Call a ‘comprehensive doctrine of the good’ a set of beliefs affirmed by citizens concerning a wide range of values, including moral, metaphysical, and religious commitments, as well as beliefs about personal virtues, and political beliefs about the way society ought to be arranged; they form a conception of the good concerning “what is of value in life, the ideals of personal character, as well as ideals of friendship and of familial and associational relationships, and much else that is to inform our conduct, and in the limit to our life as a whole.”1 Count ‘value pluralism’ the idea of citizens with incommensurate comprehensive doctrines of the good who are nonetheless able to wholeheartedly agree to live together according to a political doctrine in a society.2

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle directly acknowledges the possibility of multiple ends in life (i.e., narrowly to eat ice cream, or broadly to spend one’s life doing physics) (1097a23). That is, there can be a pluralism of ends in life—some ends that are worth choosing for the sake of other ends, and in those cases, the higher end which is better than the subordinate end (1094b6)—such that each are formally good, where each end is an instantiation of goodness. Yet, he also states: “for people are good in one simple way, but bad in all sorts of ways,” leading us to think that Aristotle might be a monist about ends in life in the case of ends that refer to ways of being good (1107a30). We see a similar prima facie contradiction of thinking both pluralism and monism about ends in the opening line of the Ethics: “Every craft and every method of inquiry and likewise every action and deliberate choice seems to seek some good. That is why they correctly declare that the good is ‘that which all seek’” (1094a1). Indeed, between “some good” and “the good,” whereby the plurality of some goods sought are the same as “the good,” we might be led to think Aristotle excludes the possibility of a pluralism about ends in life. My interest in this paper will be to show this prima facie contradiction is not so straightforward, and to argue that Aristotle endorses a multiplicity of ends in a way that can in a modern context be value pluralist.

I proceed in stages. In §1, I review Aristotle on the human good by interpreting Aristotle’s conception as two-dimensional, possessing a formal dimension (i.e., being on the whole rational and, as Gabriel Lear says, “approximating”3 the highest good, or human flourishing, while containing parts that might be defective) and a determinate dimension (i.e., containing sufficient virtues applying to many particular circumstances). This two-dimensional understanding is intended to help us grasp that Aristotle coherently speaks in two different, interrelated registers about the good in the Ethics, and by this fact doesn’t fall into a contradiction. That is, on the formal level there is only one good, but on the determinate level there can be many. Then in §2, I argue that Aristotle is value pluralist on the basis that the basic demands on the human for Aristotle are neither excessive nor deficient, but hit the mean relative to one’s general situation in life. The demands are many for many different people, constructing what I interpret as one’s general disposition. One’s general disposition is a disposition of a part of the person in Aristotle’s sense—that is to say, a stable, long-term disposition to behave in distinctive ways across a range of situations—but extended to account for a rational comprehensive doctrine of the good that, as a rational doctrine on how to live, is rationally demanded across many circumstances. Crucially, this satisfies both the formal dimension and the determinate dimension of the human good by general dispositions accounting for the many comprehensive doctrines of the good demanded by many lives which approximate the highest good, or human flourishing, and by also accounting for the many particular virtues it demands across many situations. Finally, in §3, I show that Aristotelian value pluralism survives attacks by Rawls that Aristotle is not value pluralist enough, showing Rawls, in his particular example of the grass counter, to collapse into value relativism, that is, the idea that there are no objective values and the idea that any comprehensive doctrine of the good has merit, regardless of rationality.

In short, Aristotle is a value pluralist in the way that one region of value pluralism exists containing many smaller regions of comprehensive doctrines of the good (which themselves contain many fixed points of beliefs), where outside the larger region’s formal limit is nothing but empty space. Hopefully, this region analogy helps us see that where there’s one way to be value pluralist—that is, one way to have a comprehensive doctrine of the good: being rational—there are many rational comprehensive doctrines of the good with many beliefs therein. Value relativism simply lacks Aristotle’s sense of rationality. Indeed, if all goes well, you will see that when fully worked out, Aristotle’s ethics is not anachronistic in the modern context of value pluralism, but instead is a lingua franca for all human affairs which can be read as strongly committed to value pluralism.

