Pluralism and Rationality: the Limits of Tolerance
©2000 Edward G. Rozycki

Edited 4/2/20

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1. Introduction: Cultural Mis-education
2. Values and Valuing
3. The Conditions for "Active" Valuing
4. Why Public Schools "Fail"
5. Rationality
6. Weak and Strong Rationality
7. Choosing Values
8. Cultural Conflict
9. Ethnicity and Tolerance

Introduction: cultural mis-education

One outcome of education in the United States is the conviction that a tolerance of even the more aberrant forms of human conduct directly indicates the strength of one's rationality. But that tolerance is not a courage which silently suffers dismay or outrage for a wiser forbearance. Rather, it is a docile "non-affrontability" which easily concedes "different strokes to different folks" as though any difference among individuals excused any difference in conduct.

Lack of commitment is sported as the hallmark of philosophical depth and, adopting that modish idiom in which bad and good become sick and healthy, the subtly platonized university  student is exercised to imagine that evildoing can be thoroughly rational. Anthropology courses he finds interesting for their presenting "alternative lifestyles": coming of age in Samoa he fancies merely a more entertaining variant of coming of age in Scarsdale. Even notorious underworld "families" are to be appreciated as "patterns of culture."

Enthusiasts of similar mind conjure up visions of a culturally pluralistic society that is like a music library offering a variety of scores to suit every taste.1 Everyone is to freely choose his basic values, to decide to what subculture he will belong.2 Other pluralists proclaim the discovery of an impressive Motive: an innate human need for cultural pluralism.3 Denying this, it is insinuated, is what causes crime in the cities and pop-culture raucousness.4

As a rationally directed, public institution, the school in a pluralistic democracy will serve to promote either assimilation or what I will call "weak rationality." The confusion of notions of tolerance, health and rationality can be expected as an outcome of educational policies aimed at avoiding conflict in a multicultural society: the social control capabilities of public mass education would not be enhanced by the widespread realization that conflict or violence might be the rational means to certain widely valued ends. Consequently, popular notions about the role the school might play in promoting pluralism are ill-conceived. Indeed, rational educational policy may not be at all possible given certain "pluralistic" school goals and the realities of cultural difference,

Values and Valuing

I will initiate my analysis in terms of the concept of value because the problems of pluralism are often cast as problems with conflicting value systems. It is not uncommon to speak of values as things to be possessed. I will assume that statements of the sort, "Peace of mind is one of Harry's values" can be cast more idiomatically with no important loss of meaning as "Harry values peace of mind." In general, if A has the value X or -- less barbarously -- X is one of A's values, then A values X; and conversely. Harry's values are what Harry values.

Enough of formulary. Let's consider what one might value: a baby's bronzed shoe, the survival of humankind, personal comfort. One might value, also, peace of mind, Gemütlichkeit, union with God, femininity, machismo, liberation. Also, esprit du corps, orgasm, self-preservation. Not unimportantly, one may value following one's whimsy, indulging one's tastes and surrendering oneself to one's desires. These values may not rank high among such values as sobriety, continence, humility or other professorial virtues, but they are values nonetheless.

The verb value functions much as do the verbs hate or know; that is, it is not used in its present progressive, except among cultists. The neologism of affective educators, e.g. "John is valuing his privacy," manifests an overly narrow concern with the sensations of individuals and dangerously de-emphasizes the social contexts in which sensations and other episodes of individual experience acquire their meaning as normal indicators of hate or certainty or value.5

Unlike wanting or desiring, valuing is not an episode in the life experience of an individual, although valuing something usually involves having certain characteristic experiences, especially wanting or desiring the valued object on occasion. But whereas we can say of Harry that he values a good cup of coffee even when he is asleep at the time of our so saying, we would not say of him that he wants or desires a cup of coffee at that time. Harry occasionally wants or desires, let us suppose, a particular new car. We would not say, however, that he occasionally values one. Thus, it would seem, we can look to explicate valuing as a dispositional concept, an indicator of a potential. (SeDisposition vs Episode )

