The term pluralism is also used to denote a theoretical standpoint on state and power - which to varying degrees suggest that pluralism is an adequate model of how power is distributed in societies. For information on the political theory of pluralism see Pluralism (political theory).
In democratic politics, pluralism is a guiding principle which permits the peaceful coexistence of different interests, convictions and lifestyles. In this context it has normative connotations absent from its use to denote a theoretical standpoint. Unlike totalitarianism or particularism, pluralism acknowledges the diversity of interests and considers it imperative that members of society accommodate their differences by engaging in good-faith negotiation.
One of the earliest arguments for pluralism came from James Madison in The Federalist Papers 10. Madison feared that factionalism would lead to in-fighting in the new American republic and devotes this paper to questioning how best to avoid such an occurrence. He posits that to avoid factionalism, it is best to allow many competing factions to prevent any one dominating the political system. This relies, to a degree, on a series of disturbances changing the influences of groups so as to avoid institutional dominance and ensure competition.
Consequently, the common good does not, according to pluralists, coincide with the position of any one cohesive group or organization. However, a necessary outcome of this philosophy is that the beliefs of any particular group cannot represent absolute truth. Therefore any group with a philosophy that purports to hold both absolute truth and identify the common good necessarily rejects pluralism- their belief system does not consider as valid the opinions of others who do not hold to their given beliefs.
Still, one group may eventually manage to establish its own view as the generally accepted view, but only as the result of the negotiation process within the pluralistic framework. This implies that, as a general rule, the "operator" of a truly pluralistic framework, i.e. the state in a pluralistic society, must not be biased: it may not take sides with any one group, give undue privileges to one group and discriminate against another one.
Proponents of pluralism argue that this negotiation process is the best way to achieve the common good: since everyone can participate in power and decision-making (and can claim part of the ownership of the results of exercising power) there can also be widespread participation and a greater feeling of commitment from society members, and therefore better outcomes. By contrast, an authoritarian or oligarchic society, where power is concentrated and decisions are made by few members, forestalls this possibility.
Proponents in contemporary political philosophy of such a view include Isaiah Berlin, Stuart Hampshire and Bernard Williams. An earlier version of political pluralism was a strong current in the formation of modern social democracy, with theorists such as Harold Laski and G. D. H. Cole, as well as other leading members of the British Fabian Society. Horace Kallen coined the term cultural pluralism to express the condition of a democratic nation which sustained, and was sustained by, many cultural traditions.
Note, however, that political philosophers such as Charles Blattberg have argued that negotiation can at best compromise rather than realise the common good. Doing the latter is said to require engaging in "conversation" instead, room for which is made within what Blattberg calls a patriotic, as distinct from pluralist, politics.
The most important value is that of mutual respect and tolerance, so that different groups can coexist and interact without anyone being forced to assimilate to anyone else's position in conflicts that will naturally arise out of diverging interests and positions. These conflicts can only be resolved durably by dialogue which leads to compromise and to mutual understanding.
Examples of misapplied pluralism include cultural relativism, anarcho-capitalism, and post-modernism. Pluralism's tolerance for difference, its fostering of diversity, its promotion of different individuals' pursuit of variable modes of life and their expression of different cultural values does not conflate all cultures as more or less equal (multiculturalism), nor is it indifferent to some cultural differences that are unacceptable to social standards of decency, e.g., genital mutilation (cultural relativism), nor is it without cognizance of the need for social institutions to provide "space" for diversity to meet minimum standards of decency and order (anarcho-capitalism), nor is it silent or uncritical of inferior standards and values (post-modernism), but engages different social and personal values in a critical, but respectful, dialectic of reciprocal evaluation. Coercive action is used only when another mode of life or cultural expression causes harm, otherwise it engages in a dialogue of critical evaluation of different modes and expressions through persuasion. Unlike many of the misapplications, pluralism's tolerance is intolerant of intolerance (which is self-defeating and anti-pluralistic).
To illustrate, anarcho-capitalism takes self-ownership as a shared a priori value. Derived from this come the principles of non-aggression and private property. To resolve conflicts over the use of property, both-benefit voluntary trade is conducted according to subjective theory of value. From the single shared value of self-ownership, voluntary trade thus enables individuals with differing values to resolve conflicts without resorting to violence.
In ultimate consequence, pluralism thus also implies the right for individuals to determine values and truths for themselves instead of being forced to follow the whole of society or, indeed, their own group.