1. Aristotle on the Human Good

For our initial focus, we will grasp that Aristotle does not mean the good in one dimension, thus falling into various aforementioned contradictions, but as a conception of the human good that applies two-dimensionally as a basic description of human nature. That is, the human good is the good unique to human beings simpliciter which Aristotle thinks can be uncovered through an analysis of our nature. What’s uncovered are the normative concepts that constitute our very form of life (bios), that is, our being human well. So, where on the one hand, too plural a conception of the good is meaningless (i.e., if everyone is good, then no one is good), Aristotle focuses on what’s good for all humans according to their nature—their being human well. Aristotle sketches his answer in the argument about the “human function” in the Ethics (1.7), also commonly referred to as the “function argument.” In it, he gives an account of the particular “function” (ergon) of human beings that I will now review by breaking down into two dimensions: the formal dimension and the determinate dimension.

In the formal dimension of the human good, Aristotle thinks we normatively evaluate crafts such as carpentry, body parts such as one’s legs, forms of life such as the human being, and so on according to their nature which specifically is constituted by a certain function, or work it does (1098a8-9). In the context of the human being, one’s function (a) identifies what one essentially4 is, and (b) is a measure for whether one is good or bad. In particular, (a) transcends the fact-value distinction, since when identifying one’s natural function, fact and value are the same, meaning there is no real distinction after all. According to Aristotle, it would be defective of a human to be a human without doing the activity (praxis) which a human ought to do. While Aristotle mentions the possibility of sleeping through life, where someone might possess one’s good—the virtues—but never exercise them, and thus never be virtuous,5 this is simply an example of a human who is defective6 qua human. Indeed, it is the essence of a human to be good, while a human may not ever become good in actuality and instead become defective. All else deviates from the good of a human—what it means to be human—and is for that reason defective.

With respect to (b), for fact and value to come apart is the fundamental ethical problem for Aristotle, since it is when one acts in a way that is not in harmony with their nature; it means one is no longer good and thus no longer lives as a human well, fulfilling human potential and human capacities. The significance of (b) is that to be human well—that is, to live according to one’s essence—is to be a (good) example of the human form of life, and to be a (good) example is to do well and flourish, that is, to do an action which is characteristic of our form of life, our essential function as a human being (1097b26-34). Not necessarily a hard or easy task, but a task no less, to be human for Aristotle means to do well, and when one does well qua human, thus being an example of the human form of life, only then do they “hold of a human being,” exercising “some function that is his” (1097b26-28; my emphasis). Indeed, qua human, one possesses a function (a) and chooses to act accordingly or not; though if they act well according to their measure (b), then they constitute that which is theirs: being a good human. For Aristotle, measuring whether someone is good in an ethical sense, then, is measuring whether someone is good in a natural sense. Simply, to be human is to realize the capacities (dunamis) one naturally possesses that make one human. In this sense, when evaluating someone according to how they live, (a) and (b) are interchangeable.

As to the conditions for measuring a good human life, Aristotle is clear to state that humans can only be measured over a “complete life” (1098a18). This means that while one possesses a function, it’s the whole form of their activity, not the parts or particular instances of their activity, which makes measuring the good possible. That is, the good is not some good that is good for someone, but is the good of the form of life, which in our case is the human being. Hopefully, this grasp of the formal dimension of the function argument brings Aristotle’s theory of human nature down to earth, so as to be thought of something that is a modest demand, meaning that it is perfect for what it means to be human well, unlike an extraordinary demand found in Kant, where upsetting any universal norm is strictly prohibited in every situation (i.e., you can’t even lie to the SS Agent at the door about the Jews in your basement, since lying is strictly prohibited). So, Aristotle perhaps demands a lot, but not too much; the demand is just right, and, if met, yields fruitful self-realization. Nevertheless, the demand has high explanatory power as to what it means (a) to be a human being and (b) for someone to be good.

Moving onto the determinate dimension of the human good, Aristotle explains that the human good in practice means realizing the rational part of the soul (1098b7-8). Specifically, Aristotle wants to figure out which activity in fact meets the formal constraint of being our human ergon, i.e., the activity expressing our human essence. He does that by considering what sort of activity is uniquely human. He thinks a unique property of humans is the capacity to exercise reason, and that proper exercise of reason in the activity of the soul characterizes the “excellent thing” of the human form of life. This means someone who lives according to excellence is excellent (1098a8-13). In ethical life, for humans, this means synonymously someone who lives according to “virtue.” The virtuous one is a master of practical rationality (logos), meaning they are prudent, or good at deliberating (i.e., exercising virtues of thought), and exercising deliberative choice (i.e., they have a strong will to act on their deliberation). Because of their virtue, they are perfectly rational—a good person all around—being what Aristotle calls the phronimos (1141b10). The excellent, happy and flourishing, good person is full-functioning, and their excellence is a stable state (hexis) which specifies continuous full-functioning in one’s flourishing, amounting to their character (1106a10-12). The excellences, then, are what was lacking in the formal dimension of the argument: they descriptively fill in what it means to be good, giving depth to what it means to live well with the excellences. Where in the formal dimension, there is excellent performance of our human function, in the determinate dimension, there is the performance of our rational function in accordance with the specific virtues.

