Social Philosophy and Policy

Research Article

The Advantages of Moral Diversity*

Amélie Oksenberg Rortya1

a1 Philosophy, Mt. Holyoke College

We are well served, both practically and morally, by ethical diversity, by living in a community whose members have values and priorities that are, at a habit-forming, action-guiding level, often different from our own. Of course, unchecked ethical diversity can lead to disaster, to chaos and conflict. We attempt to avoid or mitigate such conflict by articulating general moral and political principles, and developing the virtues of acting on those principles. But as far as leading a good life — the life that best suits what is best in us — goes, it is not essential that we agree on the interpretations of those common principles, or that we are committed to them, by some general act of the will. What matters is that they form our habits and institutions, so that we succeed in cooperating practically, to promote the state of affairs that realizes what we each prize. People of different ethical orientations can — and need to — cooperate fruitfully in practical life while having different interpretations and justifications of general moral or procedural principles. Indeed, at least some principles are best left ambiguous, and some crucial moral and ethical conflicts are best understood, and best arbitrated, as failures of practical cooperation rather than as disagreements about the truth of certain general propositions or theories.

This way of construing ethical conflict and cooperation carries political consequences. It appears to make the task of resolving ethical conflicts more modest and, perhaps, easier to accomplish. But it raises formidable problems about how to design the range of educative institutions that bridge public and private life.


* I am grateful to Claude Imbert, Ed Johnson, Steve Gerrard, David Wong, and participants at colloquia at Wesleyan University, Tulane University, and the School of Education at Harvard University, for comments on this paper. I am indebted to the contributors to this volume and to its editors for helpful questions and suggestions.