I would note here that distinguishing between wanting (or desiring) as an experiential episode on the one hand, and valuing as indicating a disposition, on the other, is of interest beyond its conceptual nicety: to say that someone has a need is not only to indicate that he lacks something necessary to some further end. It is to insinuate that that end ought to be valued. Harry may need a weapon to commit armed robbery; but that weapon is not one of Harry's needs, even though it be what he wants. Needs assessments are regularly carried out to determine the goals of educational programs. They are done, however, in such a manner as to survey the wants of the target population. The whimsicality of the resultant sample works to undermine rational community participation and, thus, possible political conflict. This is of considerable practical importance but here must remain unpursued. (See "Needs Assessment")

The Conditions for "Active Valuing"

Action, belief, and value are intimately connected via the concept of rationality. Believing an individual to be rational, we feel warranted in drawing inferences about any one from the other two of his actions, beliefs, and values. On the other hand, if we could accept it that he were irrational, we would hardly expect to comprehend, say, his actions in terms of his beliefs and values. We could well understand a rational person's refraining from pursuing even vehemently espoused values if he believed he lacked either the knowledge, physical ability or opportunity to attain them. Finally, we often refrain from pursuing something valued because this pursuit would gainsay a higher value. Such refraining is rational.

We can schematize the above as follows: an individual, A, will be said to "actively" value X if and only if A acts pursuant to X provided all of the following conditions obtain:

1. A is rational;
2. A believes he knows how to pursue X;
3. A believes himself physically able to pursue X;
4. A believes no circumstance impedes his pursuit of X; and,
5. A believes no higher value is gainsaid by his pursuit of X.

This is not intended as a definition. These five conditions, rationality, knowledge, ability, opportunity and consistency, are necessary so that A's pursuit of X may be sufficient to imply that A actively values X, or so that A's actively valuing X may be sufficient to imply A's pursuit of X.6

Now, A acts pursuant to X if and only if it is A's intent to achieve or maintain X, or to gainsay Y, i.e. to contradict, undermine or destroy Y, where A believes Y gainsays X. Rational action is not merely the selection of efficient means to ends, but also of appropriate constituents to achieve or maintain things valued, or to preclude their being gainsaid.

Why Public Schools "Fail"

Since it is active valuing, the pursuit of values, which might cause conflict where values are not shared, certain policy directions can be drawn immediately from the above formulations. If it is a mission of the schools in a multicultural society to forestall conflict between different cultural subgroups, then

a. this mission is served by policies which promote "passive valuing", i.e. some kind of esteeming which does not involve the pursuit of that which is esteemed -- typical of so-called "appreciation" courses or of values clarification classes;

b. this mission is also served by policies which gainsay any of the conditions given above necessary to connecting action with value, i.e. the conditions of rationality, knowledge, ability, opportunity and consistency.

Thus, a rational school policy serving the social goal of reduced conflict could promote irrationality, ignorance, incompetence, unequal opportunity, or inconsistency of conduct. Hardly anyone would think such aims educational; our considerations are suggestive, however, as to the persistence of these ills despite continued exhortation to eradicate them.

The concept of valuing laid out above is such that animals do not have values; nor do people so far as they are unreflective. Behaving in such a manner as to cause X does not indicate that one values X. If we are to be able to distinguish unintentional, inadvertent, accidental, unconscious, or compulsive behavior on the one hand, and deliberate action on the other, we must take care not to confuse values with reinforcers. Inept, ignorant or unlucky people do not value things the less for their failure to attain them. Nor do they value something for their failure to avoid it.

Anything may be valued either intrinsically, or as pursuant to some other valued thing. But unlike wanting, or desiring, all valuing ultimately rests on intrinsically valuing. Thus, the possibility of a politically viable cultural pluralism depends on the possibility of common, or at the very least, intrinsic values compatibly pursued by the different cultural subgroups within a society. An unhappy illustration is that of a bicultural society, half-slave, half-enslaver, in which the value of sheer physical survival is pursued as intrinsic by the slaves and is quite compatible with the pursuit by their free masters of their own continued hegemony.