As to the conditions for human happiness, Aristotle notes two. One is a necessary condition. He states that our human ergon is rational activity and our human good is rational activity, i.e., virtuous activity. In principle, we can imagine an entirely isolated rational creature—God, perhaps. Such a creature would be self-sufficient, not needing anything or anyone—a sort of causa sui. Aristotle affirms that self-sufficiency is indeed a mark of the happy, rational person, and yet he also insists that we are political animals (1097b7-11). This means that human beings are interdependent on others in a social context, though not merely interdependent. If they act according to their function, they are in harmony with their others in a social context, embodying the phronimos. So, also not a causa sui, Aristotle assumes that human beings need others as a necessary condition to live well as the interdependent creatures we are. A seeming contradiction between self-sufficiency and the political nature of humans, where the former’s solitary nature seems to exclude the latter, Aristotle can be read to resolve the contradiction in the basic fact that being political isn’t meant to be a chore, but the mode our characteristic rational activity takes. In other words, the solitude of self-sufficiency is not loneliness. Once one is the phronimos in the context of others, one is, too, self-sufficient in the sense that their happiness is achieved ultimately on their own, that is, they are primarily responsible for the choice to live such a life. As Aristotle says, the happy person can’t easily be knocked out of happiness by bad luck; that’s because the quality of his life is for the most part in the power of his own choice (1100b35). In this sense, the phronimos lacks nothing. They live a complete life which Aristotle thinks is “choiceworthy” in two ways: they are in accord with their natural dependence on others and their natural function to independently choose to be the happy phronimos (1097b15). The phronimos can’t be interdependent in just any old way; he needs to depend on others in such a way as still to allow him to determine the ethical quality of his own life through his own choice. This implies that the happy person lives in political circumstances that allow him to live in accordance with his own choice, no matter whether the political circumstances include conflict, like in the case of value pluralism.

The other condition for human happiness is a necessary condition that the phronimos’ external needs must be adequately met in order to be the happy person they are. Namely, they need sufficient material wealth (i.e., enough to lead a flourishing life), a friendly environment (i.e., no threat of floods, no threat of being killed, etc.), a healthy body, a proper family (having had a proper upbringing and taught the essential virtues), and so on. Importantly, for Aristotle, no one can be happy “on the rack” or in “succumbing to great misfortunates,” despite acting virtuously (1153b15-20). While one’s misfortune may be out of their control, their happiness in this context is simply out of their grasp, not able to be understood and really enjoyed by them. Only when they are granted the conditions to be able to sufficiently deliberate well can they transition from merely living to living in what Aristotle says is a “fuller sense,” that is, living well according to the excellences as the phronimos (1098a6).

In view of these two constraints, where in both there is one way to live that is demanded—that is, in the first constraint, the political life, and in second constraint, a life with external needs sufficiently met—the phronimos can be best summarized by Aristotle’s adage which the more well-known Anna Karenina Principle derives from: “for people are good in one simple way, but bad in all sorts of ways” (1107a30). So, while not an extraordinary demand on us, but modest, to be human in the meaningful sense of the phronimos nevertheless seems rather stringently to be the case in only one way: one’s mental, physical, and external circumstances must altogether be sufficiently good.

2. Aristotle as Value Pluralist

With the two-dimensional reading in hand, we are now in a position to see how Aristotle’s account of the human good is consistent with value pluralism. First, what does it concretely mean to be good in one way in the formal dimension? Is this an empty formalism? As we will see with help from other sources in answering for the former question, the answer to the latter question is importantly “No.” In fact, the formal dimension is still in a sense substantive, though, of course, less substantive than the determinate dimension.

