms of life to make informed, really free choices, then an open, pluralist society harboring cultural pluralism has more to offer than a closed autocratic system.

Likewise, freedom is related to equality. Normatively, we assume that all people are equal in their ability to be or to become free. Empirically, we also have not found much reasons to believe otherwise. Therefore, they have a right to be treated in equal ways.

Thus, values hang together, but can also clash. They then have to be balanced. Complete fulfillment of one particular value, like freedom, can have severe consequences for the realization of other values, like equality or justice. Therefore, the extent to which we try to fulfill a value should always be moderated by other relevant values. Mature people are led by, what Weber (1919) called, a Verantwortungsethik, and not by a Gesinnungsethik.

But on top of that, the fulfillment of values should be moderated by empirical considerations regarding man and society. Knowing that people are social beings that can only develop their full potential via human interrelationships and cultural exchanges, should prevent us to strive for an atomistic, hyper individualized society on behalf of the value of freedom.

Practical limits to deliberation

Are there in practice limits to the abilities of people to discuss their values? Without any doubt. People, studies show, turn out only to be prepared and to be able to openly discuss their inner convictions, to accept the existence of different views and of complexity, to accept the better argument, when they feel safe and respected. Furthermore, the ability to feel safe and respected is formed early in life and depends on the existence of a secure, stable, warm environment consisting of many trustworthy ‘significant others’. The lack of this during childhood is very difficult to repair via education, deliberation or big structures and big processes. This does not mean that we should give up on creating big structures which offer more opportunities for the Good life and, especially, the Good childhood. Nor does it mean that we should give up on deliberation. On the contrary. We simply do not have another option.

Pluralism versus relativism

As the above made clear, ethical pluralism, the position defended here, is something different than value relativism or cultural relativism. Cultural relativism is the belief that all cultures are unique and can only be understood and evaluated from the inside. Within a particular culture one can have ‘rational’ arguments about values, values considered as important, ‘natural’, or even ‘objective’ by the participants of these arguments. But not so between representatives of different cultures: they miss a common ground on the basis of which shared conclusions can be reached.

Cultural relativism is not only widespread among broadminded, tolerant, western liberals. Despots like this standpoint too: “do not bother us with this arrogant, western, ethnocentric talk on human rights and all that, within our unique culture we happen to see things differently”.

Value or ethical relativism is the conviction that values are incomparable and often incommensurable. Values are simply given and in no need of any justification. They justify everything else and are in a certain way ‘brute facts’. Since there does not exist an objective, universal standard to decide on the relative importance, weight or ‘truth’ of a particular value there is also no hierarchy of values. When a choice has to be made between two incomparable and incommensurable fundamental values we do this in a ‘radical’, non-rational way. We just go for it. Thus, when somebody wants to die for the value ‘heroism’, there is nothing we can say. Rational discussions about (the relative importance of) values are in the end impossible and useless. What remains are conflicts of interest and these conflicts are decided by power. Democracy is a functional rational method to prevent these conflicts from becoming overly violent (cf. Schumpeter 1942). There is no normative justification why the prevention of a war of all against all is important, we just don’t like “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” lives.

Value relativism is the death of democracy, deliberation and tolerance. It is ethical pluralism that forms the foundation of democracy, deliberation and tolerance. Value relativists are not able to give a justification of democracy itself. A civil war can also be prevented by an enlightened king. All the deliberative institutions that come with democracy – freedom of speech, freedom of association, parliaments, free press, elections, etc. – assume the possibility to have a rational discussion about values. Only pluralists are able to get into a deliberation with representatives of monistic worldviews. Relativists have nothing to offer here.

Tolerance versus indifference

Tolerance is often confused with indifference. Tolerance means that a person has her own balanced set of values and that she comprehends that somebody else came to a different balance. She does not agree, but she does understand where the different evaluation comes from and she respects this evaluation. It is about empathy. Indifference is something else, but often taken as tolerance. Somebody who is indifferent will probably hardly have thought through any set of values, not of his own and certainly not of others. He just does not care. For him every standpoint is ‘relative’ and without solid justification, so why would he bother to think about (somebody else’s) values?

Unfortunately, these people will not always stay indifferent or ‘tolerant’: because of the lack of a moral compass, because of the lack of thought through inner convictions, they suddenly and unexpectedly can become extremely intolerant towards migrants, Islamite’s, Jews, or whatever. That is why it is dangerous when societies or political cultures out of fear of disagreements abstain too long from discussing their fundamental values. That is why the postmodernist culture of the eighties and nineties, dominant in a country like the Netherlands, is partly responsible for preparing the ground for right-wing populist as Geert Wilders (Blokland 2017).

Intolerance towards intolerant monistic worldviews

Intolerance towards intolerance is often interpreted as intolerance. However, many people who do not want Nazis or Stalinists to educate their children, to hold public office or to organize mass meetings are not intolerant, they simply take tolerance much more serious than those who do not care. As said, the truth of democracy is that there is a wide variety of significant values and goals but that, unfortunately, these values and goals often clash and consequently have to be balanced. Tolerance for groups that deny this truth and that want to install a permanent, irreversible regime that only tolerates one universal monistic truth, is not tolerance, but intolerance towards tolerance. Therefore, in a democracy fascist groups striving for the overturn of democracy should be outlawed. One can have all kinds of (valid) functional rational reasons not to do so – “when they get underground we do not know anymore what is going on”, etcetera – but this does not resolve the fundamental inconsistency.

Democracy, ethical pluralism and deliberation are closely connected with ‘tolerance’. Value relativism is not. Democracy is also not related to indifference: allowing everyone to mind just her own business. Democratic tolerance can only survive when people actively think about the ‘business’ of other people. And as we tried to make plausible above, this is also possible.


Can we get in a sensible deliberation with people hunching or thinking in a monist direction? Yes, we can. In many different ways, on many different levels. We can first try to make implicit assumptions explicit and by doing so enable their critical evaluation. Second, we can confront the values within a monist worldview with our intuitions and experiences regarding values. Many of these intuitions and experiences are likely shared by the holders of this worldview. Not everything goes: the diversity of ethical positions we are able to imagine and we are prepared to accept as part of the human condition, has its limitations. And, thirdly, we can deliberate particular values by putting them in a wider context which makes them more or less plausible and attractive. We can analyze how they hang together with other values, how they together constitute a web of interrelated, interdependent and mutually supporting ideas. Particular ideas do not fit in this web and consequently lose plausibility. And we do not compare individual values, but competing webs or networks of values. Their plausibility and attractiveness rests on the extent to which they resonate with our already existing normative intuitions, the extent to which they form a coherent and consistent whole, and the extent to which they can be grounded on the transitory empirical knowledge we have on humans and society.

Deliberation has psychological and social limitations. Not taking these into account adequately, can severely undermine deliberation on the intellectual level. Nevertheless, this intellectual deliberation has no limits. Before we start shooting, much can be achieved. Relativism, indifference or tolerance towards monist worldviews is not helpful in these deliberations. Open, pluralist democracies will survive any monist threat when they continue to do what they are good at: endlessly exploring the complexity of our existence.

The author thanks Nils Wadt, Jeanne Lenders and Flo Münstermann for their comments. Only the author is responsible for the content of the article.


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