To characterize someone as more or less rational is to assess the coherence that obtains between the things that person values and why that person does what he or she does in order to achieve or maintain them.7 It is important that it is the pursuit of things valued, not of things wanted, that is relevant to rationality.

Harry is trying to give up smoking. He believes it aggravates his allergies and that he'll be healthier without it. He is courting a woman who has given him an ultimatum: choose between her or his tobacco. Yet, when the desire grows great enough, Harry manages to get himself a smoke. He hides cigarettes around his apartment and begs them from coworkers. He chews breath mints when his girlfriend comes over. We cannot fault Harry's intelligence in his pursuit of nicotine; yet we can question his rationality given his wider constellation of values.

How are we to distinguish wanting something one values from wanting something one does not value? It will suffice here to characterize a "mere" want or desire as such if and only if:

a. the object of the desire is dispensable to achieving something valued;

b. the pursuit of this object gainsays higher values; and

c. the want or desire manifests itself in certain feelings.

The cogency of such feelings is quite independent of the degree to which their associated object is valued. Despite what is said about a bird in the hand, availability may increase passion, yet not value. Hume was not right when he characterized reason as the slave of the passions. Reason aims at values and valuing is not a passion although it may be done with passion. 7b To value something it is not necessary to experience pangs of desire or the like for it; nor is valuing merely such an experience.

Weak and Strong Rationality

A choice is rational to the extent it is pursuant to something valued by the chooser. I will call A "weakly rational" if and only if A's choices are pursuant to things A values. A is "strongly rational" if and only if A's choices are pursuant to A's intrinsic values according to their rank order. Harry may be weakly rational because he ignores his intrinsic values when making choices, especially when he is "just doing his job" as a member of some bureaucracy. Despite his valuing honesty -- intrinsically, let us suppose -- he may declare false expenditures on his or his organization's tax forms to lower the amount owed. The school, in promoting weak rationality, does indeed prep are one for life as an organizational functionary. When we allow that Harry has succumbed to temptation, or is merely following "sharp business practice, " we recognize that values may be held despite their being, even systematically, gainsaid. But it is only with respect to his personal values that such gainsaying activity casts doubt on the strength of Harry's commitment or rationality -- so profound has our moral schizophrenia, our organization-orientation, become.8

Coherence is not merely something to be valued or not, but is central to our conception of rationality. The pursuit of multiple ends is less coherent if the actions taken toward them interfere with one another. But one must be careful not to confuse coherence with popular notions of a "general scientific orientation towards life." It is not incoherent, say, for a physicist to believe in God provided he distinguishes types of knowledge. If the pursuit of certain values is restricted to certain times and places, then coherence within a restricted realm does not require either coherence across realms nor coherence in other realms of human endeavor. From the rigor of his logic, one cannot draw any conclusions about a philosopher's moral or religious life.

But the pursuit of strong rationality destroys the compartmentalization of reason by pressing for a single rank ordering of all intrinsic values. Strong rationality is advocated by Socrates with his dictum: the unexamined life is not worth living. Did Socrates seek to subvert Athenian youth? To think not would be to slight his foresight. He urged them to activities which gainsaid their values. Should he have refrained from doing so? Should we refrain from doing likewise? The answers to these questions touch directly on the problems of promoting cultural pluralism.

At various points earlier we were led to the consideration that it is a plurality of values that threatens conflict; indeed, that coherence is necessary to a broader rationality reinforces this conclusion. But perhaps a plurality, not of values but of contexts might work to reduce conflict: keep religion in the churches and science in the laboratories and there won't be any Monkey Trials.

But the school is an arena in which pressures toward a common culture have dissolved those contextual markers by which conflict is avoided. Could a policy in public education of promoting cultural pluralism recontextualize our pursuit of values? Perhaps, provided each cultural group could be restricted to a unique set of characteristic activities: retain kaddish and take pork, too; or trade it for droi-du-seigneur or mistletoe.