For starters, if Kamtekar in her paper “Situationism and Virtue Ethics on the Content of Our Character” is right as I think she is, goodness can take place “across a range of situations” according to one’s disposition to do goodness.7Specifically, she argues that we can understand a modern concept like “character trait” in the context of ancient philosophy as a “stable, long-term disposition to behave in distinctive ways across a range of situations.”8 Moreover, a “virtuous disposition,” she says, “is a disposition to act and feel in particular ways in response to rational considerations; it is expressed in our decisions, which are determined through rational deliberation.”9 The idea that rational deliberation plays a role in a virtuous disposition means, in the case of a character trait, use of practical reason in rational deliberation can play a role across a range of situations. Indeed, this means that something such as a comprehensive doctrine of the good, which uses practical reason across a range of situations, can start to look like a virtuous disposition of a particular sort. Perhaps not a character trait per se (i.e., to be, say, Jewish is not merely a personality but a serious, wholehearted doctrine on how to live), a comprehensive doctrine of the good is something that Carrie Swanson might, and should, call a “general moral disposition.”10 That is, it is a virtuous disposition that functions generally across a range of situations, or what I will call simply a general disposition. As she writes, a general disposition is “simply the various ways in which we act and feel in response to the contingencies of life under the general guidance of practical wisdom and a rational understanding of our good.”11

Returning to the case of one way of being good as the phronimos, we now see this to mean holding a virtuous general disposition, which means good action across a range of situations. Indeed, not an empty formalism, to be good in one way of the phronimos is to be good not in a purely formal sense, but substantively. The dimension is only formal in the sense that the general disposition must be good to be the way of the phronimos. This normative demand is formal, not the fulfillment of the demand. We can see this also in the case of a triangle formally defined as a “three-sided figure whose angles add up to 180 degrees.” While this definition is formal, it is not empty. A substantive triangle can perfectly be drawn according to this definition. Though it is in the determinate dimension that we can see the triangle be an equilateral, isosceles, scalene, and so on. That is, the triangle still satisfies the formal dimension but just with added determinate content. In this sense, the determinate dimension is more substantive than the formal dimension, while not being the only dimension that is substantive. We can see this also in the more concrete case of the organization of political life, in which the formal dimension is satisfied by a political doctrine, and the determinate dimension is satisfied by the various comprehensive doctrines of the good.12 Keep this last analogy in mind going on as we prove Aristotle is value pluralist.

We see another sense of the formalness of the formal dimension when we recall that, according to Aristotle, there is more than one kind of activity that counts as strictly speaking rational: there is theoretical-scientific contemplation and practical reasoning. Both of these count as achievements of our human rational function but, Aristotle claims, theoretical contemplation is better, in part because it is more god-like (1178a28). Following Gabriel Lear’s account, we can regard one as an approximation to the others:

for Aristotle…lives are happy only insofar as they participate in some kind of contemplation. When a person exercises phronesis while dealing with distinctly human concerns springing from our animal and political nature, he engages in something like divine contemplative activity (1178b27)13

More specifically, Lear writes that: “in Aristotle’s account, the happy philosopher lives like a god not only by directly engaging in the divine activity but also and necessarily by pursuing an approximation of contemplation in his practical life.”14 That is, approximation of contemplation is an action that many happy lives do, not just the contemplative life. This action describes the formal quality of the formal dimension in being a baseline action that many general dispositions and comprehensive doctrines of the good do in each of their own right.

Moreover, Lear explains that the action of approximation of contemplation in in NE X. 7-8 is evidence that “Aristotle is reiterating that the most happy person makes himself like a god to the extent possible for a human being.”15 That is, approximating contemplation as much as possible is “morally virtuous action” across the board, formally charactering the flourishing, virtuous, and happy life.16 So, where one way of being good in the sense of the phronimos may seem stringently monist, its normative demand, while formal in approximating contemplation, is substantively fulfilled in many ways. Approximation of contemplation “to the extent possible for a human being” simply is not a limit on the many and diverse cases it can happen. Rather, it is a formal, normative demand that is demanded across the board, in the contemplative life and in the political life, in the Jewish life and in the Catholic life, and so on. Indeed, returning to the definition in the introduction, religions are not the only comprehensive doctrines of the good. What’s important in the case of religions, however, is that a virtue such as “courage” is normatively demanded across the board but descriptively satisfied in different ways, depending on the religion. We also can see this in different political lives, and so on.

Now, the fact that a general disposition includes practical reason is important in understanding how the formal dimension of the human good can include a pluralism of general dispositions. In his book The Problems of a Political Animal, Bernard Yack illustrates this point in describing that:

Aristotelian political community involves shared forms of mutual accountability and mutual concern rather than social unity and shared identity. The citizens who engage in stasis in Aristotelian political communities act within the expectations created by political justice and political friendship. The ways in which they engage in social conflict will reflect something of the bonds that shape their shared life.17

In other words, mutual accountability occurs in the case of political conflict between factions, or general dispositions that conflict. It’s important to note that a political community takes place amid mutual accountability not because of conflict but despite it. Mutual accountability is simply a means to forming the bonds that characterize the political community of general dispositions which, in the case of a political community, are virtuous, given that they work to live together and approximate contemplation. Indeed, mutual accountability is a basic fact of life in a political community characterized by a pluralism of general dispositions that are virtuous. So, where in the formal dimension of the human good, there is one way to be good, there can also be a pluralism of general dispositions that are good in virtue of not only approximating at contemplation, but also participating in mutual accountability, in reconciling differences by making sense of them in a political community, and in forming the bonds of a political community.

