Pluralism v. relativism : an appraisal of Isaiah Berlin´s defence of pluralism

  • Ana Vasconcelos Martins (Student)

Student thesis: Master's Thesis


Isaiah Berlin’s conception of pluralism is often confused with relativism. The purpose of this thesis is to assess the solidity of his arguments concerning the distinction between the two theories against the backdrop of two interpretations by two very different thinkers that similarly approximate pluralism to relativism: John Gray, the radical pluralist, and Leo Strauss, the steward of naturalism. Berlin tendered a conception of pluralism whereby the inevitable conflict among values proves they are equally valid, equally absolute and sometimes incommensurable, thus rendering the inevitability of choice a fundamental element of the human condition. This theory emerges as an alternative to monism, but its distinction from relativism merits special consideration given that both theories are often regarded as similar. Despite acknowledging variety within ethics, Berlin argues the theories remain distinct for two reasons: first, pluralism allows for the possibility of judging moral choices as right or wrong beyond their respective contexts whereas relativism does not; and second, pluralism, unlike relativism, asserts values are objective because they are universal. Each of these two arguments shall be assessed from two angles respectively: the first analysis will address the capability for moral choice considering the incommensurability factor and the role context plays in decision making; whereas the second shall look at the claim that values are universal from the point of view of its implications and the theory’s foundations. In conclusion, Berlin’s arguments appear to stand the test.
Date of Award31 Jul 2015
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Universidade Católica Portuguesa
SupervisorJoão Pereira Coutinho (Supervisor)


  • Mestrado em Governação, Liderança e Estudos sobre a Democracia

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