Choosing Values

Theodore Klein in an article entitled, "Cultural Pluralism and Moral Education", states that a necessary condition for cultural pluralism is that alternative value choices be available throughout society.9 These choices must be fundamental enough to produce significant differences between people in their attitudes and outlook on the world, yet no so fundamental that they are divisive. One value "implicit in the model for an ideal culturally pluralistic society" -- which Klein identifies later as a pluralistic democracy10 -- is that an individual be free to choose his own values. Now, it is clear that intrinsic values cannot be the objects of rational choice except insofar as that choice pursues coherence. But coherence can be pursued only relative to some prior set of values, among which is coherence. That prior set of values can in turn be rationally chosen only if they are not intrinsic, or if some even prior set of values, among which is coherence, exists. And so on, ad infinitum. Thus, not every value is an object of rational choice.

Since making choices according to "mere" wants need not be rational, could people in Klein's ideal culturally pluralistic society choose their fundamental values according to mere wants or desires? Of course, forswearing circumspection anyone can act on the moment to quell a pang of desire. But are such "choices" free? Not if some modicum of reflection, of impulse control, is necessary to human freedom.11 Even the thoroughgoing hedonist is well served by reason.

Inasmuch as indulging one's wants may be valued, it too is a value. If we add indulging one's wants to Klein's smorgasbord of value options -- along with others of its like, e.g. following one's whimsy -- then we end up with individuals having no basis whatsoever for choice, statistically ideal dice, as it were. Klein has, of course, not such stochastic conception of the individual: his common sense wins out over his need for coherence.

According to Klein, the schools in a democratic pluralistic society will inculcate the following common values: the value of freedom of choice, the value of equality, the value of participation, the value of respect for differences, and the value of cooperation.12 Klein must be prepared to impose such values on those who at present do not hold them. He may be perfectly consistent in not tolerating a culturally based intolerance; but is that to promote pluralism?

Klein makes certain assumptions about the nature of the individual. His first is that individual needs can be made out independently of values. This assumption makes plausible his picture of individuals choosing each his own values from among the many held by members of different cultural groups: the choice is made on the basis of individual need. But individual needs are not such without prior value commitments: a diabetic kamikaze pilot has no need for insulin.13 Klein's second assumption is that some grounds for choice exist; given the values he would inculcate, they would. However, I suspect that many, if not most, cultural groups that we know today would not survive the general inculcation of these values. Klein's pluralism is an afterthought to what is at bottom an assimilationist program.

The third and most astounding assumption is that a culture can be neutrally described in sufficiently many of its aspects to provide what is necessary for an informed choice.14 But in what language will the necessary compendium of descriptions be made? In all? In all dialects, pidgins, jargons and patoix? Or is the question to be begged by assuming a common language? Certainly the many intricacies of nonverbal communication and out-of-awareness culture will be identified, formulated in some language, cross-culturally compared and entered into that vast encyclopedia that every culture-shopper will have to study lest he diminish his freedom of choice by his ignorance.15

Cultural Conflict

The proponents of cultural pluralism appear to be unaware of two major impediments pediments to their programs: the first is that cultural difference is often profound extending, well below most thresholds of awareness. The second impediment is the general confusion of cultural with ethnic and social class differences. This confusion renders the pluralist an unwitting ally of a mindless, unreconstructed assimilationism, a washed-out Anglo-Germanic Industrial ethos to variants of which succumbed even the ruthlessly pursued egalitarianisms of the Soviet Union and Communist China.

Some distinctions made by Edward T. Hall illustrate the depth of incongruity which cultural difference may entail. Culture, writes Hall16 exists at three levels: the formal, the technical, and the informal. The formal aspects of a culture consist of those items that are taught explicitly as what is proper and right, or not. They are affectively highly charged and the attitudes inculcated with respect to them are not easily changed. Some examples are these: how and to whom we give deference, table manners, male and female ideals, or proper tone of voice. Cultures vary greatly as to what items are formally taught, e.g., Germans teach their children to shake hands; other cultures explicitly teach mourning behavior, or how to smile.17 The formal culture provides much of what are the intrinsic values of the group. The technical culture, by way of contrast, deals with the means by which the formal culture is realized. Consequently, though still quite explicit, it is emotionally neutrally taught; its items provide the content of rational instruction. Because these technical items transport easily across cultural boundaries, educators tend to imagine that all cultural items are technical ones. But what may be part of the technical culture of one group may belong to another level of culture of another. The controversy over sex education arises in part from the fact that educators wish to deal technically with what is forbidden in the formal culture of the communities they serve.