Yack also teaches us that the city, or the polis, is all about the good life, though without specifically defining the good life, thus leaving room for a pluralism of good lives. Namely, Yack writes:

The polis, I suggest is something nature provides for the growth and completion of one of its species. It is something that develops naturally from human needs and capacities and serves to complete a higher set of human capacities. Aristotle is thus willing to say that the polis exists for the sake of the good human life, just as plants and animals exist for the sake of mere human life.18

By stating that the polis exists for the sake of the good human life versus mere human life Yack indicates that the polis advances a human good that is beyond mere human life. Yet, advancing what we’ve been developing, Yack teaches us that the polis advances a human good that is formally good, not good in any specific way that excludes something like value pluralism. Yack illustrates this point where he writes:

What we share in the polis, according to Aristotle, is an interest in making the good life possible, not the good life itself.19

That is, the polis is purposive but not with a definite purpose. It doesn’t bring about the good life; human beings do that. What it does do is supply human beings the conditions to bring about the good life. We also see this in the Ethics where Aristotle writes that “the city is the whole of which humans are the part” (1277a5). In other words, humans are part of the city as citizens, not as humans, but also humans need the city to live fully as humans. So, the city doesn’t constitute their whole existence but is a place for them to express their political needs and live fully as human beings. In the city, they realize their capacities as good and happy humans rather than as mere humans, using the city as a means to their ends while it also being an end (1252b30). Indeed, a formal sense of goodness is the case here, not any specific sense that excludes something like value pluralism.

Returning to the problem laid out in the introduction, it may seem that Aristotle thinks “some good” is the same as “the good,” yielding a contradiction, but we see a way out in a concrete sense in the case of the city. Where I have been arguing the way out lies in a two-dimensional reading of the human good, in which “the good” exists in the formal dimension, and is fulfilled by “some good” in the determinate dimension, we see this solution play out in a concrete sense in an analysis of the city. As Yack writes on this matter:

I conclude then that the polis, though it is a whole and exists according to nature, is not a natural whole. Like most wholes, natural or artificial, the polis is “prior by nature” to its parts. But it is not itself a natural substance with its own internal principle of motion. It derives its naturalness from natural attributes of human beings, from what we might call their “political” property. The polis is natural to the extent that it owes its end and existence to these attributes. But it does not possess its own nature and therefore does not possess its own internal principle of production and motion toward a perfected form.20

Indeed, the city’s end, or good, is a whole constituted by the human good. That is, the city is by and for human beings. This means there exists a common good which is substantive in virtue of being constituted by human beings in the diverse ways human beings come, with their varying comprehensive doctrines of the good. So, where there is a pluralism of some good, the city constitutes the human good, which is common and binding. And, where we clever primates clash about the good, as mentioned, conflict is resolved through mutual accountability, with one side virtuous and one side vicious by the resolution, and with both sides mutually accountable. More specifically, using the work of the first section, whereas in the formal dimension, the good is the good of the human form of life, in the determinate dimension, there are many instantiations of goodness in the pluralism of excellences. We see that one sense of being good as the phronimos holds as the case in the formal dimension, where there is one sense of the good of the human according to one sense of human nature, while in the determinate dimension, there can be many instantiations of goodness in the many general dispositions one might find oneself to have. Of course, Aristotle makes space for a multiplicity of virtues in a seemingly different way than multiplicity of general dispositions. For example, sometimes we are threatened; other times we have to divide up a profit with partners; other times we have to share a meal; etc.—what practically wise action looks like in each of these situations will differ, and the emotional inner life of the wise person will differ in these different circumstances, too: sometimes we are dealing with fear; other times we are dealing with a desire to profit; other times we are dealing with the gusto of enjoying food and drink. Yet, as I showed with the help of Kamtekar and Swanson, these are particular dispositions of virtue in contrast to general dispositions which hold across a range of situations. The latter is our concern in using the determinate dimension to admit a pluralism of comprehensive doctrines of the good, or general dispositions, and show that Aristotle is value pluralist. Altogether, mutual accountability in the determinate dimension and constitution of a common good in the formal dimension by a political doctrine is how the city as a whole is constituted.

As to what the city as a whole looks like in the state of value pluralism, Yack helps us in understanding that:

for Aristotle, participants in factional conflict share the bonds created by political friendship, as well as competing perceptions of injustice. Aristotle, like Plato, insists that stasis, in contrast to war (polemos), is a kind of conflict that takes place among friends.21

Indeed, a state of value pluralism, and the conflict therein, is an act of friendship. Where we may disagree about some good, the good of the city remains intact by political friendship, despite as hard as it can be. By the resolution, one side can be virtuous and the other side can be vicious, while both sides remain friends. Aristotle also helps us understand that amid political conflict, such as in a state of value pluralism, there exist objective values, or substantive constraints, particularly “such as murdering one’s mother in order to escape danger, are so base that no good individual would perform them in any situation” (1110a26). This brings us to the next section, in which I demarcate Aristotelian value pluralism as substantive from mere value relativism.

3. Value Pluralism versus Value Relativism

Aristotelian value pluralism is substantive in an important way. In particular, it promises a common good shared by all comprehensive doctrines of the good, containing values such as the aforementioned: don’t murder one’s mother in any situation (1110a26). Though more broadly, the common good, in being substantive, is not neutral to all comprehensive doctrines of the good, but rather sensitive to each comprehensive doctrine of the good, according to each doctrine’s perspective. It satisfies each doctrine’s needs in each’s own different way. So, while the common good might be neutral in the sense of not privileging any one comprehensive doctrine of the good, it is not neutral from the perspective of the doctrine.

This is all to say that (1) the need for political dialogue reveals that disagreement is an ever-present possibility, which reveals that even among flourishing citizens, people can have different comprehensive doctrines of the good. But, (2) it also reveals that these disagreements can be fruitfully adjudicated. That in turn reveals that among a flourishing citizenry, it is part of everyone’s comprehensive doctrine to value political friendship and dialogue. Still, one might wonder what grounds Aristotle’s confidence that political disputes can be managed in a good-enough way? The answer is two-fold: (i) the common good concerns only the necessary infrastructure for the good life as conceived (differently) by individual citizens, it is not the totality of the good life itself—and it is reasonable to suppose that different comprehensive doctrines may overlap in their views of what those necessities are and (ii) even at a high level of generality, the moral virtues rule out some substantive behaviors, i.e., murder. Ultimately, since at a high level of generality in the formal dimension, all virtuous comprehensive doctrines of the good are the same, it follows that some behaviors will be out of bounds in all the otherwise differing virtuous comprehensive doctrines of the good.22

We can see a concrete example of value pluralism’s substance in an edge case. Suppose someone named Alex has a perverse comprehensive doctrine of the good: American Fascism. In particular, he believes the state ought to make decisions about private life in a centrally planned economy, with the political leader acting as the totem of the state religion whereby the freedoms in liberal democracies lack, and only one comprehensive doctrine of the good exists: American Fascism. Now, what do we do about Alex in our situation of value pluralist liberal democracy? Clearly, Alex presents a risk to value pluralism, but of what sort? Since Alex is merely one person, and does not seem to present a danger, we can safely say the value pluralist institutions will prevail, and Alex can safely speak his own mind, but there still strikes a problem: will Alex’s needs be met as an American Fascist? To this, we answer “No.” Value pluralism does not represent the needs of a comprehensive doctrine of the good that is not value pluralist, such as American Fascism. So, while Alex may be able to freely speak his mind (though, Aristotle doesn’t say anything about the right to free speech, so we’ll leave this point open), he lacks the freedom to affirm his comprehensive doctrine of the good in the collective action that occurs in the legislature. His needs are not the needs of value pluralism; they are not the needs of human beings looking to live under value pluralism according to a common good.

At the same time, where Alex lacks the freedom to have his mind voiced in the common good, we see a restriction in positive freedom: American Fascism is not affirmed in the common good. As indicated, this restriction is adjudicated by the comprehensive doctrines of the good in their conflict. Whereas in authoritarianism, Berlin writes, what is the affirmed is “the ideal of ‘positive’ self-mastery by classes, or peoples, or the whole of mankind,”23 in value pluralism, positive self-mastery, or positive freedom is indeterminate, left to procedures of adjudication. Indeed, positive freedom, which is about the common good, has no room for American Fascism; American Fascism is incoherent against the common good of value pluralism, and against what it means to be value pluralist.