The informal culture exists generally out of awareness; most members of a cultural group do not know that it exists and become aware of differences at the informal level only when a violation occurs. Some items belonging to middle-class Anglo White informal culture are these: one keeps one's wrists straight as a sign of masculinity; one may touch a strange male only on the shoulder to get his attention. Using the concepts of English -- if that is one's native language is an important part of the informal culture. This informal culture is "picked up" rather than studied and changes mysteriously: the doll-playing that little boys do nowadays would have been "unmasculine" forty years ago -- unless it had been with toy soldiers.

Conflicts can occur when items differ across cultures at any level. Hispanic-Anglo conflicts in the public schools result from differences as to what is considered punctuality, cheating, self-control, proper respect behavior and cleanliness. Hospital staff conflicts occur because doctors -- partly to assert authority -- treat as formal what nurses see as technical: a nurse may balk at administering a prescribed treatment over a more effective, though less orthodox one. The confrontation of orthodoxy and rationality is paradigmatic of a formal-technical conflict. But we lack paradigms for conflict at the informal level, so informal incongruities are seldom recognized, much less resolved. For example, two cultural groups may agree formally that honesty is good and lack of tact, not. But what counts as forthrightness -- a kind of honesty -- for Americans, counts as coarse and tactless behavior for Greeks. What a Puerto Rican child understands to be showing proper respect for the teacher, that is, lowering his gaze when spoken to, is taken by the Anglo teacher to be an admission of guilt or shame. When theorists of cultural pluralism seriously begin to consider this kind of cultural incongruity, only then will they deserve our serious attention.

Ethnicity and Tolerance

The notion of cultural difference is a problematic one;18 yet cultural differences is not the same as ethnic or social class difference.19 African-Americans, for example, are not culturally homogeneous; yet in some politically important respects they are different from both Anglo Whites and African-Hispanics. But upper middle class Anglos have much more in common as a class than a difference in ethnicity, Black, White, WASP, Polish, Irish, etc. might suggest. Ethnicity is a socially acceptable form of cultural difference because it involves little if any real cultural difference.20 Ethnic leaders are leaders precisely because they have been assimilated enough to want to trade off cultural difference for a piece of the social pie. To the extent that other members of their groups are willing to make similar compromises and get involved politically -- although not too rationally so -- to that extent will their group achieve ethnic status. The alternative is to risk being treated as deviant beyond the range of acceptable variation and, like the Amish, invite the importunities of the State. Indeed, we can understand theories of cultural pluralism in education as attempting to define acceptable variation, even to the point of sacrificing cultural identity. Randall Collins suggests that the predominant interest behind mass education has been that of social control.21 But an informed policy of promoting cultural pluralism, recognizing both the depth and range of cultural difference, would undermine efforts towards social control. I am sympathetic towards those who propose that which I have argued is a trivial and incoherent notion of cultural pluralism; but it remains to be seen whether such "pluralism" is not merely a slogan which obscures continued pressures toward assimilation.

When tolerance has become merely an acquiescent indifference, it has ceased to be a virtue. It is better to recognize limits to tolerance, than undermine rational choice. I would wish to have misunderstood those I have ventured to criticize; but where those theorists imagine a cultural pluralism as fulfilling human variety, we can see the homogenization that underlies their smorgasbord of ethnic superficialities. Where they envision human rationality culminating in each person's developing his unique morality, we can discern a moral solipcism that dulls one's sensibilities to injustice.22 Most dismaying is that these "pluralists" believe themselves innocent of the imposition of values, for they advocate "tolerance". But no one has a real choice who has been rendered unable to reject it.