Importantly, value pluralism differs from value relativism. Whereas in value relativism, the common good—i.e., the overlapping parts of individual comprehensive doctrines of the good—is given definition by anything that speaks, in value pluralism, the common good is given definition by comprehensive doctrines of the good that are rational, satisfying the formal dimension of the human good in their satisfaction of the determinate dimension. In this way, value relativism collapses the bifurcation between the formal dimension and the determinate dimension of the human good in favor of a one-dimensional human good that simply voices all voices. As to what this human good concretely means, we are left with a nihilistic answer: everything and nothing. There simply lacks a meaningful difference between the real and the illusory: all comprehensive doctrines of the good are equally weighted. This contrasts value pluralism, where, as Berlin writes:

This is anything but relativism. There are many kinds of happiness (or beauty or goodness or visions of life) and they are, at times, incommensurable: but all respond to the real needs and aspirations of normal human beings; each fits its circumstances, its country, its people; the relation of fitting is the same in all these cases; and members of one culture can understand and enter the minds of, and sympathize with, those of another.24

Indeed, value pluralism responds to real needs as opposed to illusory needs. This contrasts a situation of value relativism where real and illusory needs are considered altogether as one.

So, where in Aristotle, we see a concrete example of value pluralism, we can see a concrete example of value relativism in John Rawls, at least in the case of the grass counter.25 Ironically, Rawls criticizes Aristotle for not being value pluralist enough, but we see in his criticism that, in fact, Rawls himself has a defective view of value pluralism which looks more like value relativism. We see this particularly where Rawls points out that Aristotle’s conception of the human good is not true of everyone. Some live lives that may in some sense be considered defective, yet be the ones they confidently seek. Are these lives not full-blooded, flourishing human lives for falling short in some excellences? Rawls carefully poses his challenge in the following:

Thus imagine someone whose only pleasure is to count blades of grass in various geometrically shaped areas such as park squares and well-trimmed lawns. He is otherwise intelligent and actually possesses unusual skills, since he manages to survive by solving difficult mathematical problems for a fee. The definition of the good forces us to admit that the good for this man is indeed counting blades of grass, or more accurately, his good is determined by a plan that gives an especially prominent place to this activity…. he is particularly neurotic and in early life acquired an aversion to human fellowship, and so he counts blades of grass to avoid having to deal with other people.26

It may seem that such a person is not flourishing because they are neurotic; however, Rawls is clear to also state that the person enjoys his activity of counting grass and not any other. That is, his rational life plan shall center around this activity.27 Ultimately, Rawls thinks Aristotle’s conception of the human good excludes this conception of the human good as rational since it fails to develop all the person’s capacities into excellences; namely, the person is inhibited by his neurosis to develop friendships, fully participate in the polity, and realize his political nature. In short, the neurotic person is defective and suffers for it according to Aristotle, despite the fact that he lives the life he most enjoys according to him. Rawls thinks this is a problem for a pluralistic political society which doesn’t preference one’s rational conception of the good but is neutral to all reasonable conceptions of the good that want to live together. Simply, for Rawls, there cannot be a political principle which restricts one conception of the good as rational and others as irrational: it’s the person’s right to make that call.28

However, Rawls’s permission of the neurotic grass counter into a value pluralist society at once reveals (a) a flawed reading of Aristotle, and (b) a flawed conception of value pluralism. In the case of (a), we found in the first section that Aristotle does not seek to develop all the person’s capacities into excellences, and thus maximize the excellences, but rather seeks to satisfy a formal dimension of the human good by the determinate dimension. The latter means that the excellences are not maximized but satisfied to the extent possible for a human life, so as to approximate contemplation and achieve the highest good. Indeed, the idea that the two-dimensional understanding of the human good is satisfied means that someone like the neurotic grass counter is not immediately excluded, for Aristotle, as rational based on the fact that he does not maximize the excellences, even though the grass counter is irrational for other reasons I now explain.

In the case of (b), because Rawls counts the neurotic grass counter as rational, we see Rawls to use “rational” in a different sense than Aristotle. Namely, Rawls counts as rational the mere choice of a life plan, rather than the choice of a life plan that approximates contemplation and brings about flourishing. This is to say that Aristotle diagnoses the grass counter as irrational not because the grass counter fails to maximize the excellences but because the grass counter is an untreated neurotic, and thus fails to approximate contemplation and flourish, failing the formal dimension of the human good. That is, the neurotic grass counter is excluded as rational because he fails to live an integrated life that includes life plans oriented around flourishing and the treatment of his neurosis. In this sense, according to the definition of value pluralism versus value relativism we have been pursuing here, in permitting the neurotic grass counter as rational, Rawls in this case is a mere value relativist. Nothing limits, for Rawls, what counts as rational according to his example of the neurotic grass counter. Any life plan is rational. This is crucially not value pluralism, which has “thick” sense of rational, that is, a two-dimensional sense of there being determinate excellences which descriptively satisfy a formal, normative dimension of what it means to be good as a human and approximate flourishing. Indeed, where Rawls thought to have ousted Aristotle as not a value pluralist, we find Rawls in his criticism instead to collapse into value relativism, and we find ourselves to vindicate Aristotle.


In this paper, I hope to have shown that Aristotle is a value pluralist according to a two-dimensional understanding of his conception of the human good. I made my case by working out Aristotle’s conception of the human good as possessing a formal dimension and a determinate dimension, whereby a pluralism of comprehensive doctrines of the good satisfy the determinate dimension in each their own way, while satisfying the formal dimension in the same way as the phronimos, demarcating value pluralism from mere value relativism, vindicating Aristotle against John Rawls’s claims that he is not value pluralist, and proving that Rawls in his criticism, in fact, collapses into value relativism.

Joseph F. Diller


  • Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated with Introduction and Notes by C. D. C. Reeve. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2014.
  • —. Politics. Translated with Introduction and Notes by C. D. C. Reeve. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2017.
  • Berlin, Isaiah. The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas. Edited by Henry Hardy. 2nd ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013.
  • —. Liberty. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.
  • Foot, Philippa. Natural Goodness. 1st ed. UK: Clarendon Press, 2003.
  • Lear, Gabriel. Happy Lives and the Highest Good. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004.
  • Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice: Original Edition. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.
  • —. Political Liberalism. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2005.


  1. Rawls, Political Liberalism, 13. [return]
  2. The idea is coined by Isaiah Berlin in The Crooked Timber of Humanity, 11-19; however, it is later fully developed by John Rawls in Political Liberalism, 197-198. While Rawls never in Political Liberalism explicitly says “value pluralism,” he describes and endorses the essence of Berlin’s idea as part of the same project as his (See Rawls, Political Liberalism, 197fn32). So, think of Rawls’s idea of “reasonable pluralism” as essentially the same idea as value pluralism, but more substantive in virtue of being supported by Rawls’s robust framework of “political liberalism” which Berlin’s sense lacks. Indeed, Berlin never gives us a sense of how he means “value” in his work. This will be how I mean “value pluralism” hereafter. [return]
  3. See Lear, Happy Lives and the Highest Good [return]
  4. I follow Philippa Foot by treating “essential” and “natural” in Aristotle as interchangeable (See Foot, Natural Goodness). [return]
  5. I thank Jonathan Lear for this point. [return]
  6. I use “defective” in Philippa Foot’s sense (See Foot, Natural Goodness). [return]
  7. Kamtekar, “Situationism and Virtue Ethics on the Content of Our Character,” 473. [return]
  8. Ibid. [return]
  9. Ibid., 479. [return]
  10. Swanson, “John Doris’ Excellence Adventure,” 221. [return]
  11. Ibid. [return]
  12. Rawls also admits this relationship between political doctrine and comprehensive doctrines of the good, in which he says an overlapping consensus of reasonable comprehensive doctrines of the good held by the reasonable members endorse a ruling political doctrine, e.g. justice as fairness, “each from its own point of view.” That is, the political doctrine is part of their good in, for our purposes, the formal dimension, while their good in the determinate dimension is a unique point of view. (See Rawls, Political Liberalism, 134). [return]
  13. Lear, Happy Lives and the Highest Good, 92. [return]
  14. Ibid. (my emphasis) [return]
  15. Ibid. [return]
  16. Ibid. [return]
  17. Yack, The Problems of a Political Animal, 219. [return]
  18. Ibid., 101. [return]
  19. Ibid., 102. [return]
  20. Ibid., 95. [return]
  21. Ibid., 224. [return]
  22. I thank Gabriel Lear for this point. [return]
  23. Berlin, Liberty, 216. [return]
  24. Berlin, The Crooked Timber of Humanity, 87. (my emphasis) [return]
  25. Of course, Rawls is not broadly a value relativist. The original position precisely works to establish objectivity. Let my point only show that Rawls, in the case of the grass counter, is inconsistent with the rest of his work in virtue of collapsing into value relativism. [return]
  26. Rawls, A Theory of Justice, 432. [return]
  27. Ibid., 432-433. [return]
  28. Ibid., 433. [return]