1. "Some time in the future, a long, long time from now, when culture is more completely explored, there will be the equivalent of musical scores that can be learned, each for a different type of man or woman in different types of jobs and relationships, for time, space, work and play." Pamphlet Culture 20-2 of the Multilingual Educational Resource Information and Training Center of Temple University (Phila.: 1978) Mimeograph, p. 6.

2. J. Theodore Klein, "Cultural Pluralism and Moral Education", Monist 58 (Oct.. 1974), p. 684; also "A Pluralistic Model for Educational Policy Making", Educational Theory, 28, 2 (Spring, 1978), pp. 85-89.

3. Seymore. W. Itzkoff, Cultural Pluralism and American Education (Scranton, PA: American Textbook Co., 1970), p. 91: "Horace Kallen was correct when he hypothcsized that cultural pluralism was deeply rooted in man as an intrinsic need and value..

4. Itzkoff, p. 59. Also see pages 17 through 26.

5. Cf. Errol Bedford, "Emotions" in Essays in Philosophical Psychology, ed. Donald F. Gustafson (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1964), pp. 77-98.

6. Only the rationality and consistency conditions bear directly on the biconditional; and consistency is not really distinct from rationality. The formulation is laid out as such, however, for pedagogical reasons.

7. Inasmuch as educational policies are thought to generate some compendium of enjoinders to action in pursuit of supposedly independently specifiable goals, rationality in education tends to be predominantly instrumental with efficiency its measure.

7b.  This fits well with Haidt's comments on Hume (page 79) that, presuming experiences of social interaction, Rationality (the Rider) can influence Intuition (the Elephant) as an influencing servant, rather than a slave.  See Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind. Why Good People Are Divided by Politics And Religion. (New York. Vintage. 2013)  ISBN: 987-0-307-45577-2

8. Cf. John Ladd, "Morality and the Ideal of Rationality in Formal Organizations," Monist, 54 (October, 1970), pp. 488-516. Ladd argues that organizational rationality is necessarily amoral.

9. "Cultural Pluralism," P. 684

10. "A Pluralistic Model,"

11. Edward G. Rozycki, "Are We Free to Choose Our Values? Response to Klein," Educational Theory (spring, 1979).

12. Klein, "Cultural Pluralism," p. 691

13. Kallen's notion of an innate need (see footnote 3, above) can't hold up.

14. Developing cross-culturally applicable concepts is perhaps the central problem in ethnographic studies. Cf. Robert A. Levine, Culture, Behavior and Personality (Chicago: Aldine, 1973). Also, Edward T. Hall, The Silent Language (Garden City: Doubleday, 1959). Also see Chapter 2 of Willard Van Orman Quine, Word and Object (New York: Wiley, 1960).

15. Cf. Ray L. Birdwhistell, Kinesics and Context, (Phiia.: Univ. of Pa. Press, 1970). Erving Goffman, Relations in Public (New York: Basic Books, 1971) and Interaction Ritual (Garden City: Doubleday Anchor, 1967).

16. Silent Language; see also Edward T. Hall, The Hidden Dimension (Garden City: Doubleday, 1966) and Beyond Culture (Garden City: Doubleday, 1977).

17. Cf. Otto Kleineberg, "Emotional Expression in Chinese Literature", in Contributions to Modern Psychology, ed. Don E. Dulany, Jr., Russell L. DeValois, David C. Beardslee and Marian R. Winterbottorn (New York: Oxford, 1963).

18. Cf. Levine, for a detailed examination of the viability of the culture concept.

19. Cf. John Singleton, "Education and Ethnicity," Comparative Education Review, (Oct., 1977), pp. 329-44.

20. Thomas F. Green in Education and Pluralism: Ideal and Reality (School of Education, Syracuse University, 1966), Monograph, names this situation aptly: make-believe pluralism.

21. Randall Collins, "Some Comparative Principles of Educational Stratification," Harvard Educational Review, 47 , I (Feb., 1977), pp. 1-27.

22. Klein, "Cultural Pluralism," p. 687. Klein makes many allusions to Green's Education and Pluralism, but remains uninformed by its argument.